The New York Times Flubs a Big One

If you have a moment, read the introduction to the Times's "Room for Debate" feature, which this week asks the question, "Has support for Israel hurt U.S. credibility?" and see if you can identify the enormous analytical failure embedded within:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it's just the "unilateral" part that he finds troubling: "It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America." Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

It's not that difficult to see the fatal flaws and assumptions built into the exercise. Iran is a Persian country, not an Arab country, and its leadership and ideology are loathed across much of the Arab world. The leaders of Arab nations ranging from Morocco and Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom are American allies, see Iran as the primary threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, and have been asking President Obama to confront Iran for three years. You'll recall that the king of Saudi Arabia urged the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake" before it was too late, and many other Arab leaders, as well, have lobbied President Obama vociferously. Whoever wrote this introduction doesn't read the Times, apparently: Arab anxiety about Iran was covered extensively by The Times during the massive Wikileaks release.

It is not only the leaders of Arab countries who fear Iran. There is a reason the Iranian regime has failed to export its revolution to the Sunni Arab world, and that is popular suspicion of its motivations, as well as a range of other sectarian and religious disputes. And Iran is especially unpopular now that it has sided with the minority Alawite regime in Damascus, against Syria's Sunni majority.

In other words, American action against Iran could be understood as America siding with the Arabs, not only with the Israelis. This is not news, of course, except to the author of this contentious and ill-informed introduction.

There is another flaw in the suppositions advanced in this introduction, that if America acts against Iran, it will be doing so mainly in Israel's interests. Now would be a good time to remind everyone what President Obama said about the American interests at stake if Iran attempts to cross the nuclear threshold:

"(I)f Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation."

The Times probably should have let David Sanger, or another expert on the complicated Arab-Iran-Israel dynamic, look at this feature before posting it.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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