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.
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.
Over the weekend I mentioned the full-throated endorsement, in a Washington Postop-ed by Joshua Muravchik, for going to war with Iran. In case you wonder whether I'm mischaracterizing it, the actual headline on the article was, "War With Iran Is Probably Our Best Option."
Since then the news focus has drifted, partly because of the impending election results from Israel. But the prominent play for such bellicose views was a powerful distillation of what I'm calling the Chickenhawk Nation syndrome: a country in which people breezily recommend war but are uninterested in the tedious details of who will do the fighting or whether the proposed war could be won. Thus some samples of reader reaction:
1) But it's just an op-ed! A number of readers pointed out that this was not the official view of the Post's editorial board but rather that of an outside writer. Indeed, that of a writer known for such views: Back in 2006 he published a very similar op-ed in the LA Times which began, "WE MUST bomb Iran." Today in The Nation Ali Gharib went into more aspects of what he called "The Worst Case for War With Iran You'll Read in a Major Newspaper."
A reader who recently left the military writes:
Generally I detest the "chickenhawk" attack—it seems to me Americans should be able to weigh in on military affairs even if they aren't veterans,and indeed nothing good would happen if you left this stuff to the military to think about. But this disgusted, demoralized former soldier is sick of how often "we can strike as often as necessary," [a line from the WaPo piece] means, "you can." And when you're done, we'll toss you to the curb for being stupid enough to have been a soldier, thankyouverymuch,
That said, though, I'm perplexed by the repeated attacks on the Post for publishing the letter ... The opinion Muravchik voices is very much out in the wild—I for one hear it voiced a lot—and the Post op-eds probably ought to be open to ideas not their own. I'm happier than not that they're letting people—like you—be aware that this idea is out there. That's their job.
Would many nuts (surely including Mr. Muravchik) freak out if some other country's paper wrote something similar? Sure we would. But that's not an argument for making our press monolithic, it's an argument for thinking harder about what it means when something shows up in some foreign news.
I agree that it's useful for this argument to be exposed in explicit form, and that op-ed pages exist in part to show a range of opinion. But anyone who has followed WaPo over the past 15 years knows that along with the WSJ it's had consistently the most hawkish editorial line in foreign policy among the mainstream media. Of the mainstream organs that had pushed hard for the Iraq invasion back in 2002, it is unusual in not having conducted a public "were we wrong?" reassessment, as many others did on the tenth anniversary of the war. Three months ago, Jacob Heilbrunn and and James Carden argued in the National Interest that the Post had become "the most reckless editorial page in America." That's why this article, in this setting, drew a different kind of notice than it would have elsewhere.
2) The quest for virality. A reader writes in about the craft elements of this piece and the decision to publish it.
I'm a journalist who was incensed by Muravchik's chickenhawk column, because it was so smug and so irresponsible.
The journalist part is important to this story. Here's the thing. This column is almost identical to one he wrote in 2006 for the Los Angeles Times. (The names have changed, but the structure and ideas are identical. Even some of the phrases are the same!)
Now, as a person, okay he's been beating the same war drum for ages, big deal. As a journalist, and a freelancer who absolutely struggles sometimes to get stuff out there, I just cannot stand that not only has [various epithets amounting to "he"] not come up with any new ideas in the past nine years, but he is getting uncritical publication from editors in the name of virality, because you know that's what the Washington Post is trying to do.
3) The enemy won't just sit there. Another Army veteran noticed the similarities to Muravchik's 2006 article and made the broader point about the problem with loose chickenhawk talk:
I would like to draw your attention to the fact Mr. Muravchik wrote a nearly identical Op-Ed in 2006 for the LA Times entitled "Bomb Iran" in the middle of the Iraq War... Fanning the flames of war is what he does.
I would also like to point out his confident assumption that war is something we do to other people, and they sit there and take it. Nobody strikes back in a time and manner of their own choosing; nobody has heard of asymmetric warfare. In reality, war is more like football where the opposition has its own strategy, and even takes the initiative once in a while.
Enough said. It is depressing beyond belief that people like Muravchik are enjoying national prominence again.
4) Intensify the contradictions: balanced budget versus more defense spending. Recent news stories, like this one in the NYT, have pointed out a growing tension within the GOP on budget issues. It pits those who are mainly interested in cutting the budget against those who are mainly interested in increasing defense spending — not to mention those who would like to do both. For another time: the way this tension worked out (or didn't) in the Ronald Reagan years. For the moment, this note from a reader:
Thank you for noticing the Washington Post's warmongering, for that is what it is. I would point out that for the previous 4+ years, the Washington Post editorial board has been screaming loud and long about the US debt, which it cites as rationale for cutting seniors' earned, and already less than survival level Social Security benefits.
If the US is so poor that it needs to steal from its grandparents, how can it afford a war with Iran, expansion of the war in Afghanistan, and probably a war with Russia, as well? Why does no one ask the WaPo editorial board these questions?
Tomorrow, we'll see how the results from Israel affect the negotiations with Iran—including the aspect almost never mentioned in US discourse, which is that five other countries besides the United States are currently party to the sanctions and possible deal. These include China and Russia, hardly patsies for U.S. positions, along with France, Germany, and the U.K. The idea that a letter from Tom Cotton and 46 other Senators would change the policy of the Russians or Chinese in a useful direction ... well, welcome to the big leagues, Senator Cotton.
Starting tomorrow in this space we'll look again at the A-10 and F-35 debates, which have had important new developments, and more reader reactions pro and con on the implications of a chickenhawk outlook.
When I published my "Tragedy of the American Military" article last month, some people said: No, it's an exaggeration to claim that war is an easy abstraction that people throw around without thinking through the consequences.
Maybe. But I give you the op-ed page of our capital city's main newspaper, which tells us:
"Probably" the best? Grrr. No, almost certainly not. Or so people who had thought about the practicalities argued 11 years ago—when it would have been easier than now.
Of course, I had reckoned without the strong argumentative power of this article's author, Joshua Muravchik. He assures us (emphasis added):
Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary.
Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Right, repeated bombing raids "as necessary." What could possibly go wrong with that approach? Yes, "surely the United States could best Iran." Surely we could polish off those backward Viet Cong. Surely invading Iraq would work out great. (I haven't taken the time to see if the author was a fan of invading Iraq, but I have a guess.) Surely the operational details of these engagements are a concern only for the small-minded among us.
How would we think about a "scholar" in some other major-power capital who cavalierly recommended war? How would we think about some other capital-city newspaper that decided to publish it? The Post's owners (like those of the NYT and other majors papers) have traditionally had a free hand in choosing the paper's editorial-page policy and leaders, while maintaining some distance from too-direct involvement in news coverage. Jeff Bezos, behold your newspaper.
* * *
I see from his Twitter bio that Muravchik has seven grandsons. I now have one. The idea that any of them would be involved in a "bomb as often as necessary" strategy??? Maybe the author feels differently, but for me this is appalling.
"I take the Iranian threat seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic. " A historian on the current state of debate.
1) "The historical equivalent of hollering." From a history professor at a university in the Southwest:
I am no fan of Bibi's, but I'd also like to note that this ahistorical use of the past makes historians' teeth itch. (I'll just blithely speak for the whole profession.) More centrally, both our political leadership and Israel's desperately need to develop a wider grasp of that past.
History offers up a depressingly vast number of small states perceiving danger from larger, well-armed, unpredictable neighbors. It provides at least that many examples of threats to continued Jewish existence in a given region. The constant reiteration of this particular event [the Nazi-era Holocaust] achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering.
To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpful—and if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.
Ask your average historian whether the past repeats itself. She'll tell you it doesn't -- only that it sometimes rhymes. The past can be a rich source of insight, surely. But much of what we ask our students to do centers around analyzing the complex causes of immensely complicated events. There are almost always at least three solid ways to interpret any given historical question. In short, the past is not a simplistic instruction manual for the present. It almost never provides any kind of predictive template.
There are other good reasons to argue with Binyamin Netanyahu beyond his misuse of the past. But since his perception of Iran is based at least in part on that misuse, I stand by my reason.
2) The modern history that got left out of the speech. Gary Sick, of Columbia University, has studied Iranian politics and policy for more than 40 years. After Netanyahu's speech he wrote an assessment, including its strength as a "barn burner of a campaign speech" for the Israeli elections, but also its weakness as a studiously misleading description of the real state of negotiations with Iran.
You don’t want to include anything that will detract from your central purpose [of campaigning in Israel, where the speech came on at 6pm local time]. So, what did Netanyahu leave out of his speech?
1. Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.
2. Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.
3. The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.
4. His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.
5. All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.
Are these simply oversights in the interests of time? Why did he leave out only the facts that cast doubt on his central thesis?
Read all of Gary Sick's piece; compare it with Netanyahu's end-days warnings about the emerging "bad deal"; and while you're at it think back to people who were telling you in 2002 and early 2003 to be skeptical of the end-days warnings about Saddam Hussein's imminent and existential threat to the world.
3) "It will always be 1938." From a reader in Massachusetts who identifies himself as Jewish:
Here is a simpler answer to your "Central Question" [of whether it's 1938 again] Bibi is basically stating that it will always be 1938 for Israel and the Jews of the world.
