On the "Bomb Iran" Debate

Previously here (Jeff Goldberg's current cover story, "Point of No Return"), here (my anti-bombing story from 2004), here and here (my defense of Jeff Goldberg's reporting achievement), and here (readers' critiques of the assumptions and emphases in his story). Plus here, the "Iran debate" page.

I expect that after several more people weigh in with their critiques, Jeff Goldberg will give an all-points response. Several items for now:

1) After the jump, a reader's endorsement of the intention and execution of the "No Return" cover story.

2) I would like to dissociate myself in every possible way from the response just offered by Elliott Abrams -- essentially, that Obama will bomb Iran before 2012 to save his political hide. This is not a serious way to talk about the issue:

It's inevitable that as Iran creeps closer to the Bomb and Obama creeps closer to defeat, Democrats -- above all, the ones in the White House -- will start wondering exactly why striking that nuclear program is such a terrible idea. They'll start re-examining the likely Iranian reactions (they don't really want a war with us, do they? Regime survival and all that?), the down-sides of an Israeli strike (hey, we're the leaders of the free world, after all), the military challenge (well, the Air Force isn't very busy, and it's just a few sites to hit). They will of course not tell themselves this re-assessment is related to politics; they will persuade themselves they are doing what's right for the security of our country. Watch.

Yes, I'll watch. This is not going to happen.

3) I sympathize with a line of criticism that says that by definition any "reporting" on governmental intentions on this topic is meaningless, because what is really going on is a high-level, high-stakes chess/poker deception game. Even if the hardest-line leaders in Israel knew for sure that they finally would not strike Iran, they have every incentive to act as if they might. The more convincing and imminent their own strike seemed, the more motivated the Chinese government might become (as explained here) to put pressure on Iran. Same for putting pressure on the United States. Richard Nixon made this phenomenon famous as the "crazy man" principle. If the other side thought you might do something rash and "irrational," in some circumstances that gave you more leverage -- even if in fact you'd never take the crazy step. Also, see "bluffing."
Some variety of this game is certainly being played by every participant in this drama -- Israel, Iran, America, China, Russia, you name it. Jeff Goldberg is aware of this and alludes to it in his article -- and, just now, in a web update.

4) Notwithstanding point #3, people who dismiss the reportorial achievement of this article, and think that Jeff Goldberg was just being fed and spun by various sides, probably have no idea of what is involved in getting this kind of material and underestimate how much new information is actually in Jeff Goldberg's report. The fact that people are discussing so many details and specifics of the article is testament to what he has done. Also, in light of point #2 above, it is worth noting the seriousness with which he faces the difficulties of the "what is to be done?" question, here.

5) With permission from Stratfor, here is a link to a new analysis by George Friedman reasserting a point that was crucial in our "war-game" exercise four years ago: the United States cannot contemplate war with Iran without putting everything about its Iraq strategy in jeopardy. Sample from Friedman:

There are many who are baffled by Iranian confidence and defiance in the face of American pressure on the nuclear issue. This is the reason for that confidence: Should the United States attack Iran's nuclear facilities, or even if the United States does not attack, Iran holds the key to the success of the American strategy in Iraq. Everything done since 2006 fails if the United States must maintain tens of thousands of troops in Iraq in perpetuity. Should the United States leave, Iran has the capability of forcing a new order not only on Iraq but also on the rest of the Persian Gulf. Should the United States stay, Iran has the ability to prevent the stabilization of Iraq, or even to escalate violence to the point that the Americans are drawn back into combat. The Iranians understand the weakness of America's position in Iraq, and they are confident that they can use that to influence American policy elsewhere.

Among the implications: another reminder of how different America's options would be if it had not rushed to invade Iraq. That is all from me; more from a reader after the jump.

Manfully without comment, I relate the view of reader Douglas Jones:

I am here to dispute the groundless claim that Goldberg's Iraq reporting was flawed...

WMD were not found, but there is no reason to believe they were not simply smuggled over the border into Syria or Iran. There are those who say there was no connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda but Goldberg and others have argued -- convincingly, in my view -- that indeed there were. (Here, for example.)

And the other claims? Saddam was every bit the mass murder we thought he was. The oft-mocked "sweets and flowers" line? Chris Hitchens saw soldiers greeted with sweets flowers first-hand.

By many measures, Iraq was more of a threat than expected. Some say we caused a near civil war, but if that near civil war had happened under Saddam rather than under coalition rule, imagine what might have happened: poison gas, anthrax, genocide on a scale not seen in this generation.

It's easy to lament the things that went wrong in the Iraq war and there is no denying that the planning was poor, in some ways. But Niall Ferguson has taught us we must think counterfactually to truly understand history. And in this case, a sharp counterfactual analysis makes it clear how much worse things might have been had we not invaded Iraq.

I'd support it again and think claims of inaccurate pre-war analysis are badly overblown.
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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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