Jeffrey Goldberg

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

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

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

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

  • Christie and Springsteen, Updated

    I look forward to watching Chris Christie introduce Springsteen at a Stone Pony benefit concert in the near future.

    Well, Bruce showed himself to be magnanimous last night during a concert in Rochester. He said from the stage:

    "We're a band that you can't separate from the Jersey shore -- still basically a glorified bar band... at your service! So we're gonna do this tonight from our hometown to your hometown. We'll send this out to all the people working down there: the police officers, the firemen, and also to the Governor, who has done such a hard job this past week."

    I look forward to watching Chris Christie introduce Springsteen at a Stone Pony benefit concert in the near future.

  • Why Exactly Is Chris Christie Subverting Mitt Romney?

    Chris Christie is love-bombing President Obama -- the man he labeled clueless just last week -- and Maureen Dowd is asking why.

    Chris Christie is love-bombing President Obama -- the man he labeled clueless just last week -- and Maureen Dowd is asking why:

    White House officials seemed a bit flummoxed by Christie's bearhug. "It's unnerving," one laughed, noting how odd it is that a Romney big gun might help break the stubborn tie in the electorate in Obama's favor.

    They speculate that Christie, who always puts Christie first, has decided that it's better for his presidential ambitions to be a maverick blue-state governor with a Democratic chief executive exiting in 2016 than to have President Romney and Tea-Party Republicans in Congress pulling him over to the extreme right for the next eight years. He also knows he'll need a boatload of federal cash to make his state whole again.

    Here are three theories about Christie:
    1) The first, most benign theory: Christie, in my experience, is a deeply emotional and highly sentimental man, and he is torn-up about the devastation along the Jersey Shore. The support he's received from President Obama -- the support he receives from anyone -- at such a wrenching moment, makes him inordinately grateful. And President Obama has been extremely attentive.

    2) To add to Maureen's theory, Christie is an impatient guy, and the idea of running in 2016 is much more appealing to him than running in 2020. He will have faded from memory by 2020, in any case; plus Paul Ryan, who will have been vice president for four or eight years, would be a formidable challenger. For 2016, Christie is in the top-tier of Republican candidates. In 2020, who knows?

    3) Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen. (This story, by yours truly, explains why.)  Bruce Springsteen loves Barack Obama. Bruce Springsteen does not love Chris Christie. Being overtly supportive of Barack Obama might get Chris Christie his holy grail: The approval of Springsteen, even a meeting with him. Believe me -- he'd rather meet with Springsteen than with Obama, or anyone else.

    For what it's worth, I think the explanation for Christie's effusiveness is mostly 1) with some 2). The third explanation might be true at a more subconscious level. 

  • The Power of Credible Threats at Work?

    "The moment of truth" in the crisis over the Iranian nuclear program might have just been delayed by eight to ten months.

    Now, admittedly, Ehud Barak might not be the most reliable narrator of the Iran nuclear crisis, but his comments this week are still interesting:

    Barak told Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper that an immediate crisis was avoided when Iran chose to use more than a third of its medium-enriched uranium for civilian purposes earlier this year.

    He told the paper that the decision "allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth by eight to ten months".

    "There could be at least three explanations. One is the public discourse about a possible Israeli or American operation deterred them from trying to come closer," he said.

    "It could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time. It could be a way of telling the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) 'oh we comply with our commitments'."

    Analysts say Iran already has enough low-enriched uranium for several nuclear bombs if it were refined to a high degree, but may still be a few years away from being able to assemble a missile if it decided to go down that path.
  • Romney's Critique of Obama's Iran Policy

    It's been in the interest of Obama to paint Romney as a warmonger, and in the interest of Romney to paint Obama as an appeaser. But their Iran policies are not so far apart.

    Here is an example of the b.s. of all campaigns, everywhere. Just before last week's foreign policy debate, the Obama campaign sent out a bulletin entitled "Romnesia, Foreign Policy Edition," which contained the following bullet item:

    ROMNEY HAS ISSUED VOLATILE RHETORIC ON IRAN THREATENING "IF YOU WANT PEACE, PREPARE FOR WAR"

    Romney To Iran: "If You Want Peace, Prepare For War." "The United States needs a very different policy. Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war."

