Friday Round-Up: If Force Is the Answer, What Is the Question?

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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

Posting this morning, Patrick Clawson argues that Washington and Jerusalem -- having converged in their respective interpretations of Iran's nuclear timeline since the time of the George W. Bush administration -- are now in agreement on "where Iran stands and how quickly it is moving forward." Where they differ is on when and why to use military force:

Americans tend to like and embrace the Powell Doctrine: the overwhelming use of force to achieve decisive results. The view of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is encapsulated in the unfortunate expression "mow the grass": you cannot stop the grass from growing, you will have to mow it repeatedly, but each mowing brings a temporary respite. For the IDF, the December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was a success because it brought many months of relative quiet, whereas U.S. commentators assessed it as a failure because it did not achieve what they assumed was Israel's real goal: destroying Hamas. When Americans say to Israelis that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities will only set Iran back temporarily, Israelis respond that this is all they ever expect from the use of military force -- and that this is good enough.

Responding, Gary Milhollin highlights what he takes to be a false premise in Clawson's interpretation of how the U.S. and Israel view Iran's nuclear effort -- namely, that Iran's "nuclear clock has slowed." Not so, he says:

While the administration claims it could take Tehran a year to have weapon-grade uranium, the International Atomic Energy Agency warns that it could also happen in just three months.

But we shouldn't be debating how long it will take for Iran to complete a bomb, Milhollin says. "Instead, we should keep our eyes on the big fact here, which is that Iran is fast approaching the status of a "virtual" nuclear weapon state -- one with the ability to kick out UN inspectors and build a handful of nuclear warheads. This is not an argument for bombing Iran, by Israel or anyone else. But it is a warning -- a warning that we must confront the growth of Iran's nuclear capability, and not be lulled into imagining that it's not real.

At The Guardian, Michael Tomasky tracks the debate in Washington, and at The Atlantic -- highlighting Marc Ambinder's contribution, and emphasizing what he, Tomasky, sees as a vital legacy of the war Iraq: "it reminded people that war is hard and ugly and difficult. A memory that should last, one would hope, a good five years or so. If we're lucky, a full generation."

At Abu Dhabi's The National, Tom Gara makes the case to commentators such as Glenn Greenwald and George Will for taking the emphasis off their interpretations of Goldberg's past and focusing on his reporting and its significance:

Goldberg's deeply researched piece has all the hallmarks of real journalism: an abundance of sources, some questioning of its main premises, and what those in the industry call a "scoop of insight" that leads to wider debate. These features, alas, were lacking in much of what followed -- whether Will's fear-mongering stenography or the attacks on Goldberg's own background.

So let us set aside the temptation to shoot the messenger, and focus on the message: Goldberg's reporting may look like an attempt to shift the goalposts -- to make an Israeli attack on Iran into a fait accompli, or to convince the Americans to take over the job. But that effort is the real news here: Israeli officials, who kept rather quiet prior to bombing nuclear facilities in Iraq (in 1981) and Syria (in 2007), have suddenly decided to announce, loud and clear, that they plan to drop bombs on Iran unless somebody else does it first. The question now is whether Barack Obama takes the bait.

On PBS NewsHour's blog The Rundown, Tom Legro points readers to The Atlantic's debate site -- as does Michael Moran, at Global Post, weighing in himself. "Air strikes against Iran means war with Iran," Moran warns:

Israel's fond memories of past "preemptive successes" - the 1967 "Six Day War," the Osirak reactor strike in Iraq in 1982 and the destruction of what Israel described as a nascent nuclear weapons facility in the Syrian desert in 2007 - could lead it to overestimate its capabilities with regard to the sprawling and dispersed Iranian program. It should, instead, be focused on the memory of its failure to defeat Hezbollah alone during the short 2006 war, and the reality that even the most successful strike against Iran only postpones a day of reckoning.

A comprehensive peace that draws the Sunni Arab states into a de facto alliance against the revolutionary Shiites of Iran is the only long-term solution to Israel's security dilemma. That means a contiguous Palestinian state, returning the Golan Heights to Syria and signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

This all seems hard to imagine right now. Israel is in no mood (or political condition) to compromise. And Iran's regime is in a state of panic after last summer's unrest, even if the regime has (for now) prevailed. But neither side should be fooled: an attack on Iran cannot be "limited" in the way air strikes on Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas positions in Gaza. War on Iran means war with Iran, and that war will rock the world.

Meanwhile, Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger of The New York Times report that the Obama administration has assured Israel that Iran is not an "imminent" threat, and that:

... it would take roughly a year -- and perhaps longer -- for Iran to complete what one senior official called a "dash" for a nuclear weapon, according to American officials. Administration officials said they believe the assessment has dimmed the prospect that Israel would pre-emptively strike against the country's nuclear facilities within the next year, as Israeli officials have suggested in thinly veiled threats.

Among the problems with Iran's nuclear program, according to the Times, are difficulty obtaining weapons-grade material, the lack of centrifuges in Iran (the regime has added few this year, and only about half of those installed are operating); and the ratcheting-up of sanctions, which have made it tough for Iran to acquire necessary parts and metals. The conclusion of the article, however, suggests limits to the effectiveness of the White House's assurances:

Even as American and Israeli officials agree that the date that Iran is likely to have a nuclear weapon has been pushed into the future, that does not mean that Israel has abandoned the idea of a possible military strike.

American officials said that Israel was particularly concerned that, over time, Iran's supreme leader could order that nuclear materials be dispersed to secret locations around the country, making it less likely that an Israeli military strike would significantly cripple the program.

Goldberg responds:
 
This very same intelligence assessment, it turns out, was reported in The Atlantic last week. And by the way, the Times article claims that Israel has been "persuaded" of a fact it already acknowledges. And by the way one more time, the article quotes no Israelis agreeing to the premise of the article. Or disagreeing, for that matter.

Later, he airs a reader's question: "... you said on NPR today that the Israelis are more relaxed then they were a few months ago about the threat of Iran's nuclear intentions. Do you think something has changed in recent days?"

Goldberg's answer:

Yes, something has changed, Goldberg says. Israeli leaders believe Obama when he says he is "determined" to stop Iran's nuclear program, and Bibi may trust Obama more than he did a year ago, but "if Obama fails to stop Iran's nuclear program through non-military means, and then refuses to use military force to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, the likelihood is still very high that Israel would try to destroy the Iranian nuclear program itself.

In an update to the post, he relays a message from a source in the Middle East, who writes that Goldberg is wrong to say that Israeli leaders are more "relaxed" on the nuclear issue:

... nobody here believes that Obama will succeed through sanctions to stop the Iranian nuclear program. One thing has changed -- the Iranians have centrifuge problems, but these problems will most likely be fixed by the beginning of next year. So the timetable still holds: Israel will have to decide, as you reported, by the beginning of next year what to do. In the meantime, pray for Obama's success.

An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story here.

The debate continues here.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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