Here's the thing: I cannot but see that Rabin understood this when it came to the relationship of Israel with its neighbors, while Sharon came to appreciate it in terms of internal demographics, so each took tremendous risks to rebalance these unsustainable circumstances in a meaningful and durable way. Just to be clear, I don't think that Sharon was as constructive as Rabin, but he was probably sincere in his calculus.
When has Netanyahu ever done anything that comes close to this?
In Bibi's mind, does Israel—and do the Jewish people—lose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present? He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iran—or Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)—in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat? In my humble opinion, nothing could.
4) This note comes from a reader in Germany, and I am presenting it with original spelling. In context it's relevant to point out that Germany has wrestled with its own cataclysmic Nazi-era history much more earnestly than Japan has dealt with its Imperial-era record, China with its Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, or the United States with its treatment of Native American populations and its ongoing racial injustices. He writes:
I want to add the following thought:
(I am German)
What does the Netanyahu statement(s) about the possible prospect of Iran developing a nuclear military capability tell us? I understand, that the ruling political elite of Israel can’t imagine to live peacefully with it’s neighbours, including Iran, Iraque, if Israel does not have the military dominance including the option to annihilate a perceived opponent. If there might develop a situation in which a country, f.e. Iran, has the same nuclear option against Israel, this would be seen as inacceptable and an existential threat.
Even if the picture of Nazi-Germany in 1938 obviously does not apply, one might be inclined to look for some parallel in history. With my limited knowledge, I can only find the late 1940s and the political and military opposition of USA and the Sowjet Union. There was a time where the USA had a –proven- nuclear capability and the SU did not. Yet it did not immediately blow the world to pieces, when the Sowjets also developed the nuclear option. The military capabilities were just leveled. Cold war started and more than once came very close to become a hot one—but both learned and knew to avoid it, finally.
A leveled military stand-off is unacceptable for Israel? Well, then what? To my knowledge, there is not a single serious analyst, who would state, that a nuclear Iran immediately will start a lot of missiles to destroy Israel completely. Israel (and Iran) would “only” have to adopt a similar political process at eye-level – that would be the “unacceptable” new experience.
This view of Israel’s relationship to it’s neighbouring countries by the present political leadership is deeply troubling. South Korea is accepting the situation of a nuclear threat certainly for the sole reason of the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States—otherwise I would guess it would take long for South Korea to establish some nuclear option as well.
Why should the nations around Israel permanently accept the nuclear threat of Israel with no option on their side—since there certainly is no nuclear umbrella whatsoever for them, neither by USA, Russia, China, India nor Pakistan ?
1) "What kind of existential threat is this, if it won't change policy on the West Bank?" From a reader at a U.S. defense-related organization:
Let me add a couple more thoughts on Iran as an existential threat to Israel, or to be more precise, whether Netanyahu thinks Iran is an existential threat to Israel. I say, no he does not. Obviously, no one can read his mind, but we can see how he acts, and he does not act like a national leader possessed by such a belief.
A leader who truly believes there is an existential threat to his nation organizes his actions to counter that threat. In particular, he prioritizes his goals. Things which would otherwise be valuable to him have to take a backseat, and maybe even be dispatched with, if it harms or insufficiently aids him in countering the existential threat.
In Netanyahu’s case, what would that include?
It would mean forming stronger alliances against Iran that would buttress Israel’s position against their nuclear program, even at the cost of harming other interests close to Netanyahu’s heart. Principally, that would mean being more accommodating towards the Palestinian Authority (even if not Hamas). This would serve to remove an unnecessary irritant with the Obama administration, conceivably even with the European states imposing sanction on Iran. It would help open doors to the Sunni Arab states that Israel desperately needs to be publicly on its side on the Iran issue, and not just expressing their agreement in private. (Indeed, reports are that Israel wooed these states’ ambassadors to attend Netanyahu’s speech, but was turned down.
Does Netanyahu want to thwart development of an Iranian bomb? Surely. Is it worth any concessions on the West Bank? Apparently not. What kind of existential threat is it when maintaining Israel’s position on the West Bank supersedes rational actions to counter Iran?
So indeed let’s compare Netanyahu to Churchill. We can just mention briefly that Churchill’s main goal from at least May 1940 on was to stay on the best possible terms with the American president, which obviously could serve as a lesson to Netanyahu. But that was an easy one for him. Other things were a lot harder. Selling off parts of the British Empire to the Americans. Making deals with the devil named Stalin, allying himself with any and all partners to defeat Hitler and Germany. *That’s* what you do when you face a true existential threat.
I didn’t know Churchill and he wasn’t a friend of mine, but Netanyahu sure as hell isn’t a Churchill.
2) "This is where we disagree." A reader responds to this line from me, contrasting 1938 and 2015: "Nazi Germany had a world-beating military, and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel." The reader replies:
This is where we disagree. Iran is close and militarily strong, much stronger than any military Israel has faced before. Iran is as far away as Syria and Lebanon. In other words, on the Israeli border. Iran is much larger than Israel and has much larger manpower. While Israel spends more and has more military equipment, it is not that much more and, as stated before, Iran is likely stronger than any military Israel has ever faced before. Hezbollah did very well in its recent wars with Israel.
A war against Iran would be devastating for Israel, or at least that is what many Israelis believe. There is no handwaving "we'll crush them" belief, as you try to portray it.
3) "If it's really 1938 ..." That is the subject line on this reader's note:
The expanding empire that blames a minority (gays) for its problems is Russia, not Iran.
Iran is just a buffer state to Putin. See also Syria.
The best hope for world peace and nuclear proliferation would be joint US and Iranian military operations against ISIS. Second best is a good nuclear deal.
Instead of attacking Iran, we should be quietly moving tens of thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft to all three Baltic countries and Poland.
Even if Iran gets nukes it lacks the air force or navy to invade and hold a country. The same can't be said about Russia.
Several other readers wrote to say that they would have liked the speech better if it were about Putin and Russia.
4) A political shift. From a lawyer on the East Coast:
Netanyahu’s choice to embrace the Republican Party offers what may be a historic opportunity. Henceforth we will have one party, the Republican, asserting as it has for some time that the United States must follow the lead of Israel in all things—the “no daylight” cliché that has become Republican orthodoxy.
This creates an opportunity for the Democratic Party to tell voters something different. How about this: “We wish the people of Israel well. On many issues the interests of Israel and the United States are the same, and we will work together to advance those interests. But there may be times when we conclude, even after honest dialogue with Israel, that the interests of our two countries diverge. When that happens we will work to advance the interests of the United States rather than the differing interests of Israel.”
In the context of U.S.-Israel relations this sounds like a radical idea, but it expresses our view of every other country in the world, and there is no reason Israel should be different. This would perhaps put Democrats out of the running for Sheldon Adelson’s money, but they’re not likely to get any of that anyway.
5) "You are wrong." From a reader I know in the tech industry:
Unfortunately, you're wrong about Bib's fighting words.
You may or may not be right that Iran is fundamentally unlike Nazi Germany or that Iran's leaders are not suicidal. In the spectrum of risks, it's a big chance to take. Israel's population is 8.3M vs Iran's 77.2M vs USA 320.2M, so your statement "any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths" isn't all that reassuring. Is it possible that you do not appreciate the thinking of suicide bombers or Jihadis.
More importantly, Iran neither has to actually use the bomb nor use it directly to intimidate the free world. There are plenty of anonymous popular fronts who unfortunately would happily deliver an atomic suitcase to downtown DC. Oops. What are you going to do? Start a war?
I personally did not support Netanyahu's speaking to Congress, but the scariest quote in the 3rd Jeffrey Goldberg piece you linked to: "The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me—or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis—with confidence." David Horovitz, the thoughtful editor of [The Times of Israel],put it this way: "Netanyahu so wrong in confronting Obama, so right on Iran".
It's not about preventing any deal. Deep down, doubt it though you may, Netanyahu actually does go to sleep and wake up "genuinely believing that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership." And many many Israelis share what you must consider his "paranoia."
My Dad's [a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald] quote still stands, "When someone threatens to kill you, just believe him." Americans may find this hard to appreciate because of (1) superpower strength, (2) strategic size and depth, and (3) the doctrine of M.A.D. [Mutually Assured Destruction, a.k.a. nuclear deterrence] with relatively rational adversaries for the last 70 years.
I envy your inability to consider the E-word. [Existential]
6) What about the speech, as a speech? From another lawyer on the East Coast:
We can agree to disagree about 1938, protocols, etc., but given your role as former speechwriter, I was really more interested to read what you thought of the speech in terms of delivery, language, rhetoric, structure, etc.
I wasn't listening to it so much in those terms, or taking notes on phrasing and stagecraft. But overall as a speech, I thought it was very good. (Transcript from WaPohere.)
It was crystal-clear: "My friends, for over a year, we've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."
It was well and powerfully delivered, by someone who knows how to wait for and ride crowd approval, of which there was a lot.
It had a number of noticeable phrases that stayed just on the effective side of the effective-verging-toward-cutesy continuum. (I.e., I thought these were good, not too cute.) For instance, "It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb." And "Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. ... In this deadly game of thrones, there's no place for America or for Israel." And "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."
When listening to Ronald Reagan, I often disagreed with the policies he was presenting but respected his skill in presenting them. Same with Benjamin Netanyahu today.
After Benjamin Netanyahu's speech let me point you toward Jeffrey Goldberg's analysis. Let me also suggest, again, that differences on Iran policy correspond to answers to this one question: Whether the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to, or different from, the world of 1938.
