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

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.

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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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