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Stephen Colbert, whose turn as a satirical ultra-conservative TV host entertains Comedy Central audiences nightly, was trying his darnedest to understand the arguments made in his guest's book.
So, brow knitted, he turned to John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, on Tuesday night's broadcast. "You say that the Israel lobby was influential in helping push for war with Iraq. Is that because the Israeli lobby knew there were so many pro-Israeli forces ready to take over in Iraq once Saddam fell?"
"No," Mearsheimer responded as the audience laughed.
Colbert tried again. "How do they influence United States policy to make the United States the largest single supplier of arms - to Saudi Arabia? How does that benefit them?"
The audience laughed again.
Still perplexed, Colbert later asked whether the US should cut off support to Israel, to which Mearsheimer replied that the US should continue to help Israel whenever its existence was threatened.
So Colbert followed up: "If we're not going to cut off aid to them, should we at least stop sending them Christmas cards? Cause they never send them back. It's always just a snowy field and the word 'blessing.'"
Mearsheimer joined in the audience's laughter, as he did at several other points during his brief interview on The Colbert Report, a popular late-night spoof of personality-driven pundit shows like Fox News' O'Reilly Factor. But several of the Jewish critics of Mearsheimer's book who watched the show said the joke was on him.
"I don't think he did himself any help. He got up there and Colbert basically made a fool of him," said Hadar Susskind, the Washington director for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). The JCPA is described in the book, coauthored by Stephen Walt, as being part of the "Israel Lobby", a loose-knit group of organizations accused of hijacking American policy in the Middle East for the benefit of Israel.
The book attracted controversy before it was even published last month, and pro-Israel advocates have been watching the response as Mearsheimer and Walt give speeches and interviews around the country.
Their appearances have taken them to university campuses, National Public Radio studios and now the Comedy Central cable network. The Colbert Report, like the comedy phenomenon The Daily Show with Jon Stewart which it follows, features a variety of prominent guests and is particularly popular among young, well-educated viewers.
"The Jon Stewart show is the place authors go to sell books. If you can't make it onto Jon Stewart, you go on right after, on Colbert," said one head of a Jewish organization who asked not to be named, acknowledging he was not thrilled about the free publicity Mearsheimer got.
But how problematic that publicity was depends on one's view of whether all publicity is good publicity, he noted. "It was a mixed blessing, because they got free publicity for the book. But they also got Stephen Colbert making fun of them," said the organization head.
"Because he came off poorly, I don't think it did any great damage," Susskind assessed, and said that this a view was shared by several Jewish organizational leaders who corresponded by e-mail after the show.
Anyway, Susskind doubted whether the average American was particularly attentive to the Mearsheimer interview.
"The vast majority of people in this county don't care about him or about his book, and they probably got up to get a beer when he came on," said Susskind.