Bombing Iran: What is The Atlantic's Line?

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Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story, on Israel's preparations to bomb Iran (and what that means for America), is getting a lot of attention, and deserves to. It is very much worth reading for its thoroughly-reported and authoritative assessment of what the Israeli, U.S., and Iranian governments are likely to do and why. It immediately becomes invaluable primary evidence about the complex pressures within these governments -- at least America's and Israel's. About Iran, who really knows.

Two points about the larger argument about Iran and the context of the piece:

1) Is this article warmongering? Or to put it more delicately, is it meant to condition the American public and politicians to the prospect of an attack on Iran? Many people have portrayed it as such. I disagree. I think that those reading the piece as a case for bombing Iran are mainly reacting to arguments about the preceding war.

Jeff Goldberg was a big proponent of invading Iraq, as I was not -- and those who disagreed with him about that war have in many cases taken the leap of assuming he's making the case for another assault. I think this is mainly response to byline rather than argument. If this new article had appeared under the byline of someone known to have opposed the previous war and to be skeptical about the next one, I think the same material could be read in the opposite way  -- as a cautionary revelation of what the Netanyahu government might be preparing to do. Taken line by line, the article hews to a strictly reportorial perspective: this is what the Israeli officials seem to think, this is how American officials might react, this is how Israeli officials might anticipate how the Americans might react, these are the Israeli voices of caution, here are the potential readings and mis-readings on each side.

Moreover, rather than guess at Jeff Goldberg's policy prescriptions, we can read his explicit presentation of them, here.  He argues that there is one highly desirable outcome -- success of the "Obama plan," a combination of pressures, threats, and incentives to shift Iran toward a different path. If that doesn't work, as he explains, the remaining options are all bad, and we will choose among them when we have to. So disagree with him about Iraq, if you will and as I did. But after that, please take his reporting for the achievement and contribution that it is, and his "profound, paralyzing ambivalence" about military strikes on Iran on its own merits.

2) How does it square with other things the magazine has written on the topic? In addition to Jeff Goldberg's article and subsequent posts, please read Robert Kaplan's assessment in this issue of what deterrence would mean in dealing with an Iran that did get nuclear weapons; plus Clive Crook's response and a chain of others that he links to, including this and this.

And then there was the previous Atlantic cover story about bombing Iran, which I did back in 2004. It was based on a mock war-game exercise to see what, in practical terms, it would mean to "take out" Iran's nuclear facilities. The conclusion was that, even then, Iran's facilities were too dispersed to eliminate by an aerial attack; that an attack would likely unify and motivate Iranians behind their government and the drive to become a nuclear power; that even if Israel attacked on its own, the United States would still be blamed; and that even the most "successful" attack would exchange a temporary tactical advantage (temporary delay in Iran's plans) for a major strategic setback, namely lasting complications and vulnerabilities for the U.S. around the world. Last year Anthony Cordesman, of CSIS, laid out a similar analysis of an Israeli strike, which came to similar cautionary conclusions.

How can these two cover stories be reconciled? Well, maybe they don't have to be. They're by two different people; the magazine is meant to contain a lot of different views; and a lot of time has passed, with changes in relevant circumstances. But I think there is less tension between them than may appear.

In the final part of his article, Jeff Goldberg is unblinking about the challenges and possible failures of a military attempt to remove Iran's nuclear facilities, especially if done just by Israel. This point, in one of today's posts, is exactly congruent with the argument I made five-plus years ago:

The larger point here is that the Israelis claim that Menachem Begin, then the prime minister, launched the Osirak attack in 1981 thinking that it might only set back the Iraqi nuclear program by one year. Some Israelis in leadership positions today tell me that they think an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be similarly worthwhile if it only delayed the Iranians by a year. This certainly doesn't seem worth it to me.

If we disagree about Iran, I think the difference comes down to this. He says today:

I suspect that the price of inaction might be greater than the price of action, but the opposite could just as easily and plausibly be true.

I agree with him that we are all operating in the dark here. But my instinct is that on any given day, the price of action -- ordering an attack -- is likely to be higher than the price of inaction. The big difference is reversibility. If you don't attack today, you can always change your mind tomorrow. But once you attack, you've foreclosed decisions for decades, not to mention the other consequences of initiating a war. (We will certainly have troops in Iraq ten years after George Bush decided that he couldn't wait any longer to invade.) History provides examples of both kinds of costs -- of being too slow, and being too hasty. But because the main example of the cost of inaction -- the rise of Hitler -- is so horrific, it tends to blot out distinctions and make restraint reek of Chamberlain, rather than, say, Eisenhower.

No one has plausibly suggested that Iran can produce a bomb utterly without warning, overnight. My instinct, then, is (while keeping a close watch) to view time as an asset for our side, not theirs. It keeps giving us one more day -- and month, and year -- for pressures and incentives to work, for the regime to weaken, and for our government to think through in a calm and Ike-like way exactly what we will do if time runs out. And I view Jeff Goldberg's magazine article as highly useful intelligence while carrying out this policy, and his follow-up posts as more consistent with it than not.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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