    Scary, no? Except that the idea of keeping the peace by preparing for war has been American doctrine, and everyone else's doctrine, for just about ever. Could you imagine a Romney campaign press release headlined: "Obama Secretly Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War in Persian Gulf"? This would be a perfectly true statement. So would "Obama Orders Pentagon to Prepare for War Against North Korea" and "Obama Spends Billions to Target World with Nukes." 

    I mention this only to make the observation that the Iran policies of Obama and Romney are actually not so far apart. They are both opposed to containment, they both support tough sanctions and they both hold out the option of military action should Iran continue down its current path.  It's been in the interest of Obama to paint Romney as a warmonger, and in the interest of Romney to paint Obama as an appeaser, but I think both of them are united in the idea that a military confrontation to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold may be necessary. Obama would go into 2013 with certain advantages -- as I've written before, I think Obama is more likely than Romney to move toward military action, particularly in the short-term, if the moment comes (which is not something that Sheldon Adelson wants to hear), but I've come to believe that there is a slightly better chance that the Iranian regime would show up for serious negotiations with Romney as president. 

    Why? President Obama has been undermined from time to time by his own team on the Iran question -- whenever a senior official of his administration analyzes publicly the dangers of a military confrontation to the U.S., we should assume the Iranian leaders breathe a sigh of relief, and make the calculations that Obama is bluffing on military action.  So far at least, Romney's people haven't undermined him the same way. In any case, the Iranians most likely believe that the Republicans are more bellicose. (Mind you, I don't think the Iranians are very much interested in making the deal the U.S. wants them to make, but this could change as sanctions become more punishing.)

    All this is a roundabout way of getting to the debate, and Romney's seemingly new emphasis on seeking a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear program. Like some hawks, and some doves, I asked myself if Romney was shaking the Etch-a-Sketch, and so I e-mailed him some questions about his Iran thinking. Here are some of his e-mailed answers, which appear in my Bloomberg View column today:

    "I have always talked about the diplomatic process," he wrote. "I will not rule out diplomatic options, so long as we would not be rewarding bad behavior and so long as the Iranian leadership was truly cornered and ready to change its behavior. A crumbling economy is not enough. Because even with a crumbling economy, the Iranian leadership is still racing towards a bomb right now."

    Romney went out of his way to suggest that the Obama administration plans to spring some sort of late-November surprise on America's Middle East allies, citing a recent New York Times report that Iran and the White House had agreed to face-to-face negotiations after the election (a report denied by the White House). "Our closest allies, like Israel, will not learn about our plans from the New York Times," Romney wrote. "And I'll be clear with the American people about where I'm heading. I won't be secretly asking the Ayatollahs for more flexibility following some future election."

    He also denied that his new emphasis on negotiations means that he would accept less than a complete halt to Iran's nuclear work: "To be clear, the objective of any strategy will be to get Iran to stop spinning centrifuges, stop enriching uranium, shut down its facilities. Full stop. Existing fissile material will have to be shipped out of the country."
  • Just How Committed Is Obama to Stopping Iran?

    An exchange with Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalom Hartman Institute.

    Here is an interesting (to me, at least) exchange (originally published in The New York Jewish Week)  I had with my friend and sparring partner Yossi Klein Halevi, of the Shalom Hartman Institute, on the subject of President Obama's Iran policy. Yossi is one of those Israelis who is, to my mind, irrationally fearful of Obama, and Yossi wanted to test my sangfroid.

    Dear Jeff,

    Like many Israelis, I don't trust President Obama's resolve on Iran. When he says that all options are on the table, I remain deeply skeptical about this President's willingness to order a military strike if all other options fail.

    More than any journalist I know, you've been at once clear-eyed on the Islamist threat and also a strong advocate of trusting Obama on Iran. So, as someone who takes the Iranian nuclear threat as seriously as we do here, tell me what we Israelis are missing about Obama.
    Yossi


    Dear Yossi,

    I think Obama takes the threat very seriously. I think he takes it just as seriously as Netanyahu takes it. More, maybe. It seems to me sometimes that Netanyahu, if he truly believed his rhetoric, would have acted already against the Iranian bomb threat. I know there are people in Washington who think he's not actually serious about striking Iran, should all else fail. And these are people who six months ago thought he would do it.

