Readers on Iran, Bombing, and The Atlantic (very long)

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As mentioned earlier, it's awkward for me to quote and answer hostile mail about Jeff Goldberg's cover story, and about my subsequent claim that it is a valuable work of reportage that does not constitute warmongering. Partly that's because you can't "answer" contumely ("spineless moron," "blood-soaked corridors of the Atlantic," etc). More basically it's because this is not my article to explain, defend, or elaborate on.

During the Atlantic's upcoming online "debate" about the article I'll try to re-cast my 2004 argument against a decision to bomb, plus this much tougher early-2007 item about indications that the Bush Administration was contemplating Iran as a next front of war. But as a prelude to that debate, and because messages like the ones below involve the magazine's larger journalistic approach and presentation of the Iran question, here are some highly critical but non-vitriolic reader responses. They strike these main themes:

- That the pre-war arguments Jeff Goldberg made about the urgency of invading Iraq (which I disagreed with at the time, as I did about the need for that war) are so fundamentally connected to his current reporting and analysis about Iran that this article must be seen as a continuation of his previous views;

- That while the article's reporting might seem impressive, the framing of the issue predetermines a conclusion (by making the Iranian threat more imminent-seeming, and elevating the need for a military response);

- That the very existence of the article implicitly advances the interests of Israeli hardliners, by artificially creating an emergency atmosphere -- over the risk of impending Israeli action -- which, if believed, could induce action from the United States [Jeff Goldberg's response, of course, is that the article is reporting as actual news the emerging views of the Israeli government]; and

- That the article assumes rather than examines or proves the "existential" nature of an Iranian threat to Israel -- that Israel simply could not exist in peace with the knowledge that Iran had a nuclear bomb, even though it coexists with a nuclear-armed Pakistan and has enough of its own nuclear weapons to threaten a total-devastation retaliatory below against Iran.

I would have no problem quoting such criticisms -- and trying to answer them -- if they were about something I'd written, and indeed many of them involve my own judgment; so I figure they are part of a fair kicking-off of the debate. Contrary to normal practice, I've insisted that all readers let me use their real names. First, from Zach Hensel:

My primary problems with Goldberg's piece are the omissions:

1. His citation of disgusting rhetoric from Iranian leaders is literally the only evidence presented suggesting that a nuclear Iran would use its power to blow up Israel or threaten to do so. He omits the fact that not only has Iran never engaged Israel militarily (in an official capacity; support for militaristic groups is another issue), but also that Israel cooperated militarily with Iran during the Iran/Iraq war; selling some hundreds of bmillions in weapons; and the destruction of the Osirak reactor helped Iran more than Israel.

2. There's a perfectly good antecedent that's not discussed. America bombed Iraq in 1998 because we were certain they were a year or so from going nuclear (according to common wisdom; not reality). Four and a half years later, we invaded Iraq. Whether Israel or America bombs Iranian weapons sites won't change the fundamental problem. Iran will be accused of dodging future weapons inspections after any bombing whether it is true or not, just as Saddam was allegedly dodging inspections right up to shock-and-awe even though Hans Blix, who ought to know about these things, insisted otherwise. This is because the fundamental problem with Iran for Israel is not the development of nuclear weapons. Israel possesses an overwhelming nuclear deterrent and could develop missile defense long before Iran had an arsenal capable of annihilating Israel. The problem is Iran's support for militaristic, Islamic organizations in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere. This is what threatens Israel's security, and there's no path around it that doesn't involve an invasion or revolution.

3. Iran acquiring a single nuclear weapon (or a few) is not a transcendental [existential??] threat. Unlike Iran, Pakistan has engaged Israel militarily. Like Iran, Pakistan does not recognize Israel. Israel tried and failed to derail Pakistan's development of their bomb, and Pakistan has not wielded it offensively to threaten any country. Instead, it's a deterrent against Indian aggression. It's far more likely that, rhetoric aside, Iranians want nuclear weapons to possess a similar deterrent against Israel, which would deter, amongst other things, Israel's strategic assassinations.

I don't think that someone disinterested in whether or not Iran was bombed would fail to include this context. Including these data points would provide arguments against bombardment or invasion that Goldberg ignores (his only argument is that it would lead to chaos, but that it'd be less chaotic -- or at least less dangerous for Israel -- if America did the dirty work). Another failure of his article is the absence of any Iranian perspective what-so-ever... although that's hard to come by when he regularly accuses Iran experts such as the Leveretts of being complicit in murder (all quotes from Iranians are used to convey the country's commitment to destroying Israel; no thoughts from Iranians or experts on Iran on how Iran would respond to such an attack).