I've gone into the 1938 question before, here and here, but in light of the theme's centrality to this speech I'll do so one more time. No parallel from history is ever perfect, as Ernest May and Richard Neustadt so memorably argued in Thinking in Time. But as that book also demonstrated, the idea of recurring historic episodes has a powerful effect on decision-making in the here and now. Disagreements over policy often come down to the search for the right historic pattern to apply.
Over the years Benjamin Netanyahu has very explicitly said, "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany." For instance, see the the first minute of the clip below. Netanyahu said he was asked to give a young man a one-sentence summary of the world situation. Netanyahu answered with those six words.
In less explicit form, the idea that Europe on the eve of the Holocaust is the most useful guide to the world in 2015 runs through arguments about Iran policy. (Ted Cruz made the explicit comparison after the speech.) And if that is the correct model to apply, the right "picture in our heads" as Walter Lippmann put it in Public Opinion, then these conclusions naturally follow:
• The threatening power of the time—Nazi Germany then, the Islamists' Iran now—is a force of unalloyed evil whose very existence threatens decent life everywhere.
• That emerging power cannot be reasoned or bargained with but must ultimately be stopped and broken.
• "Compromisers" are in fact appeasers who are deluding themselves about these realities—Neville Chamberlain then, Barack Obama now—and increase danger for the world by wasting time before the inevitable showdown. The tellers of harsh truths—Winston Churchill then, Benjamin Netanyahu now—are trying to spare the world far greater dangers by encouraging action before it's too late.
• The appeasers' blindness endangers people all around the world but poses an especially intolerable threat to Jews. Six million of them were slaughtered because Britain, France, and especially the United States took too long to confront Hitler or even open their doors to refugees. Today's 8 million residents of Israel could be at existential risk if a mad regime, committed to their destruction, gains nuclear weapons. If a national leader says he intends to kill you, you take that seriously.
• As a result of all these factors, no deal with such an implacable enemy is preferable to an inevitably flawed and Munich-like false-hope deal.
That's what follows if the most relevant history is pre-Holocaust, pre-World War II Europe, and nearly everything in Netanyahu's speech can be read in this light. Also, and crucially, it means that the most obvious criticism of the speech—what's Netanyahu's plan for getting Iran to agree?—is irrelevant. What was the Allies' "plan" for getting Hitler to agree? The plan was to destroy his regime.
* * *
If, on the other hand, you think that the contrasts with 1938 are more striking than the similarities, you see things differently. As a brief reminder of the contrasts: The Germany of 1938 was much richer and more powerful than the Iran of today. Germany was rapidly expansionist; Iran, despite its terrorist work through proxies, has not been. The Nazi leaders had engulfed the world in war less than a decade after taking power. Iran's leaders, oppressive and destructive, have not shown similar suicidal recklessness. European Jews of 1938 were stateless, unarmed, and vulnerable. Modern Israel is a powerful, nuclear-armed force. Moreover, the world after the first wartime use of nuclear weapons, of course by the United States, is different from the world before that point. That is, all of humanity has faced an existential threat from nuclear warfare through the past 60 years. Eliminating the weapons is the only lasting protection; while they exist, deterrence has been the only way to keep them from being used.
So if it's not 1938, then other models of negotiation can apply, like those the United States used with the Soviet Union through the decades of the Cold War, or with China from the 1970s onward. Iran is then another problematic state, rather than a uniquely Nazi-style menace. (Recall that before the Iraq War Netanyahu made similarly absolutist claims about the undeterrable threat of Saddam Hussein.) Negotiations will therefore include, as they have with other states, a combination of carrots and sticks; a recognition of interests on all sides; and an understanding that negotiated progress is long, halting, and imperfect, but better than the alternative of no progress at all.
And if it's not 1938, analyses like this one, from the Arms Control Association after today's speech, have weight:
[Netanyahu] argues that the agreement-in-the-making would make it a near "certainty" that Iran pursues nuclear weapons because it would retain a nuclear program. This is just plain wrong.
The reality is that the agreement the P5+1 are pursuing would increase Iran's theoretical "breakout" time to amass enough enriched uranium gas enriched to bomb grade from today's 2-3 months to more than 12 months, and it would do so for over a decade. It would block the plutonium path to weapons.
* * *
Here's what I understand the more clearly after these past few weeks' drama over Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech. These differences in historic model are deep and powerful, and people with one model in mind are not going to convince people with the other mental picture. (Indeed after I rashly used the "is it 1938?" theme in a tweet, there was a little storm of responses in this vein: "@trueholygoatSerious question: Why do you hate Jews so much?@JamesFallows")
Unless Iran's behavior worsens in ways we have not yet seen, to me and others in the not-1938 crowd it will seem more comparable to other difficult states, for instance the old Soviet Union, than to Hitler's Germany. And unless its behavior improves in ways we have not yet seen, to Netanyahu and many others it will seem like the old threat in a new form, all the worse because of the nuclear element.
That is one more reality for negotiators to deal with. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes at the end of his post-speech report, Obama's task in trying to broker a deal is hard in the best of circumstances, and there's a reasonable chance that after this speech it has become harder.
Why is Benjamin Netanyahu going ahead with his speech to Congress in a few hours' time, despite complaints from all quarters about the damage it is causing? It's a trickier question than it seems.
Was it simple tin ear on his side, and Ambassador Ron Dermer's? Based on the idea, as Netanyahu has preposterously claimed, that he "didn't intend" any affront to the sitting U.S. president and was surprised by all the ruckus? Were they that ill-informed, naive, trapped in a bubble, or plain dumb?
I find that hard to believe, from a leader who prides himself on his U.S. connections and an ambassador born and raised in the U.S. and schooled by Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. If Barack Obama addressed the Knesset and said he had a "moral obligation" to criticize Netanyahu's policies, would he then say he "didn't intend" any offense? Please.
Was it crass election-year politicking on Netanyahu's part, based on the need to get through this month's election in Israel and the faith that eventually things would sort themselves back out with the United States? All politicians know that if they don't hold office their platforms don't matter, and most convince themselves that what is good for them is good for their country. So maybe he rationalized that getting through this election was worth whatever bruised feelings it might cause.
On this I defer to the reporting of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, here, here, and here about the tensions between Netanyahu's electoral incentives and long-term U.S.-Israeli relations. From my point of view, this would be the most benign explanation. Countries act in their own self-interest, and so do politicians.
Was it because Netanyahu has been such a prescient, confirmed-by-reality judge of real-world threats that he feels moral passion about making sure his views are heard?
Hardly. I can't believe that he's fooled even himself into thinking that his egging-on of war with Iraq looks good in retrospect. And for nearly two decades Netanyahu has been arguing that Iran was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. When you're proven right, you trumpet that fact—and when you're proven wrong, you usually have the sense to change the topic. Usually.
Was it because Netanyahu has a better plan that he wants Congress or the United States to adopt in dealing with Iran? No. His alternative plan for Iran is like the Republican critics' alternative to the Obama healthcare or immigration policies. That is: It's not a plan, it's dislike of what Obama is doing. And if the current negotiations break down, Iran could move more quickly toward nuclear capacity than it is doing now—barring the fantasy of a preemptive military strike by Israel or the U.S. As Michael Tomasky put it in the Daily Beast:
Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too. ... Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Was it because Netanyahu actually believes what he is about to tell Congress: that his country faces an "existential threat" if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? These are fighting words on my part, but: I don't really believe this can be so.
Let me explain. No person, nation, or community can define what some other person (etc) "should" consider threatening. And after I argued last month that a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable for the world but not an "existential" threat to an Israel with its own large nuclear-weapons arsenal, I received a flood of mail summed up by one message from a man in Connecticut: "If you were a Jew, you would understand."
There is no answer to an identity-based argument; no one can completely stand in someone else's shoes; and the Holocaust is obviously the memory that trumps all others in discussing Israel's security. So if the voters of Israel want to define Iran's ambitions not as a problem but as an "existential threat," that's up to them.
But from the U.S. perspective I can say that the "existential" concept rests on two utterly unsupportable premises. One is that Iran is fundamentally like Nazi Germany, and the world situation of 2015 is fundamentally like that of 1938. Emotionally you can say "never forget!" Rationally these situations have nothing in common—apart from the anti-Semitic rhetoric. (To begin with: Nazi Germany had a world-beating military and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel.) The other premise is that Iran's leaders are literally suicidal. That is, they care more about destroying Israel than they care about their country's survival. Remember, Israel has bombs of its own with which to retaliate, so that any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths. As another reader, who also identified himself as Jewish, wrote:
Questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and his supporters)
Question 1: How does Iran survive the consequences of a nuclear attack of any scale on Israel?
Question 2: There is no question 2.
That Iran's current leaders are zealots is easy to demonstrate. That they are suicidal? For that premise there is literally zero evidence, as Peter Beinart recently wrote and as Israel's own security-services report.
* * *
Maybe I am giving Netanyahu too much credit. Maybe he genuinely believes everything listed above—that he's been right all along, that we need to hear his message, that Obama and his administration will take no offense, and that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership.
Maybe. But I think he is smarter than any of that. And thus the explanation that rings truest to me is one offered in The National Interest by Paul Pillar, a veteran of the CIA. It's relevant to note that Pillar was as presciently right about Iraq, concerning both the hyped nature of the threat and the disastrous consequences of the invasion, as Netanyahu was spectacularly wrong.