    What you and other Israeli skeptics don't get about Obama is this: He is deadly serious about stopping nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. It is a core belief of his. He has enunciated on many occasions compelling reasons why he believes it to be unacceptable for Iran to cross the nuclear threshold. He also knows that the reputation of his presidency is riding on this question. If Iran goes nuclear against his wishes, he looks like Jimmy Carter. He doesn't want to go down in history looking like Jimmy Carter.

    He also knows that he has time before having to act, because of America's greater capabilities. He doesn't show Israel much love, it is true. He doesn't show any nation much love. That's not who he is. But if you read the interview I did with him on this subject, you'll see a clear path, a clear set of parameters and a clear intent to keep a bomb away from Iran. The flipside of this, of course, is that I believe Mitt Romney would be less likely to act, especially in 2013, which may be the year of decision. He'd be a new president, one with an inexperienced national security team. And he won't want to begin his presidency by plunging the U.S. into another Middle Eastern war. It is so much harder for a Republican to confront Iran than it would be for a Democrat, for so many reasons. Obama's drone war is a good example; he gets away with things George W. Bush couldn't even imagine doing. Such is the nature of politics in America. Here, by the way, is a compendium of Obama's statements on the subject. Identify for me, please, the wiggle room in these statements. I haven't found any.
    Jeff


    Dear Jeff,

    You make an important point about the advantage of a Democratic president over a Republican president in waging war. A similar dynamic has been at work in Israel. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fought two wars - against Hezbollah in 2006 and then against Hamas in 2009 - and yet is still widely considered a dove, while Netanyahu, who has never led a military campaign in either of his two terms in office, is widely regarded as belligerent. Only the Likud, the old adage goes, can make peace, because it can deliver the moderate right for an agreement. By the same measure, perhaps only the Israeli left (or a national unity government) can effectively wage war and for the same reason: It can bring consensus.

    But the question regarding Obama and Iran, of course, is whether this Democratic president is capable - temperamentally, ideologically - of ordering a military strike against Iran. At issue isn't whether Obama wants to stop Iran but whether he has the determination to match his rhetoric.

    Do you believe that the current level of sanctions, however economically painful, are enough to deter Iran? Do you believe the Iranians will agree to a negotiated solution? From reading you carefully over the last few years, I don't think you do. And so, Jeff: If Obama won't bring the sanctions to the point where they can truly stop Iran, then how can we trust him to use military force?

    You write that failure to stop Iran will mean that Obama goes down in history as another Jimmy Carter. In fact he already looks like Jimmy Carter. As you recently wrote (don't you hate it when you get quoted against yourself?), Obama has failed to show resolve in Syria. Bringing down Assad - the Arab regime that is Iran's closest ally - should be one of the administration's top foreign policy goals. In hesitating on Syria, Obama is repeating his failure to support the anti-regime demonstrators in Teheran in 2009.

    To forfeit two historic opportunities to undermine the Iranian regime hardly instills confidence that Obama can be trusted to act decisively against a nuclearizing Iran.

    Obama's mishandling of Egypt likewise reveals poor judgment in dealing with extremist threats. One can argue whether he jettisoned his former ally, Mubarak, too abruptly. One can argue too whether he could have helped slow the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    What seems to me inarguable is that he has failed to effectively set limits to the Brotherhood, failed to challenge its growing domestic repression. Instead, he wants to increase foreign aid to Egypt. If this were not an election year, he would have likely met with Egypt's president, Mohamed Morsi, during the latter's recent visit to the UN. The result of that policy of accomodationism is that it is Morsi who is setting conditions on America for the relationship between Washington and Cairo (as he recently did in a New York Times interview).
    Finally Obama showed misjudgment in repeatedly condemning the ludicrous YouTube anti-Muslim film. By taking out ads on Pakistani TV to condemn the film, the administration encouraged the perception that extremists had a legitimate grievance.