None of this should imply that I don't think Iran should be disarmed. It's just that, looking at history, an airstrike won't further that goal. [JF: I agree.] It will instead lead to war, a war that will possibly lead to Israel's use of nuclear weapons. The risk of adding Iran to the list of nations possessing nuclear weapons is grave but benign next to that of total regional war in the Middle East.

From Krishna Kumar:

...After reading Mr. Goldberg's article, I felt it was well written and well reported, but fundamentally dishonest. He says to be "paralyzed" about making choices on attacking Iran, but he's stacked the deck in his article to come to only one conclusion: US support of an Israeli attack. His support of the "Obama plan" is conditional because he wants to Obama plan to fail, and the best remaining option therefore is to attack.

To sum up his article, the threat to Isreal to an Iranian nuclear weapon is NOT a direct attack, which would be too horrible to contemplate. Every quote in there suggests some sort of horrible balance of powers would exist. The threat is that Isreal would no longer be a refugee for Jews, which is an existential threat to a state founded on the memory of the Holocaust. And we have an Israeli prime minister who is uniquely attuned to that memory because of (possibly irrational) relationship with his father and a dead brother....

As you point out, there is a disagreement on the costs of an attack. But the reason he, and the Israelis he quotes, believe the costs are worth it is that they perceive a different set of benefits. The ultimate benefit, which Goldberg is trying to hide in his article, isn't about security -- is it about restoring the dream that Israel is the one safe haven for the Jews.

Steve Clemons made a good point which is, Goldberg is probably played a bit by some people in the WH, because there is a value in making the Iranians believe the probability for an Israeli or American attack is possible. But the key sentence for me is when he asks, almost in an aside, what Central Command would do if Isreali jets flew into Iraq, and an invisible quote, outside of context, says "do nothing." That novelistic details moves beyond reporting and moves it into propaganda.

I do think your post is wrong when you restate his stated belief that the "Obama plan" must work or it gets ugly. Let's say the plan fails, and Iran builds "the bomb". You still have 2-3 years as they build an effective delivery device to negotiate, and then an intermediate time period after that where negotiation is still possible (i.e. the President tells the Iranian president that if Tel Aviv magically disappears one day, Iran will still cease to exist thanks to US nukes). So is not quite the black period he depicts. Difficult, but the failure of the plan does not make an Israeli attack the best of a bunch of bad options.

From Carlyn Meyer:

Though I'm skeptical of some of Goldberg's views and recognize this article is published in a climate of anti- Iranian media hysteria and bigotry against Islam (Cordoba Center), I can't agree with your other readers who characterize it as war-mongering.

Goldberg concludes that Israel's preparation to bomb Iraq is an objective, 'operative' fact and why he thinks this. Goldberg's reporting on the possible consequences of an Israeli attack against Iran (as seen through comments by Israeli and American officials as well as independent sources) against Iraq are truly frightening, equal to or more so than the consequences of not attacking Iran (again, official and independent comments). Goldberg limits his reporting to a status quo, establishment notion of whose interests are served by bombing or not bombing, as well as the factors those interests are weighing. He stays within the lines, yet he reports on some of the key issues at play.

If Goldberg left his thinking at this level, he would make the same mistakes that liberals (including him) who supported the war in Iraq did. They imposed blinders on themselves, never interviewing intelligence agencies from other countries and not delving into why, if the so-called 'same' intelligence was shared among members of the Security Council, other members did not believe it was actionable.

[Dennis] Ross's comments that sanctions are already beginning to show result, and the further impact they may have on the Iranian economy and its nuclear program in the near term, are especially important. They show an administration serious about imposing sanctions and then measuring their effect through actual data and benchmarks on progress. Most sanction regimes are imposed and then neglected. The Obama Administration is betting that this 'benign neglect' is the reason sanctions have failed in the past. This Administration plans to hang tough with the Iranian sanctions. That in itself is a message to Iran. The Obama Administration is in its own war mode: to nail down a working alternative to military action. Ross's comments hopefully mean the administration will wage a media war showing the President is just as the he-man warrior in imposing sanctions as he would be in waging war.

No one could report a serious approach by the Bush administration towards sanctions or diplomacy because a serious approach to avoiding war did not exist. Yet liberal supporters of the war covered for the Bush administration's drive to war by superimposing their own arm-chair 'preference' for UN action as a condition of their 'support' - without any evidence the Bush war council was about averting an invasion.

You pointed out China's interests in Iran as one of the many other dimensions Goldberg did not review. Good, transparent reporting on these, in the long run, will be more important than Goldberg's limited look at why he is convinced Israel will take the military route if sanctions don't work. Still, Goldberg's article is timely and important. Far from war mongering, I took the article as a flashing yellow light that will turn either red or green sooner than we think.

