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The hallmark of the conspiracy theorist is the perceived ability to "connect the dots" where no such connections exist. Of course, the theorist rejects the term "theorist" because, he insists, he is merely making objective observations. In the days before the internet, he would feverishly spend hours clipping newspaper articles at his kitchen table, circling clues with a red pen and shouting "Aha!" to a room full of ghosts, who might or might not see the obvious linkages between the latest football scores and tank movement outside Irkutsk.

Today, conspiracy theorists are far less exotic. But what they lack in idiosyncratic charm, they more than make up in self-importance. Consider Stephen M. Walt, a leading "realist" foreign-policy guru, who co-authored (with John Mearsheimer) The Israel Lobby, which purports to prove that pro-Israel fifth columnists are distorting America's foreign policy for Israel's benefit. These savvy agents of Zion - the bagel-guzzling cabal of evil-doers, not the authors - are mostly Jews with dual loyalties who will bully anyone who dares criticise the Jewish state. Walt's Protocols of the Elders of Realism was hailed as profound and serious by many of Israel's harshest critics, and attacked as everything from sloppy and hyperbolic to irresponsible and even anti-Semitic by almost everyone else, including the New York Times, Foreign Affairs and even The Nation (not a hotbed of Likudniks).

A perfect illustration of Walt's paranoid tendency was his bilious defence of Charles ("Chas") Freeman, Barack Obama's now-withdrawn choice to run the US National Intelligence Council (NIC). Freeman has famously "realistic" views on foreign policy, albeit the sort of realism that balms the conscience as you deposit Saudi cheques. As the president of the Saudi-backed Middle East Policy Council, the former US ambassador to Riyadh could have been be counted on to say exactly what the House of Saud wanted him to say. Walt's theory is that a "despicable smear campaign" was launched by the "usual suspects". Freeman himself was in no doubt who was to blame for his withdrawal. "The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonour and indecency," he raged.

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