    There's a pattern here of weakness against enemies, of appeasing extremists, of missing opportunities
    .
    All this is hardly surprising to you: You've written as much in recent weeks. "Obama's record in the Middle East," you wrote, "suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty." True, you also wrote the following: "On the most important and urgent issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Obama is an activist president." But can you really fault Israelis for wondering whether, at the moment of truth, Obama will avoid the ultimate missed opportunity?
    It's not only Israelis who don't trust Obama on Iran. Arab leaders, as you well know, are skeptical too. Worst of all, the Iranian regime doesn't believe him. That's why it responds to Obama's sanctions and threats by accelerating its nuclear program.

    You may be right, and I am underestimating this President's resolve on an issue to which he has repeatedly committed himself.

    If so, there's a deeper question here for Israelis: Can we trust anyone, even the most well-intentioned friend, with an issue of existential importance to us? As someone who knows us as well as any American Jew, this Israeli anxiety will come as no surprise to you.

    For many of us the frame of reference is May 1967. At that time, Lyndon Johnson, as good a friend as Israel ever had in the White House, refused to honor President Eisenhower's commitment in 1957 to challenge an Egyptian blockade of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. Johnson, preoccupied with Vietnam, had good reason for wanting to avoid American involvement in another war. But the fact remains that, at the crucial moment, America violated its commitment to Israel.

    Aside perhaps from May 1967, I can't think of a more excruciating time for Israel than now. Obama has repeatedly assured us that he understands our angst, that he supports our right to defend ourselves. And still we stubborn Israelis persist in our skepticism.

    Maybe what I'm asking from you is unfair, Jeff. Because in the end, no amount of reassurance of Obama's resolve can convince us that the Johnson precedent won't return, and that we won't find ourselves alone again against existential threat.
    Yossi


    Dear Yossi,

    There are two questions here (well, actually there are about 30) but let me grapple with the two most important ones: The first is this: Is President Obama actually prepared to use military force to stop Iran? The second question is, Is Romney prepared to use military force to stop Iran?

    When I argue for the idea that Obama may eventually resort to force to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold, I'm not judging him against some sort of impossible standard of interventionist muscularity. I'm judging him against the only other man who could be elected president next month. You're familiar with my argument that Romney is less likely (particularly early in his term) than Obama to use force, so I won't rehearse it here.

    I would add this, however, and I haven't mentioned this before: If Romney wins, the anti-war movement will become extraordinarily energized in the U.S. Democrats who might have felt compelled to back Obama, or at least acquiesce to military action against Iran, will be on the barricades protesting the possibility of such a strike if it is Romney's doing. Fierce opposition certainly won't strengthen Romney's hand to act, and the consequences of the opposition that is sure to materialize could have profoundly negative effects on Israel's reputation in America. Israel is already in danger of becoming a partisan issue; the long-term consequences of this could be devastating. If Romney wins, and if Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power in Israel, I can almost guarantee you that you will see a melting away of whatever Democratic support there is for tough action against Iran, and a melting away of whatever liberal support there still remains for a strong America-Israel relationship. American support is a pillar of Israeli national security policy. Israel cannot thrive - and maybe it can't survive - in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. But it will also have difficulty surviving without American support, and I'm telling you, medium- to long-term, Israel could be in trouble in the U.S.
    .
    To answer some of your other questions, do I believe sanctions will work to bring Iran to a compromise? No, probably not. Do I believe that sanctions could work to destabilize, and possible bring an end to, the regime? Possibly yes. I'm not sure why you believe Obama is weak on sanctions; he's certainly stronger than his Republican predecessor was. And I think Netanyahu's people are being sincere when they say that there is at least the small possibility that sanctions will work.