Pillar's assessment is that the ramped-up "existential" rhetoric is a screen for the real issue, which is a flat contradiction between long-term U.S. and Israeli national interests as regards Iran. It is in American interests (as I have argued) to find some way to end Iran's excluded status and re-integrate it with the world, as happened with China in the 1970s. And it is in Israel's interests, at least as defined by Netanyahu for regional-power reasons, that this not occur. As Pillar writes:
The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.
That is, as long as Netanyahu keeps the attention on nukes and "existential" threats, he's talking about an area where the U.S. and Israel might differ on tactics but agree on ultimate goals. Inflammatory as that topic is, it's safer than talking about re-integrating Iran as a legitimate power, where U.S. and Israeli interests may ultimately differ. As George Friedman wrote in a Stratfor analysis just now:
This is the heart of Israel's problem. ... Israel does not want to be considered by the United States as one power among many. It is focused on the issue of a nuclear Iran, but it knows that there is no certainty that Iran's nuclear facilities can be destroyed or that sanctions will cause the Iranians to abandon the nuclear program. What Israel fears is an entente between the United States and Iran and a system of relations in which U.S. support will not be automatic.
From this perspective, Netanyahu's bull-headedness makes sense, even beyond its short-term electoral value back home. He can be willing to endure complaints about breach of protocol and partisan alignment, if in so doing he can prevent the deeper divergence in national interests from becoming apparent. And if this episode has any value on the American side, it may be to promote freer discussion of the many areas where U.S. interests align with Israel's, and those where they diverge. We'll see if that starts with the planned response by a number of Democratic representatives just after the speech.
"The most frustrating part of watching this debate unfold is how many people don't seem to get the elementary fact that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is impossible. What is possible is discouraging them from wanting to get them or wanting to use them."
Yesterday I argued that it was time for Americans to drop or ignore the words "existential threat" when thinking about Iran and its nuclear potential. The words have become a slogan or incantation taking the place of thought. Now, response:
(1) A slew of readers have written in with variants of this sentiment:
The populated stretch of Israel from Haifa to Tel Aviv is about 55 miles as the crow flies. One or two nuclear weapons delivered in minutes by Iranian ballistic missiles and Israel would cease to exist, even if the Israelis were able to make a retaliatory strike.
Sure seem like an existential threat to me.
OK. That is "existential" if (a) by the same logic you acknowledge that South Korea is living with an "existential" threat now yet has not seemed terrified or terrorized by it, or motivated to preemptive attack; and (b) you assume that the leadership of Iran is literally suicidal, since any attack on Israel would bring a devastating, nuclear-armed counterattack. The current Iranian government does many destructive things. I have asked "existential" readers for evidence of suicidal moves on Iran's part, and am still waiting.
(2) From a veteran of the news business:
In dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, U.S. policymakers knew that the impact would be felt, almost solely, by Japanese citizens. Aside from all else, today’s geographic and demographic realities rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack on, say, Tel Aviv, impacting solely, or even mostly, Israeli Jews.
That is, in addition to incurring a devastating retaliation on Iran itself, Iranian leaders would know that in attacking Israel they would kill millions of mainly-Muslim others at the same time.
(3) From reader Robert Levine:
What I've never understood about Netanyahu's position is what he thinks the alternative might be. Pretty clearly he's been told that Israel does not have the ability to knock back Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons more than a few months, or he probably would have tried that a long time ago.
Any military action by the U.S. would be without allies other than Israel, and would permanently shatter any diplomatic track. And surely he's aware that such action would be of a "rinse and repeat" in order to keep Iran from moving forward—which, after an attack on their soil, they would inevitably do. The only permanent solutions would be invasion and occupation—or bombing them back to the Stone Age. Neither seems likely, much less wise. I'll bet Netanyahu sees at least the "likely" part.
The bottom line is that there is no practical way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons if it wants to, and that military action would make it more far more likely that they would want to. The most frustrating part of watching this debate unfold is how many people don't seem to get the elementary fact that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is impossible. What is possible is discouraging them from wanting to get them or wanting to use them. The second is solved by deterrence, which already exists, as you point out.
(4) From a reader with extensive experience outside the U.S.:
One of my pet peeves has always been this reflex in the U.S. media, politicians, and Beltway Wise Men types to constantly see history as a series of repeating events ... there is always a Munich 1938 happening somewhere or a new Hitler on the rise somewhere, etc., etc.
Is this something that is specific to the U.S. only or have you observed it in other countries and regions over the course of your career? I have family in Canada, U.K., Austria, Switzerland, Australia, Dubai, India, and Pakistan, and trust me, when we discuss politics or when I peruse the dailies or new sources over there, I rarely come across somebody arguing on the basis of these shoddy analogies.
Was just curious if in your experience, this "malady" is specific to the U.S. or if you've seen it in other places too?
My main answer is to direct readers to the elegant book by (my one-time professors) Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, about the use and misuse of historic analogies.
(5) "Why America’s Obsession With Iran’s Centrifuges Could Give Tehran the Bomb." Joseph Cirincione writes in Defense One about the practicalities of Iranian motivations, and capabilities, which matter much more than generalities on the "existential" risk. (Note: Defense One is part of the Atlantic Media empire.)
(6) From another reader with extensive professional experience in the Middle East:
If Israel were governed by referenda, the following three propositions would pass (with decreasing majorities):
1. Israel should be a Jewish State.
2. Israel should be a liberal democracy
3. Israel should retain control of the West Bank in perpetuity.
The problem is that Israel can have any two of the above, but not all three. Of Jewish Israelis, 20 percent would pick 1 and 2. Fifty percent don't bother themselves about these things, so long as life in Tel Aviv goes on as usual. Thirty percent would pick 1 and 3. The latter group's problem is they cannot say so in polite American society as it implies either apartheid or ethnic cleansing. In so far as Bibi has any principles at all, he (like his ally Naftali Bennet) is in the third group.
So what does he really think about Iran? An existential threat? Hardly; the man is an opportunist, not a fool. Good domestic politics? Certainly. But above all, it is an opportunity to kick the can down the road. If we Americans focus on Iran, we will not focus on the fact that all too many Israelis, and especially the present government very much want to pick options 1 and 3. And, who knows? Maybe in the context of another disastrous war, the American establishment might just be persuaded to look the other way as that choice's implications play themselves out?
Pretty cynical, I agree. But then cynicism is a valuable corrective in assessing the actions of cynical people.
* * *
Coming soon in this space: starting Monday, February 23, the return of the Chickenhawk chronicles. Coming Monday, March 9, the return of American Futures.
I have received a foreseeable flood of mail in response to the collection of Israel-and-Iran letters posted three days ago. I am not going to quote any more of it. As has been evident for many years, there is an unbridgeable chasm in outlooks on this topic. Having offered a sample of the current state of that divide, I'll say Enough for now.
This makes me all the more admiring of diplomats who try to find ways across the chasm, starting with what I saw from Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter at Camp David long ago (as dramatized in Lawrence Wright's play Camp David).
* * *
But I will weigh in on one more aspect of the Netanyahu-Obama-Iran controversy, namely the language with which we describe it. If you’d like background on how Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu came to this impasse, please read two reports by David Ignatius, here and here. If you’d like to consider some of the long-term ramifications of Israel’s leader saying that he is the “true” voice of Jews worldwide, including American Jews, please read M.J. Rosenberg in The Nation, or former Congressman Mel Levine and former Israeli Ambassador Oded Eran in Politico.
From Levine and Eran: “[The U.S.-Israel relationship] is especially threatened when an Israeli Prime Minister is seen as openly challenging the U.S president, asking the country and the Congress to side with a foreign Prime Minister over America’s President on an issue which potentially involves war and peace, a question about which the American public is anguished and divided.”
From Rosenberg: “Netanyahu’s action, in challenging the American president and claiming to speak for all Jews when he does so, suggests that it is Israel and not the country in which Jews live and vote that is their homeland. This idea is anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews. … He is coming to the US Capitol to tell Congress that it should not support a president who is working to secure an agreement that president believes serves national interests, among which he has repeatedly said is the security of Israel.”
* * *
On language: We've reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is "existential," as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world."
I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.
By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.
In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in the WSJ or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats.
Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is. Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.
Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.
Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea.
South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.
It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.
Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts.
The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary.
Think of this parallel: The full-tilt U.S. slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to north-versus-south combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities.
And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25. Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the U.S. and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.
I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervor of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone—in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk—or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.
* * *
After the jump I have a reader's note marveling at the way we've agreed to discuss Iran as a bottomless evil, rather than as a state with whom we should look for diplomatic ways to manage conflicts, as we have with China and the old Soviet Union—and as Begin did with Sadat.
A word of background: Over the past week, I've argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu's upcoming speech to a joint meeting of Congress is destructive as a matter of procedure and misguided as a matter of policy. For previous installments please see: why the speech itself is unprecedented; why I think Netanyahu's case about Iran is wrong on the merits; more about why he is wrong on Iran; and why it would make sense for congressional Democrats to follow VP Joe Biden's (and Representative John Yarmuth's) example and skip the speech.
A full roster of Iran-related posts is here. And the distillation of why I care about the episode at all is in this post, ending with:
Here's why I care. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective ...
In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime ...
