Nick Lemann is the Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism and a former New Yorker staff writer. While at Harvard – where he graduated in 1976 – Lemann served as President of the Crimson. He has worked as a reporter and editor at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Post, focusing primarily on national affairs.
Lemann is the author of The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, about the SAT, and most recently, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, about the failure of Reconstruction. At Columbia, where he was hired as Dean of the Journalism School in 2003, Lemann implemented a two-year curriculum and has focused on teaching alternative journalistic mediums in the Internet age.
Question: Did the Israel lobby take us into Iraq?
Nicholas Lemann: Well I know them both. I know Walt better. If they had sought my advice about the book, I would have said to them, “You should write a book that says U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is too far tilted toward Israel, and we wanna make a case that it should be tilted away, and why that would be in America’s interest.” That’s the stronger part of their book. When you then take the step of calling the book “The Israel Lobby”, and sort of saying that . . . that . . . that the reason that is so is there is one group that has a sort of nefarious, somewhat mysterious, extra large force in American politics, it starts making me uncomfortable, and it also starts getting very hard to prove. You know the idea . . . It’s a pretty flat statement they make – “no Israel lobby, no war in Iraq” – I don’t think that’s true, if you asked me a straight up yes-no, but it’s very hard to prove. You know the war in Iraq in that setup is what social scientists would call a “dependent variable”. And the Israel lobby is one of a number of possible independent variables. And when you’re studying questions of social science, you’re taught there’s never one independent variable that is 100 percent responsible for the independent variable. Causation almost never works that way, and there’s always sort of a multitude of causes of anything. So I think even Walt and ... don’t really . . . It’s not really fair to them to say . . . They don’t really say in the book APEC specifically caused the war in Iraq. They do say if there had been no Israel lobby – you know this is sort of a counterfactual, which they define more broadly – there would have been no war in Iraq, and I tend not to agree with that. I would say that’s not true. Most of the people they are calling the Israel lobby were for the war in Iraq. But you know there’s a whole bunch of questions, such as if . . . Even those people weren’t for war in Iraq before 9/11. They had a sort of slightly different program in mind. And why at this moment did that group’s views become dispositive when they hadn’t been before since is another question that needs to be answered.