    On a related subject, I'm not sure why you conflate Obama's passivity on Syria with his tough actions, and tough words, on Iran. He was never going to go into the regime-change business. He didn't get elected to go into the regime business. He ran for office in order to get America out of the regime-change business. He is, in this sense, a foreign policy realist. But he did run for office on the promise of stopping nuclear proliferation. He is deeply and sincerely committed, I believe, to a rather too grand vision of a world without nuclear weapons. But the unreality of the ultimate goal serves the needs of those who want Iran permanently denuclearized. He knows, I assume, that he can't achieve global Nuclear Zero. But he also knows that stopping a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is within his power. I always try to explain to Israelis that Obama isn't committed to this issue merely because he promised Jewish voters that he would not allow Israel to be endangered. Non-proliferation is a cornerstone of his worldview, and Iran represents the single-biggest challenge to that worldview.

    But maybe you're right - maybe this is going to be Johnson redux. But you have to consider something else: By extracting himself from Iraq, by drawing down in Afghanistan, by staying out of the Syrian civil war, maybe what Obama is doing is preparing for the day when he has to go to the American people and say that he is taking military action against Iran. He's clearing the decks, in other words. From the Israeli standpoint, maybe you should be glad that he's taking a pause in the Middle East intervention business. This way, when the Iran issue reaches a boiling point, he won't be in Johnson's position - overextended, and unpopular, and therefore not willing to, among other things, come to Israel's aid.
    Jeff


    Dear Jeff,

    That's a crucial insight you raise about the anti-war movement and a President Romney. A reenergized anti-war movement could dangerously erode the already-shaky nature of bipartisan support for Israel, which is the only long-term guarantee for maintaining the special relationship. Missiles on Tel Aviv, a multi-front war with Hezbollah, Hamas, what's left of Syria and of course Iran, the unleashing of global terror against Jewish communities, rising oil prices and eonomic dislocation - Israelis take a deep breath and prepare themselves for those disasters. Risking our relationship with blue-state America is almost one blow too many.

    And yet if Israeli skepticism about Obama is right, then I'm ready to take that risk, too. I see a nuclear Iran as a literal apocalyptic threat, and I sense that you do too. The difference between us remains: Can we trust this guy at the moment of truth?

    You sat with the President, looked him in the eye and was convinced of his determination. In your place I may well have reached the same conclusion.

    But from where I'm sitting, it seems to me unthinkable that Obama, for all his commitment to non-proliferation, will order the bombing of Iran. This is after all the man who thought he was atoning for the abuse of American power by abandoning anti-regime demonstrators in Tehran in 2009.

    As for Obama and sanctions: Yes, he's imposed far stronger measures than his predecessor, but that is, unfortunately, a meaningless comparison. Four years ago, Obama's sanctions would have been significant. Now, the only question that matters is whether those sanctions are enough to stop Tehran. I don't believe they are.

    I fear that Obama still believes he's dealing with essentially rational people in the Iranian regime. And now there are reports of secret negotiations between Tehran and Washington. In the end my deepest fear is that Obama will be outmaneuvered by the Iranians, that his longing for a diplomatic solution will be played by the Iranian regime to reach the point of breakout.
    But Jeff: If Obama is reelected, all I can do is pray for that moment when you will say to me, I told you so.

    Yossi

  • Revenge of the Cow

    An advertisement against ritual animal sacrifice.

    This story is an advertisement against ritual animal sacrifice:

    A spooked cow killed a Palestinian man who was trying to slaughter the beast on Saturday during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha, a Gaza health official said.

    Muslims around the world slaughter sheep, cows and goats, during the four-day holiday that began Friday, giving away much of the meat to the poor. The Muslim holiday commemorates the sacrifice by the Prophet Ibrahim, known to Christians and Jews as Abraham.

    But accidents are common as people frequently buy animals to slaughter themselves instead of paying professional butchers. The festive atmosphere at the site of the slaughtering also tends to make the animals fidgety.

    The 52-year-old man who died was trampled to death, and another three people were seriously injured when the cow ran wild in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah, said health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

    In all, he said some 150 people were hospitalized in the Palestinian territory with knife wounds or other injuries caused by animals trying to break away.
  • Israel Contemplates a 2-Party System

    Thanks to today's Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger, it is not inconceivable that the country will see two very large parties battling it out for dominance of its politics.