The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu ...
Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.
I understand that people disagree about this. Today, as promised, a sample of opposing views.
What you see below, mainly from readers who identify themselves as Jews living in North America or Israel, comes in response to the reader I quoted here, on the question of "dual loyalty," a hoary slur against Jewish Americans. That reader, a Jewish American with family members who had died in the Holocaust, said that he didn't like "loyalty" labels. But he said that if anyone could be suspected of "dual loyalty" in this episode, it would be the (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) Republican politicians who had invited Netanyahu as a way to embarrass the Obama administration and make policy toward Israel a partisan issue.
You can agree with that or not. Unfortunately, many readers saw the words "dual loyalty" and immediately imagined, incorrectly, that the reader must have been advocating rather than rejecting the standard slur. This is life on the Internet I suppose; yet each time I encounter it I'm taken aback. With all that throat-clearing, here goes:
* * *
1) "So utterly offensive." From an American rabbi:
America's closest ally in the Middle East is Israel. Israel is the region's only true democracy. It is a nation with which we Americans share many western values. Like our democracy, Israel's is imperfect. But like our democracy, it aspires to fulfill the values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Israel and the United States share a strong strategic/defense/security relationship. It is because of these and many more core reasons that Prime Minister Netanyahu received sustained applause and standing ovations during his last speech before a joint session of Congress. The thesis presented by your previous commentator does nothing but promote the disgusting canard of Jewish dual loyalty. [JF note: although of course he was writing about non-Jewish "dual loyalty." But I'll stop with the comments now.]
As an American, a Jew and a religious leader I found the comments related to the charge of dual loyalty and your willingness to publish them so utterly offensive that I've decided to discontinue receiving blog posts.
2) "Clean hands." From another reader in the United States:
So you finish up your Bibi-bashing series by posting the opinion of a Liberal American Jew telling you how right you are about everything. Just the person to help you trot out the old dual loyalty canard with clean hands.
You used to be better than this.
3) "Support Israel against Iran or risk nuclear contamination of the planet." From a reader in New York, who didn't get into "dual loyalty":
Netanyahu is not coming to speak to Congress for the sake of the United States, but for the sake of Israel. Let us understand clearly that Israel is being surrounded by Iran and the US is meddling by assisting those who could thwart those developments: Hizb'Allah in Lebanon, Iranian and Hizb'Allah troops on the Syrian-Israel border in the Golan; Shi'a Iranian support of Sunni Hamas; and most recently Iranian support of Yemeni Shi'ites. If the Houthi in Yemen reach Bab el-Mandeb they could blockade Israeli shipping from the Israeli port of Eilat...
The consequences, if you are wrong about the intentions of Iran to wipe Israel off the map, will be a nuclear confrontation. One generally weighs costs versus benefits in serious matters. The survival of Israel for Israelis is a benefit. The cost of going nuclear, when that scenario could have been prevented, not only by past actions but by present actions as well, is far higher than political and military support for Israel before that terrible mushroom cloud materializes.
The bottom line: Support Israel against Iran politically and militarily or risk nuclear contamination of the planet. The very idea of pushing Israel into a weakened position in an attempt to control it is a fools errand given the duplicitous nature of Iranian chess playing on an international scale.
I wrote back to the reader acknowledging his note and saying that I disagreed with some of the factual claims made in parts I'm not quoting here. He replied:
Mr modest recommendation to you is to visit a classic Eastern European Yeshivah for one hour. Without the process in which the students engage each other nothing real ever happens - not in their world or in ours.
I replied saying: Yes, I think I've seen the same process at work in Jesuit high schools and some nondenominational debate courses, small-group tutorials, and Socratic-method classes. He wrote back saying, No, it's special to Yeshivahs.
4) "If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic." From another reader I believe to be in Israel. I have somewhat condensed what was a very long and detailed note:
There is not a single column you write that I agree with. But with this piece I had to email you and completely tear apart your shallow anti-Israel screed.
As for your reader, I have the same creds as your so-called Jewish reader. But what he established as creds does not provide him automatic entitlement as a Jew. In fact this person is the typical secular American who happened to be born Jewish.
Based on his comments he long ago traded in his belief in his religion and heritage for the belief in a false idol called left wing socialism which is the new liberalism. That is irrefutable. Every Jewish service prays for the homeland of Jews of Jerusalem and Israel. There is no air between being Jewish and supporting Israel. If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic. Martin Luther King Jr. said that once.
But the anti-Semitic left have created a false narrative to give cover to these fake Jews to separate themselves from Israel.
Your friend says:
“I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic.”
Maybe he missed this, but Israel IS a Jewish state and the U.N. mandate stated as such. A reason for such a state is to prevent another holocaust and that came to use with Jews leaving the USSR and now from Europe. Also his characterization of the political parties shows he has no clue what Israel is or what actually happens there but is simply picking up the narrative of the anti-Semitic left
“Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye.”
What policies are those? He does not say but once again gratuitously parrots the anti-Semitic left. [Much detail on occupation and settlements.]... .
There is nothing illegal about what Israel is doing in the West Bank and your so-called Jewish friend simply uses radical Islamic and left wing anti-Semitic propaganda – and not facts.
“Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest”
Another shallow anti-Semitic claim and he provides no support for. The fact is that Israel has done a lot for the U.S. even when it was not in their interest.
“Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus”
Again your so-called Jewish friend provides zero evidence which is what people on the left do. They demagogue without support. And to call Netanyahu’s (the leader of Israel) speech to a joint session of Congress a “circus” pretty much disqualifies this abhorrent person as a Jew. That is the view being perpetrated by Obama.
“Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.”
Really? Why because Obama and his left wing anti-Semitic thugs say so? Try the rest of the country who disagree with you and most are not Jews.
Here is the real issues for someone who claims to be an American Jew.
Why was every one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers while he was a candidate in 2008 all with anti-Israel credentials which made him different than the other Democratic candidates?
Why was Obama’s first call in the oval office to the head of the PLO?
Why did Obama’s first trip to the Middle East include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and intentionally skipped over Israel?
Why did Obama feel it necessary to embarrass and personally denigrate Netanyahu publicly and treat him like a junk yard dog?
Why did Obama call the Paris deli attack “an act of random violence” and intentionally ignore that it was an anti-Semitic attack?
Why has anti-Semitism risen dramatically here and around the world coincidentally while Obama has been President?
Why is Obama the first American President to be overwhelmingly disliked and not trusted by Israelis?
Your so-called Jewish friend likely voted for Obama twice and ignored that he spent 20 years in the most anti-Semitic church in the country and considered its pastor his spiritual mentor. He ignored the fact that among Obama’s other mentors were Rashif Khalidi and Khalid Al Mansour. Your friend is typical of far too many American Jews who have capitulated to the socialist left and traded in their religion and heritage for loyalty to enemies of their religion and heritage.
Because you happened to be born Jewish does not mean you are.
5) "You are wrong." From a reader in Israel:
1. Your analogy of China/Nixon and Iran/Obama is wrong. China was not planning to destroy Taiwan and murder all is citizens. As Obama begged/demanded that Israel not take military action when it was possible, there is an obligation to make Israel part of the decision process today. The current perception in Israel is that Obama will throw us under the bus for the sake of his "legacy".
2. Why do American journalists insist on quoting Haaretz; it is read by less than 5% of the population, the extreme left wing anti-zionists. It is not representative of mainstream thinking and never had anything good to say about the country, it's leaders, it's people or its religion. Quoting it reduces your credibility outside of that small elitist community.
6) Maybe you are right. Just to mix things up, and as a reminder of the heated debate within Israel, a note on this same point from a reader in Jerusalem:
I wholly agree with both your analysis and comparisons. The Nixon-Taiwan reference is truly illuminating for me.
My reservation, though, is that your accounts advocating to let Bibi come and speak in Congress neglects to take into account the ways in which American politics play a direct role in our national politics, particularly the coming general elections.
Bibi has contributed more than any other leader on both sides of the ocean to transforming Israel from a bi-partisan issue to one of great contention. He actively interfered in the 2012 presidential campaign in favor of Mitt Romney. He also managed to hold a joint event with John Hagee on the eve of VP Biden's visit to Jerusalem (a tactic he already used back in 98, when participating in a Jerry Falwell event before coming to Clinton's White House). All of this is happens while Netanyahu remains extremely reluctant to respond positively to most foreign policy initiatives coming from the Administration.
You write: "let's think carefully about American national interests". I urge you to do exactly that, and remember that unlike Nixon and Taiwan, the US has other interests down here in our neighborhood - the issue of Palestine and its contribution to instability; Jordan's refugee problem and the counter-IS coalition more generally; Egypt's delicate post-Mubarak politics. These interests are compromised by letting Bibi use the Congress podium as the ideal setting for his campaign ads.
All call, in other words, for a less tolerant approach to Israel's contemporary Chang Kai Shek.
After the jump is another long note from a reader in the United States who professes herself (understandably) sick of all sides in this discussion.
I intend to give the Netanyahu speech situation a rest after this, though there will be more to say on the risks and merits of the underlying negotiations with Iran. (For past items on the speech controversy, follow the links in this post.) But here is one last reader message on the speech itself. It's from someone whose real identity I know but am not using here. He lives in the western U.S.
Let's get the disclaimers out of the way right from the start: I'm Jewish, or at least I was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzvah, and continue to consider myself culturally Jewish.
