An Exchange With Jeffrey Goldberg on 'Bluffing,' Israel, and Iran, Cont'd

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Here is round two of the online exchange with Jeffrey Goldberg that began here.

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Dear Jeff:

Thank you very much for this reply. For our second round - which will be the last round for a while, as I'll explain - I'd like to shift from asking about the reporting you've been in the middle of, to the substance of the choice that the Israeli government will make.

(This is the last round for a while, because you're about to go out of communications range for a week, and I'm already in Internet limbo - this comes from a truck stop on the Tasman Peninsula that has just enough one-bar cell phone coverage to support an Android hotspot. I hope we can resume when we're both back.)

I understand the points you're making here -- about believing all along that the PM Netanyahu's threats have been serious, and that your recent "could he be bluffing?" column was meant as a thought-experiment more than a shift in conclusion. 

Let me explain why I have felt all along that at some level this had to be a bluff, and why it remains hard for me to believe that, in the end, "even" Binyamin Netanyahu would go ahead and order this strike.

You and I agree that it would be better in a thousand ways if Iran does not develop a nuclear-weapons capability. The #1 reason, on my list, would be the ripple-effect pressure for proliferation in nearby countries- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. I recognize that the Israeli government has a different reason #1. But although many people, for many reasons, share the goal of avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran, a solution that doesn't solve the problem is not a "solution." And everything I have known, learned, and thought about this issue tells me that an Israeli strike would likely make the entire situation worse. Including the parts of "the situation" that put Israel in direct peril.

You're familiar with all these arguments, but as a refresher-summary for our discussion:

- Merely buying time. No one seriously contends that an aerial strike would eliminate Iran's nuclear potential in any permanent way. It's a matter of buying time - a year or two, by most estimates.

- Increasing resolve. In exchange for possibly buying that time, most analyses I've seen indicate that a strike would only intensify Iran's determination to go ahead with its program.

- Strengthening the regime. You can find examples in history of an external strike making a troubled regime seem fatally weak and vulnerable. (Eg: The effect of defeat in WW I on the Tsarist Russian regime.) But I can find more examples of foreign attacks being used as rallying tools - eg, as I mentioned recently, Castro with the Bay of Pigs. Every report I've read suggests that this is the more likely result within Iran.

- Short and medium term "kinetic" effects on Israel - and the United States. The "war game" that the Atlantic ran back in 2004 reached the same conclusions the Pentagon's recent war game reportedly did: that a motivated Iran would have lots of ways to inflict retaliatory damage, directly on Israel and on U.S. troops and installations in the region, and indirectly on the world economy and American interests in general.

- Long term strategic effects on Israel. I recognize that the Netanyahu view of Israel's best long-term interests differs from mine. For instance, his expansion of the settlements is, in my view, a near-certain path to tragedy for Israel - and I feel that in part because I've been convinced by your writing on this subject.

But even Netanyahu must see that no nation fashions a long-term peace for itself with a foreign policy based exclusively on "hard" power. That last for a while, but only so long. And if Netanyahu applies a "hard power" "solution" to the Iranian problem - a bombing run that, at best, buys a few years of time- but in exchange undermines Israel's long-run wellbeing, he will have done something very damaging for his nation. A crucial element of that well-being is of course Israel's ties with the only ally that matters, the United States. If an Israeli prime minister launches a "discretionary war" that his main ally plainly does not want, and that has tremendous open-ended potential to damage America and its interests, how is this not a disastrous decision for his country? (How could it damage America? The U.S. military, already grossly over-extended, could be called into service in yet another theater; the American economy would be among many harmed by an oil-supply panic; there could be a new rationale for terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad.)

Maybe none of these things would happen. But maybe all of them would.

In short, I can imagine a lot in the world. But it is hard for me to imagine how a rational Israeli government - no matter how "hard line," no matter how "hawkish" -- could go ahead with a step that has such potential to be ruinous for Israel itself. Yes, an Iranian bomb could arguably pose an "existential" threat to Israel. (I don't think it should be seen that way, but we'll debate that later.) But, again, if a bombing raid makes Israel's overall problems worse, how is it a "solution"?

That's why I have thought that, in the end, the escalating threats must be a bluff.

Obviously I'm not asking you to endorse a bombing raid. You've argued many times, and in this latest exchange, that it would be a bad idea. But if, as you say, the current Israeli government really isn't bluffing, then they must have convinced themselves that this will work. What version of reality are they seeing that lets them think this way?

I'll be interested in whatever you can say about their state of mind, before your upcoming hiatus. Thanks for taking these topics on so openly. We both know that this subject will stay in the news, and I hope that when we're both back in Washington we can continue this exchange as events warrant. Next time, I will even try to be concise.

- Jim

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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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