    News is reaching American shores that Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman are merging their two parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, to form a new broad-based right-wing coalition. This is a reaction, obviously, to so-far fruitless negotiations by various centrists and left-centrists who are considering a merger to present a unified front against Netanyahu. In other words, despite the dispositional fractiousness of Israeli politics, it is not inconceivable that Israel will see two very large parties battling it out for dominance of the Knesset and of Israeli politics, instead of four or five. Now, the two-party system doesn't work so well for us anymore, but its adoption in Israel (or re-adoption; Likud and Labor were once often dominant simultaneously)  would be a good thing; it would force compromise inside factions and it would marginalize ephemeral, single-issue parties.

    Now of course even if two large parties, right and center (I wouldn't go so far as to call the creature that could emerge from negotiations among Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert, etc. a left-wing party) are formed, there will still be the Orthodox parties to contend with, but here's my fantasy: A unity government of the mainly secular Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party and a new, mostly secular centrist party that would have the votes to actually make progress on synagogue-state separation issues. Israel can't afford to subsidize the ultra-Orthodox sector anymore, and the Orthodox parties have been granted much too much social and religious power. Secular and non-Orthodox Israelis have to take a stand against creeping fundamentalism (galloping fundamentalism, actually). This may be the best chance, and it may be the last chance. I'm not hopeful, because, why be hopeful? But there's a chance.

  • Fundamentalism Watch

    Another arrest at Judaism's holiest site.

    Read it and weep:

    Anat Hoffman was arrested at the Western Wall on Tuesday night for saying the Sh'ma Israel, Judaism's central proclamation of faith, out loud at Israel's holiest site.

    "I was saying Sh'ma Israel and arrested for it. It's just unbelievable," she said in an interview from her bathtub, where she was soaking limbs bruised from being dragged by handcuffs across the police station floor and legs shackled as if she were a violent criminal. "It was awful."

    Hoffman has been detained by police at the Western Wall six times in the more than two decades that she has led Women of the Wall, a group which conducts prayer services in the women's section at the start of each Jewish month. But on Tuesday night, when she was arrested for the crime of wearing a tallit and praying out loud, she was treated far more violently by police than ever before.

    "In the past when I was detained I had to have a policewoman come with me to the bathroom, but this was something different. This time they checked me naked, completely, without my underwear. They dragged me on the floor 15 meters; my arms are bruised. They put me in a cell without a bed, with three other prisoners, including a prostitute and a car thief. They threw the food through a little window in the door. I laid on the floor covered with my tallit.

    "I'm a tough cookie, but I was just so miserable. And for what? I was with the Hadassah women saying Sh'ma Israel."
  • Did the 'Neocon Puppet Masters' Get Outflanked by Romney?

    This wasn't a debate: It was a moment for Obama to show himself to be all commander-in-chiefy, and for Romney to show himself to be sane, responsible, and uninterested in foreign entanglements.

    I'm on the road, with only intermittent access to reader e-mail, so sorry for the delay, but I've gotten a bunch of questions (and assertions!) from Goldbloggers who are wondering if the neocons were somehow outflanked by Romney in last night's foreign policy debate. After all, Romney spent most of his time agreeing with Obama; he made no effort to suggest that Afghanistan may become a more complicated, and dangerous, place, once American troops leave in 2014; he took no stand in favor of greater intervention in Syria, and so on. One reader wrote, 'It seems like the neocons have lost the battle for the soul of Romney. He said nothing about having a desire for state-building, or about the importance of intervention in humanitarian crises, etc. So what happened?"

    What happened, I think, is that last night's debate wasn't a debate. If we had been watching an actual debate about America's role in the world, I'm sure Romney would have had a lot to say about the shortcomings of Obama's foreign policy. But this wasn't a debate: It was a moment for Obama to show himself to be all commander-in-chiefy, and for Romney to show himself to be sane, responsible and uninterested in foreign entanglements (Iran, of course, being the bipartisan exception). My assumption is that the so-called neoconservatives close to Romney didn't lose an argument about how to approach these issues, my assumption is that these people read polls, too, and know that Americans profess to be tired of the Middle East, and that therefore, it is best, two weeks before the election, not to recommend to their candidate that he push for greater involvement in the Syrian crisis, for example. Neocons, like everyone else in politics, are interested in winning.