A substantial portion of my parents' families died in the Holocaust. One branch survived because they emigrated to Palestine in the early twentieth century. That branch still lives in Israel and they have all served in the Army and many have fought during the numerous wars, starting with independence. My father's family spent a year as refugees in France until a miracle yielded entry visas to the US. My mother's family evacuated at Dunkirk. I've visited family in Israel twice as an adult. So, if you wonder if I appreciate the importance of Israel to Jews around the world, my credentials are solid.
That said, I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic. Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye. Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest (which of course is how any rational country behaves, putting its own interests first.)
Perhaps all the more ironic, a frequent anti-Semitic (or at least anti-American Jew) canard is that American Jews place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US (a claim one doesn't hear applied to western European immigrants, like the Irish, in spite of decades of support for IRA terrorists).
So here we have Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus, yet the Republicans behind this spectacle are not being questioned about their loyalty to the US for apparently placing Israel's interests ahead of the US. And of course, Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.
So, when the cameras show who attends and who doesn't, who applauds and who doesn't, let's not think about who is pro-Israel or anti-Israel, let's ask who is pro-American or anti-American.
I know from other correspondence with this reader that his aim is not to launch some different sort of re-directed loyalty witch-hunt. Rather it is to ridicule or challenge the general idea of "loyalty tests" and instead to concentrate on the sanest long-run pursuit of U.S. national interests.
To my mind those interests lie with seeing if an acceptable deal with Iran can be found—a prospect that cannot possibly be helped by the spectacle of a foreign leader addressing Congress to criticize the administration's approach to negotiations, while those talks are still underway. Again, imagine Congress inviting Chaing Kai-shek to address a joint meeting on the problems with the Nixon opening to China, while the negotiations that would lead to the Shanghai Communique were still going on. No American strategist would have thought that was a good idea at the time, and similar logic applies now. But I've made this point already and will move on.
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Time for the periodic housekeeping note about reader mail. Unless specified otherwise, I consider any incoming message to be available for quotation here. I don't have an open-comments section, because I don't want to commit the time necessary to moderate and tend it (as Ta-Nehisi Coates has so impressively done). But I try to give an idea of the range of response by quoting samples of what's come in.
I generally want/need to know a reader's real name before quoting a message. That's to avoid trolling, phony claims about background or identity, false-flag-style arguments, etc. But I don't ever use a reader's real name on our site unless agreed in advance.
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Update: I've gotten some querulous traffic to the effect of, What's it to you? Why are you singling out Netanyahu? Etc.
The obvious first-stage answer is of course that John Boehner and Ron Dermer are the ones who have singled out Benjamin Netanyahu, by setting him up for an unprecedented appearance. But beyond that, why do I care?
Here's why. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective. Or at least from my U.S. perspective, as developed over the years:
In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime. The Vietnam War was more damaging overall, but also more understandable. As laid out by Les Gelb and Richard Betts in The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked and by other authors elsewhere, the eventual calamity of the Vietnam war was the result of step-by-step decisions each of which seemed "rational" at the time. Iraq, by contrast, was a wholly unnecessary self-inflicted wound.
The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu. Read this astonishing Haaretz story for more on that front.
Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.
So when the Middle East is not my beat, why do I care about this episode? Because we can't stand to drift into another of these wars.
(b) the specific critique Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to advance in this setting, which, based on his statements over the past decade, is likely to involve such impossible conditions and strictures for an "acceptable" deal with Iran as to torpedo the negotiations. Not to mention ...
(c) the idea that a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations merits serious consideration for either the U.S. or Israel.
So, factor that in as you will. A recent crop of developments:
1) A Congressional statement you really should read. Vice President Biden showed one way of distancing himself from this spectacle, through the super-important though not-yet-specified "foreign trip" he'll need to make just when Netanyahu is here.
Seriously, this is worth reading, for what it says both about the specifics of U.S.-Israeli relations and about larger institutional dangers in the conduct of foreign policy as a whole. Here are a few samples.
On the conversion of a "policy" speech into a political and lobbying stunt, with emphasis added:
It is both sad and ridiculous that attending this speech will be used as a litmus test for support of Israel. In short, roll will be taken, and some outside organizations have even threatened potential absentees with electoral repercussions ...
It will become a matter of score-keeping as to who stands up and applauds and who doesn't. Having visited Israel only months after Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, I know how much political impact these scenes have in that country. There is pressure to join the applause even if a member does not agree with statements made.
On the "informational" value of the appearance:
We know what he is going to say. Netanyahu’s position on the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program is not a secret. Like many other members, I have been visited by the Israeli ambassador and understand what they want and how that differs from what U.S. negotiators are attempting to accomplish.
The Prime Minister has plenty of other places to express his opinions. In fact he has done so many times.
On interference in U.S. policy-making by a foreign leader:
Speaker Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress specifically to refute President Obama’s position. I will not contribute to the impression that this body does not support the President of the United States in foreign affairs.
Congress has a broader responsibility than the security interests of Israel. While it certainly is important that we understand the Israeli perspective, the American people will hear only Netanyahu’s perspective, creating a public perception that could undermine a broadly supported resolution to the Iranian nuclear situation.
This is as gutsy and non-boilerplate a statement as you're going to see from any congressional office. The way to encourage more such behavior by elected officials is to recognize it when it occurs.
2) Why the obligatory applause lines can be the most damaging parts of the speech. From a reader who makes a point parallel to Yarmuth's:
I just had a flash of what that address to a joint Congress will look like. All members must attend, lest they be branded anti-Israel. And, in the fashion of a State of the Union address, Netanyahu will deliver his speech with the intention to evoke applause. And, like the State of the Union address, the cameras will pan, and if a member is seen not applauding to a key policy point, he/she will be branded anti-Israel. Netanyahu will have been given an extreme American political power, given only to one other person on earth: the President of the United States ...
This, for me, brings into clear focus the patent harm caused by Citizens United: The ability of money to highjack [sic] American political processes is a dangerous thing. And the, shall I say, chutzpah of Israel, a foreign power, to inject itself (with disrespectful swagger) into the heart of the American political process should be seen as a real harbinger of those dangers. How much of the dark money being invested into 501(c)(4)'s has its origins in foreign treasuries? Israel is a potent example of how a savvy foreign power can, with careful political management and financial investment, hijack American politics. The analogy to a virus or a cancer springs to mind. And the vector is money. And its ability to neutralize our own self-protective evaluative and deliberative mechanisms very directly resembles an auto-immune disorder ...
And I must make what seems to have become the obligatory disclaimer: I must clarify that I am not anti-Israel, anti-Jew, anti-semite [sic]; I'm actually part Jewish by culture, though not by faith. And I do think that the interests of the Jewish state are very important. But that should never displace a clear-headed perspective on what American interests are, and an independent evaluation of Israel's policies and actions, on our terms.
As the doubly partisan nature of this spectacle becomes more obvious—partisan in U.S. terms, as part of the struggle between Obama and the Republicans, partisan in Israel as its own election nears—the case for Democrats simply absenting themselves becomes more powerful.
As an intellectual matter, there is nothing they will learn by attending the speech that they haven't already heard. As a matter of short-term politics, they put themselves and their president in a no-win situation just by showing up. (If they don't applaud, they "lose." If they do applaud, they "don't win.") And as a question of long-term governance, everything about the situation is bad. As Josh Marshall argued two days ago, emphasis in original:
The idea of a foreign head of state appearing before Congress as an advocate in a debate that is a matter of great controversy within the United States is basically without precedent. This is quite apart from the equally unprecedented idea of a foreign head of state addressing Congress to advocate against a sitting President. Mainly this is because foreign heads of state or government are by definition not American.
Why enable any of this? Why agree to serve as props for what has become a GOP-Likud stunt? If Vice President Biden and Representative Yarmuth can stay away, so can the rest of you.
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3) I've also received a lot of mail on the merits of the Iran negotiations. More about that shortly. For now, one more reader note on an under-covered aspect of the situation:
I'm not as bothered by Netanyahu's speech as you are, but I am disgusted more generally by the ongoing efforts to sabotage negotiations and I don't see it covered much elsewhere in my media universe. Anyway, my point is below:
It seems to me that Israel's chest thumping about war has moved the center of the Iran debate into such extreme territory that crippling economic sanctions are treated as merely symbolic. Many of the same politicians who take sanctions so lightly talk a lot about the suffering in America caused by the Great Recession (and rightly so). Well, we've done much worse things to Iran's economy than the recession did to ours. We've caused immense human misery in the Iranian population. Is economic suffering only real when it happens in America?
Maybe after weighing the risks and benefits, sanctions were indeed the right thing to do (particularly if these negotiations succeed). I'm skeptical but uncertain. But I am fairly certain that the sanctions aren't weighing on the consciences of those who are inflicting them to the degree that they should.
In the realpolitik of this moment, sanctions seem the only plausible alternative to talk of outright military confrontation. Thus for me they are clearly the lesser evil. But the reader rightly points out how taken-for-granted they have become.
I have been on the road and off line during the festering of the Netanyahu speech drama. Updates:
1) Now that Even Abraham Foxman™ and Even Commentary Magazine have said that the speech is a bad idea, it has seemed a matter of time before Benjamin Netanyahu develops a cold or hangnail, has a pressing last-minute commitment, needs to wash his hair, or has some other reason not to become the first foreign leader ever to criticize existing U.S. policy address before a joint meeting of Congress. (See past foreign-leader addresses here.)