From Kevin Douglas:

Just reread Jeffrey Goldberg's article in light of your comments. Here is the problem I see. If there did exist some broad consensus among Israeli elites that 1) a military strike on Iran by Israel was a bad idea (for a bunch of reasons), but 2) a strike by the US on Iran would be very much in Israel's interests, am I being too much of a cynic if I suggest that Goldberg would have written exactly the same article? Given that the US has not struck Iran for so many years, and Obama has shown no support for this, the only way the US would engage in such a strike is if they considered it the best of several bad options. "Better us than Israel going it alone--at least we could do real damage and mitigate the diplomatic fallout", might be one such rationale (the decision act is only triggered by worry that Israel will act). If the Israeli government thinks opinion within the Obama administration is divided, then of course it's in their interests to bluff.

Which brings us back to Goldberg. His severest critics, I suspect, would take this one step further and agree with the following: even if Goldberg KNOWS that there exists the broad consensus among Israeli elites that there should be no unilateral strike by Israel on Iran, if these elites try to use them as a mouthpiece to bolster their bluff he'll happily go along. A less toxic version of this argument would be that Goldberg's sympathies make it easy for elites to use him in this way (he doesn't have to be a knowing accomplice, just someone who is willing to act as a stenographer).

Even if you think the above scenarios are wrong (ie. that no such consensus exists among Israeli elites), what the Atlantic is being accused of, I think, is indifference to a rather common form of journalistic bad faith....

Finally, from Joshua Yunis:

Here is Jim Webb in 1998, in a Times Op-Ed entitled "What to do About China?":
"American Government and business leaders are thus left with the unavoidable truth that China, despite its constant protests to the contrary, can no longer claim to be a non-expansionist power. And they must now prepare for the future consequences of that reality.

"They can begin by putting American relationships with Japan, India, Israel and Russia on a much firmer footing. Along with the United States, these four countries possess the key ingredients of geography, military and economic power, and technological superiority to insure that China's future conduct conforms to international norms.....

....Second, Israel. It stands to lose greatly through the strategic axis China is developing with the Muslim world. The first foreign official to visit Pakistan after its detonation of nuclear devices was Iran's Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who proclaimed that ''Muslims now feel more confident that Pakistan's nuclear capability would play a role of deterrence to Israel's.'' Though he later played down this statement, the world must consider it in the context of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons of its own, also with Chinese -- and Russian -- assistance. The United States and Israel must keep the rest of the world focused on this, and should not rule out pre-emptive military strikes if there is evidence that Iran is building a weapon." (emphasis added)
Those were the days. Now, of course, Webb takes a more skeptical line on a pre-emptive strike. Why the change of heart? I don't know for sure, but if I had to guess, it's not because Webb has suddenly become a dove and/or brushed aside the risks of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. Our ~150,000 troops in bordering Iraq and Afghanistan might have something to do with it. (Reading this Op-Ed, coupled with his 2002 Washington Post piece about invading Iraq read as a kind of primer on all that went wrong with American foreign policy over the past 8-10 years).

This is really the dual tragedy of Iraq: first, like Clive Crook, I -- in light of the fast-approaching development of an Iranian weapon -- can't help but harp on the strategic, political, and moral disaster that was the Iraq war (I think Jeffrey Goldberg would lend more credence to his writings if he too, harped on this point a bit more). But second, is a kind of less talked about problem, which is that so many Americans (pundits and ordinary citizens alike) run the risk of over-learning the lesson of the Iraq war. The development of an Iranian bomb will be a truly incredible problem for the interests of the US and its allies in the Middle East. This is a realist concern, as evinced by Webb's op-ed -- not a concern of a small, neoconservative cabal. I have no idea what the answer is. I only want to point out that we can't let past mistakes inherently overtake what needs to be a rational discussion -- and again, this is a much more difficult task, given just how disastrous the Iraq war has been. But we must be vigilant in distinguishing between reckless neoconservative pipe-dreams, and real threats to our own interests and those of our allies -- even if it means we end up having to agree with people like Bill Kristol, who, more often than not, are bad for America.

Taking a lead from Andrew Sullivan -- who (at least in this case!) says he wants to very carefully deliberate before expressing himself on the merits -- I will respond to these and other critiques during this upcoming "debate" period. I assume that Jeffrey Goldberg will be weighing in as well. For now, these represent the high-end version of what I've found in the inbox. And a favor I ask of anyone ready to unload on the article: please read it, as many critics manifestly have not done, before offering a retort.

Policy statement: Usually I don't quote people by name unless you say in an incoming message, "you can use my name." This saves me sending follow-up emails, and it is safer all around than the opposite default presumption. But the opposite rule does apply in this case. If you write with a direct complaint about Jeffrey Goldberg or this article, I will assume that I can use your name if I later quote any more messages. That seems only fair.

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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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