The Atlantic's Interview with Obama on Iran

By James Fallows

Congratulations to the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg for his extensive interview with President Obama about Iran and Israel, on the eve of the Netanyahu visit and AIPAC meeting. Congrats to him too for making the most of the opportunity with a series of appropriately tough questions. Quick follow ups:

1) If you haven't read the interview, by all means do so. It's here.

2) This is an obvious point but worth making: try to imagine how Obama's predecessor would have fared in a comparably probing 45-minute one-on-one session. Obama's responses included historical allusions, easy references to the internal dynamics in all of the affected countries, an understanding of how the same issue might appear in different guises from different countries' perspectives, analysis of the successes and failures of past efforts at controlling nuclear proliferation, a balance between specificity and deliberate ambiguity, a willingness to talk through move-and-countermove in various scenarios, and on through a list of other intellectual qualities.

As I argue in my current article about Obama, a richly analytical -- even a historian's or strategist's -- cast of mind by itself doesn't ensure a president's success. But when we see evidence of a particular president displaying his particular strength, it is worth noticing. This is Obama on his game. (It probably still will have no effect on the moronic "teleprompter president" meme.) For a different example of Obama in his wheelhouse, see his interview on the B.S. Report about the NBA, Jeremy Lin, and sports in general.

3) The part of the interview to which I give least weight is Obama's claim that he is "not bluffing." What else would he say? It's like the famous "Liar's Paradox" in logic studies. If you ask someone, "Are you a liar?," an honest person will answer "No." A liar will also answer "No." So too with a bluff. There is no circumstance in which it makes sense to say, "OK, I'm bluffing," since the entire exercise depends on uncertainty.

4) I was impressed that Jeffrey Goldberg asked the following question, and that Obama responded as seriously as he did:

GOLDBERG: Is it possible that the prime minister of Israel has over-learned the lessons of the Holocaust?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the prime minister has a profound responsibility to protect the Israeli people in a hostile neighborhood, and I am certain that the history of the Holocaust and of anti-Semitism and brutality directed against the Jewish people for more than a millennium weighs on him when he thinks about these questions....

This is a crucial question, but one that is best asked by someone, like Goldberg, whose support for the welfare of Israel and the idea of Zionism is not in doubt. Obama dealt with it well.

5) So, on the whole a bravura performance. On the other hand, I share the concerns of my Atlantic colleagues Steve Clemons and Robert Wright about the dynamics of this moment's Netanyahu-Obama interactions.

The most positive way to describe US-Israeli relations is that they are close allies and partners. The more realpolitik description is that Israel is fundamentally dependent on long-term U.S. support and good will. In these circumstances it is graceless, to put it mildly, for the Israeli prime minister to take such a preemptory and borderline contemptuous tone toward the American president, while his de facto allies at the Emergency Committee for Israel launch a similarly dismissive and borderline insulting ad campaign about the president. Netanyahu is hardly being a chessmaster here; it is hard to imagine the leader of any other American ally assuming there would be no repercussions for behaving this way. Let us hope that the upcoming meeting and AIPAC session have a more respectful, partnerlike, and sober tone.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-atlantics-interview-with-obama-on-iran/253933/