2) The most valuable positive idea for moving past this imbroglio comes from Matt Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He suggests:
If it really is that important for Congress to hear from Netanyahu in person, I propose this conflict-ending solution: Invite Netanyahu to testify.
I recognize that having foreign heads of state testify before Congress is not something that’s usually done, but having foreign heads of state attack the President of the United States’ foreign policy agenda before Congress isn’t something that’s usually done, either. [JF note: Actually, never.] Not only would this arrangement address concerns that Netanyahu might use his speech to Congress for his own domestic political advantage, it would also give members of Congress the opportunity to ask questions and probe his views more deeply.
Sign me up.
3) Netanyahu himself apparently is not deterred. According to Haaretz:
Interesting to speculate on the reaction to any other international figure who purported to "speak for all Catholics," "speak for all Sunnis," "speak for all Buddhists"—or even, for a religion with a comparable number of worldwide adherents as Judaism, "speak for all Mormons." Additionally interesting given that Netanyahu manifestly does not even "speak for all Israelis."
4) A week ago I argued that Netanyahu's presentations on Iran boil down to "it's always 1938," which is in fact the way he put it at one point. From a reader who agrees:
Another reason it is not 1938 is Iran has no borders with Israel. Germany, on the other hand bordered Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark.
Israel to Iran, 1000 miles.
So if Iran was developing weapons, it would need accurate delivery systems. It does not have these.
Perhaps one day a wise Iranian leader will say we will end all our atomic programs and destroy all materials if Israel does the same. Then what?
4A) From another:
As far as the threat of an actual nuclear altercation between Iran and Israel, some people like to refer to former Iran President Rafsanjani’s musing that in such instance 8 million Iranians might die, but all of Israel would be destroyed.
Really? Israel is thought to have 200 deliverable warheads. Tehran alone has 8 million inhabitants. The biggest six-dozen-plus cities in Iran, including Tehran, contain 30 million people. Israel can not only take out all of those cities and people but render the rest of Iran as habitable as Chernobyl.
In the meantime, regarding the destruction of Israel, nuclear kill zones have a nasty habit of being circular. In order to fully destroy Israel with nuclear weapons, Iran would also have to destroy much of Jordan, Lebanon, and the most inhabited western part of Syria, to say nothing of 4.4 million mostly Muslim Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and 1.7 million mostly Muslim Israeli Arabs. So who in fact has the most effectively deployed human shields?
4B) From Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, in an interview with The Times of Israel:
Netanyahu commits a “terrible mistake” by defining the Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a matter of life or death, Halevy said, “because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel. I think the Iranians can cause us a lot of damage, if they succeed in one way or another to launch a nuclear device which will actually hit the ground here in Israel. But this in itself would not bring the state of Israel to an end.”
‘Netanyahu preaches despair as a motive for making aliyah to Israel and this is abhorrent’
Speaking of Iran’s nuclear drive in those existential terms tells the Iranians that Israelis believe Tehran actually has the power to destroy the Jewish state, said Halevy, who spent most of his career in the Mossad, served also as Israel’s ambassador to the EU, and was national security adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon.
“It’s almost inviting them to do so, because they will say, ‘If the Israelis themselves believe that they are vulnerable and can be destroyed then that is sufficient basis to go and do it.’”
5) On the other hand, from a reader who disagrees:
We don't know what Netanyahu will say in front of Congress, and I doubt he will be directly critical of the White House. He is not seeking to influence a U.S election, he is seeking to influence U.S policy.
Given that Israel has been our partner in trying to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, and has not taken military action to attempt to stop uranium enrichment, they have been acting under the administration's negotiating umbrella. Why should Congress not hear from a partner who believes we may go astray on regional proliferation? Particularly as the administration is purported to be seeking a way to structure any agreement so as not to require Senate approval.
This is an existential issue for Israel in the near term, and for much of the world should a nuclear arms race develop in the Middle East as a result of Iran going nuclear. I can think of few topics more important for our elected leaders to spend their time on, perceptions of comity notwithstanding.
I'll just say: If Netanyahu wants to influence U.S. perceptions, he has never been lacking for outlets. And on this trip a Congressional hearing would be an ideal venue.
6) On the general prospect of an allied foreign leader addressing a joint meeting of Congress to dissent from existing U.S. policy—something that, I will say once again, has never happened before—here is a message representing many I have received:
I have been thinking about Iran as you have as a potential breakthrough based on sanctions working and long term reality, demographics and economics.
The total disrespect and dog whistle play to the meme of our "black, Kenyan, socialist, Muslim loving, community organizer, weak, appeasing, naive" President is what is at work here. The entire inane racist meme is at work here. If he were white Boehner would NEVER have done this.
I hope we can reach an accord with Iran because the chicken Hawks have no clue what a real war would look like with a real, armed nation like Iran with a huge, well equipped army would look like. WW III could explode here and I can see an early casualty being a US aircraft carrier sunk early on sending a message to the world we are not invincible ... besides losses in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
Tom Clancy probably wrote this book... Iran goes up ...Israel goes rogue... China goes for Taiwan and the Seikaku isles, Russia blitzes Ukraine....and so it begins....but the right is so oblivious to the real world they cannot accept we cannot win that war ...no one will.
6A) More bluntly in the same vein, from another reader, in Texas:
Forgive the language I'm about to use, but I think it's necessary.
With all due respect, I think you and lots of others have this issue all wrong. The title of the article on this subject which needs to be written is "The President as Nigger."
The North did in fact win the Civil War but now that the Republicans have won both houses, I think their goal is to win it back and the contemporary Confederates sure aren't going to cotton to any black President.
Back during the heyday of the filibuster era, I tried always to note that the rules governing Senate filibusters hadn't dramatically changed and weren't necessarily a huge problem. What had changed were the norms about how often the filibuster would be used. By its two-votes-per state structure, the Senate has always over-represented certain minority interests. And through the centuries the filibuster and other procedural tools have been there as protections for minorities in situations where they felt particularly threatened by what the majority wanted.
The innovation of then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was to disregard the previous norm that the filibuster should be a special-use-only tool. Starting in 2006, when Democrats won control of both House and Senate, most bills and nominations became subject to a 60-vote "supermajority" requirement in the Senate. This practice became so routine that news organizations began saying that a bill was "defeated" when it got 57 or 58 votes. I complained about the Republicans' misuse of the tool, and will do so about the Democrats if they try something similar. (Which for the next two years they presumably won't, since President Obama has his still-practically-unused veto power to exercise if need be.)
Now, two ongoing questions of rules-and-norms. The first involves diplomacy and features our friends Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, and Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It's perfectly normal for one country's leaders to have a rooting interest in the outcome of some other country's election or power struggle. When my wife and I were living in China during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, officials we spoke with there were clearly hoping that John McCain would win so Republicans would stay in the White House. (Explanation some other time.) This year, Germany and other countries were closely watching the elections in Greece. It's obvious that the Obama administration would be delighted if the Netanyahu era came to an end when Israelis vote next month.
What is not normal is for one country's governments openly to meddle or take sides in another (friendly) country's internal politics. Obama is not heading to Israel to address the Knesset on what's wrong with Netanyahu. He did not choose as the U.S. ambassador someone with a background in anti-Likud politics. When the CIA has over the years meddled illicitly in elections, that is seen as a bad thing.
This is the diplomatic norm that Dermer and Netanyahu seem happily to have disregarded. Dermer was until fairly recently a U.S. Republican-party operative; as Bernard Avishai argues in an excellent New Yorker item, for all practical purposes Netanyahu has decided to become one as well. As Avishai puts it:
In their wars of ideas and political networks, Netanyahu’s Likud and his American supporters are an integral part of the Republican Party’s camp, and Israel is too involved in the American political landscape and defense establishment for Netanyahu to be considered as distant as a foreign leader. Netanyahu and Obama are at odds not only diplomatically, in their positions on Iran, but in their affiliated political parties and overarching strategic visions
No foreign leader, ever, has done what Netanyahu is preparing to do: criticize the existing foreign policy of the U.S. government before a joint meeting of Congress. There has been no explicit rule against outside leaders doing so. No one has thought to try.
The disregard for diplomatic norm and precedent is specific enough to Dermer and Netanyahu that the delegitimizing effects won't spread to allies or diplomats, and probably not to US-Israel relations under different administrations. But the episode shows what disregarding a norm can do.
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The other norm contest involves the Supreme Court. Since Marbury v. Madison, the court's power as final arbiter has been accepted. But norms have usually kept Justices away from outright partisan-politics activism—this is one reason they don't applaud during State of the Union addresses—and centuries worth of legal reasoning have evolved to keep them from meddling in areas better left to other parts of governance.
That is the outlook Chief Justice John Roberts so memorably, and in retrospect it seems so cynically, expressed in his "I just call balls and strikes" testimony at his confirmation hearings. In yesterday's NYT, Linda Greenhouse had a powerful essay about why the norms keeping the Supreme Court out of direct party activism, already so frayed by Bush v. Gore, are at further risk under Roberts in the latest Obamacare case, King v. Burwell.
I hope you read the whole essay, whose main point I'll oversimplify as the following: Justices obviously and properly disagree on the interpretation of Constitutional principles. But they have practically no disagreements on statutory interpretation, that is, on how to read the letter of existing laws. The King v. Burwell challenge to Obamacare rests on a statutory-interpretation claim that all nine Justices have rejected in other circumstances: namely the opponents' argument that specific words or clauses in a law should be read in complete isolation from the context of the law as a whole. So if the conservatives accept that reason to overturn programs in which millions of people are already enrolled, it will show that they are not conservatives at all but merely activist Republicans.
As Greenhouse writes:
I said earlier that this case is as profound in its implications as the earlier constitutional one. The fate of the statute hung in the balance then and hangs in the balance today, but I mean more than that. This time, so does the honor of the Supreme Court. To reject the government’s defense of the law, the justices would have to suspend their own settled approach to statutory interpretation as well as their often-stated view of how Congress should act toward the states ...
I have no doubt that the justices who cast the necessary votes to add King v. Burwell to the court’s docket were happy to help themselves to a second chance to do what they couldn’t quite pull off three years ago. To those justices, I offer the same advice I give my despairing friends: Read the briefs. If you do, and you proceed to destroy the Affordable Care Act nonetheless, you will have a great deal of explaining to do—not to me, but to history.
No country could ever come up with laws quickly enough to cover all these contingencies. Which is why it's important to defend the norms, and to point out when they're at risk.
The Israeli prime minister argues that the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to that of 1938. Americans can give him a hearing, and then pursue a more reasonable policy based on less far-fetched comparisons.
Here is a look at a big controversy of the past week, and of the week to come. Namely, the plans developed by House Speaker John Boehner, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a Netanyahu speech before Congress on the need for further sanctions on Iran.
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1. How unusual is this, really? Very unusual, and more than most discussion so far has emphasized. In fact, if there is any precedent for a foreign leader addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress with the obvious intention of criticizing the policy of the current U.S. administration, I haven't come across it.
You can see a list of some major past addresses here. Many were honorific or celebratory, for instance Corazon Aquino as the first post-Marcos leader of the Philippines or Vaclav Havel after he became president of a free Czechoslovakia. One appearance that might theoretically have been contentious—Socialist President Francois Mitterrand of France appearing at a time of numerous U.S.-European frictions during the Reagan administration—in fact was harmonious and solidarity-supporting.
To come up with something like the Netanyahu event, you would have to imagine Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, after they had won full Democratic control of the Congress in 2006, inviting in a European leader who had opposed the Iraq war to scold George W. Bush over that war or his anti-terror policy. If Pelosi and Reid had dared do that, you know that the GOP leadership, Fox News, and the WSJ editorial page would have competed with Dick Cheney to see which of them could be most fervent in saying that this amounted to treason-in-time-of war.
Here's another example: Imagine that the Democratic-controlled Congress of the early 1970s, under House Speaker Carl Albert and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, had invited Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek to give an address denouncing the Nixon administration's opening to mainland China.
Obviously that didn't happen, and as best I can tell nothing quite like Netanyahu's planned address ever has before.
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2. Was the administration's miffed reaction a surprise? In a news-making interview with TheAtlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Ambassador Ron Dermer contended that he and his prime minister had no idea that the speech would be seen as disrespectful to a sitting U.S. president.
To which anyone who knows about American politics should say: Oh, please. For reasons based on point No. 1, above.
Netanyahu is practically an American, after his years at Cheltenham High School, MIT, and the Boston Consulting Group, plus his countless visits and dealings with politicians here. Dermer was actually born and raised American and worked on congressional tactics with Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. These people certainly know the lay of the land in Washington and elsewhere. In saying that they are shocked, just shocked, to have an insulting gesture toward a sitting president taken as an insult, they are asking us to believe either that they are unbelievably naive, or that they are simply unbelievable. Take your pick.
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3. On the merits of things, what year should we be thinking of? Is 2015 more like 1938? Or like 1971? The heart of the disagreement over Iran turns on what Prime Minister Netanyahu himself (and others, for instance, here, here, and here) have described as the belief that we're living through 1938 again. Nine years ago, in a speech in Los Angeles, Netanyahu laid out his views about Iran in just those terms. As an account in Haaretz put it:
"It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," Netanyahu told delegates to the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, repeating the line several times, like a chorus, during his address. "Believe him and stop him," the [then] opposition leader said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "This is what we must do. Everything else pales before this."
While the Iranian president "denies the Holocaust," Netanyahu said, "he is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state."
In case the implications aren't obvious, let's spell them out. If it's 1938 again, then the threatening power of this moment is equivalent to Nazi Germany; the ambition of that power should be understood as the full extermination of its foes, starting with the Jewish people; there can be no compromise with flat-out evil; the only failure lies in being too slow to recognize the threat; and anyone who dreams of compromise risks being seen by history as similar to the man who shook hands with Adolf Hitler in 1938, Neville Chamberlain.
From my point of view, this comparison is imprecise, to put it mildly. In fact, it's crazy. By the late 1930s, Nazi Germany had perhaps the strongest military in the world and one of the most powerful economies. Today's Iran is not close to having either. Hitler's Germany was so relentlessly expansionist that 10 years after he took power, the world was in flames. Iran, by contrast, has been ruled by Islamists for well over three decades yet has not expanded its borders by one inch. The Germany of 1938 was perfecting the obscene science of internal death camps. No one has suggested anything remotely comparable about repression in Iran. The position of a nuclear-armed state of Israel, the dominant military power in its region, is vastly different from that of Europe's persecuted Jewish population of the 1930s. The record of Iran's leaders contains no evidence of the will-to-national-suicide that an attack on Israel would entail. Today's Iran is not yesteryear's Reich.
But as I say, that's just me. Benjamin Netanyahu is not asking me for strategic advice on this or a range of other subjects. As long as his countrymen keep him in power, they can choose to make his "it's always 1938" outlook the basis of Israel's policy. It's their country and their right.
Yet their misperception, however sincere, should not be the basis of American policy. From the U.S. national point of view, as I've written before, it's far more useful, realistic, and clarifying to think "it might be 1971 again" rather than "it's probably 1938."
In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon understood that despite long-lasting, serious disagreements with mainland China, it was far better overall to find a way to work with Mao and his successors, rather than trying to bring them to heel through continued isolation. There was more to gain than lose through this non-Chamberlain-style "compromise." The government of Taiwan and its supporters in the United States bitterly resisted this change, but from America's point of view they were wrong.
I believe that something similar applies with Iran as well. As with China in the 1970s and Cuba in recent years, there is no evidence that the national population itself has become deeply anti-Western or anti-American. Restoring relations, while it would hardly eliminate all disagreements, would have enough benefits to be worth pursuing as a strategic goal. Even if the pursuit doesn't pay off, the potential benefits, from the American point of view, are substantial enough not to give up prematurely, by imposing pre-conditions that would make any negotiations impossible.
* * *
So now that things have gone this far, bring on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his warning against any conceivable deal with Iran. Listen to his argument that the best model for understanding today's Iran is yesteryear's Nazi Germany (which is what Netanyahu's claim really comes down to). Let's listen; let's set aside, if we can, the unprecedented and insulting nature of his appearance before Congress; and then let's think carefully about American national interests, which no foreign leader can define. I believe they're very different from what Netanyahu is advocating.
Please read Jeffrey Goldberg's new analysis of the split between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Then please read a decade-old article about what a "preemptive" strike against Iran would really entail.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has put up an excellent and authoritative analysis of the strategic problems that Benjamin Netanyahu has created for himself, his party, and his country. It's the most-trafficked item on our site at the moment, so it may seem superfluous to suggest you read it. But if you haven't done so yet, please give it a look.
Once you've read this new item, there's an older article that I hope you'll consider too. It came out in the December 2004 issue of our magazine, it was called "Will Iran Be Next?", and as it happens its author was me.
The premise of the article was to conduct a war game-style exercise to examine the feasibility and effects of an American preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The upshot of the exercise was that such a strike could not possibly "work." Set aside questions of whether a bombing raid would be "necessary" or "just." From a strictly military point of view, according to the defense-world authorities who took part in our war game, the strike would almost certainly be a counterproductive failure. It could not put more than a temporary damper on Iran's capacities and ambitions; it would if anything redouble Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons (so as to protect itself from such strikes in the future); and it could unleash a range a countermeasures that would make the United States rue the idea that this could have been a "clean" or "surgical" exercise. You can read the details for yourself.
That was more than a decade ago. Since then, only one aspect of Iran's leverage has weakened: there are no longer tens of thousands of U.S. troops next door in Iraq as potential Iranian targets. In all other ways, Iran is 10 years further along in protecting its facilities and considering its options. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," our main war-game designer, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, said at the end of our 2004 exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work." That was true then, and truer now.
Here's why I bring the story up. I disagree with one clause in Jeff Goldberg's story—only one, but an important one. It's the part I've put in bold type below:
Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.
Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
Why does this matter? As a question of negotiation, I think it's fine for U.S. officials from the president on down to act as if they might seriously be considering a military strike. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have consistently said that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, and that's fine too. It can be shrewd to keep an opponent guessing about what you might do if provoked.
This negotiating stance could be useful, as long as it doesn't spill over from fooling the Iranians to fooling ourselves. (A la, "we'll be greeted as liberators!") Letting Iran's leaders think the U.S. is contemplating a strike might pay off. Actually contemplating it could be disastrous.