    Does this mean that Romney, if he wins the White House, will shed his moderate cloak and embrace the agenda of the interventionists? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think of him as more of a pragmatist than an interventionist. I'm not suggesting that he was hiding anything last night. I'm suggesting only that he accentuated his non-interventionist impulses, and I'm also suggesting that his neoconservative advisers happily went along with this less muscular approach. 

  • The Kishke Debate

    Does President Obama, in his gut, actually care about Israel and would he spend significant political, and even military, capital, to defend it?

    I didn't quite realize it until I received a bunch of e-mails from Jewish Obama partisans, but last night's debate was, in fact, the kishke debate. All of my correspondents made triumphant mention, in one form or another, of the "kishke question," the issue of whether, in his gut, President Obama actually cares about Israel and would spend significant political, and even military, capital, to defend it. One prominent Obama supporter wrote me to say simply this: "Yad Vashem! Sderot!" These two places, both mentioned by Obama, are, of course, touchstones for Jews: The first, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, represents the continued will of the Jewish people to remember the 33 percent of world Jewry that was murdered in the Holocaust, and also represents the determination of the Jewish people to take charge of their own safety and security, through the vehicle of an independent, well-armed, state. The second is the Israeli town bordering Gaza that has suffered from a semi-constant barrage of rockets fired by Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other groups, and that represents Israel's continued vulnerability to terrorism.

    In last night's debate, Obama not only mentioned these two places, he delivered set pieces (set pieces we've heard before, to be sure) on Yad Vashem and Sderot, and on their meaning. If you're in the Obama camp, the explanation for these detours is easy: the President has Israel's best interests at heart, and his opposition to the Iranian nuclear program is motivated in large part by a desire to defend Israel from an existential threat. If you're in the Romney camp, your explanation is also easy: Obama's strategists realized they had to go on the offensive to cover-up the fact that Obama hasn't visited Israel once as President, and that he has a tense and unpleasant relationship with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

    I think both of these lines of thought have elements of truth in them, and I would also say that Romney either felt no need to express understanding for Israel's dilemma, or wasn't prepared to express understanding for Israel's dilemma. This is not to say that Romney doesn't have warm feelings for Israel -- quite the opposite --  it is simply to note that Obama out-foxed him on the "I've got Israel's back" question, which is precisely what he had to do to quiet what for him is a distracting and potentially harmful sub-theme of this campaign.

    And speaking of the kishke question, here is an excerpt of an interview I conducted more than four years ago with then-Senator Obama on the question of Israel's security:

    JG: Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don't know you -- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski -- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don't feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.

    BO: I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what's been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they're asking themselves moral questions.

    Sometimes I'm attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it's more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don't think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they've interacted with me long enough to know that I've got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn't flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they've seen me operate in difficult political situations.

    The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I'm University of Chicago, I've got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I've been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it's curious.
  • Israel and Mali: 2 Debate Preoccupations

    Romney gets conciliatory, Israel wins, and Obama speaks very clearly on Iran.

    1) Romney didn't come to fight, but to agree. "I agree," was a surprising meme. I imagine some voters might like that, though most journalists clearly didn't. Obama was almost too cutting. Quite a departure from the first debate.

    2) Israel is a big winner. It was mentioned more often than I even thought it would be mentioned.

    3) Mali! Who woulda thunk? But it's a serious problem -- an al Qaeda-inspired group basically controls half the country. Reversing this is extraordinarily important.

    4) Romney understands that Americans are tired of the Middle East. He didn't push intervention as hard as he could have, and he limited himself in offering alternative policy prescriptions for Syria.

    5) I thought Romney backtracked on Afghanistan pretty decisively.

    6) Mentioning Yad Vashem is tacky. But, whatever. The reason Israeli politicians bring visitors to Yad Vashem is so they will mention it. And from what I know, Yad Vashem was an education for the President.

    7) Obama didn't go on an "apology tour." On the other hand, I tend to think that placing daylight between Israel and the U.S. doesn't help the peace process. Obama came in to office with a different theory than George Bush's theory. His theory hasn't worked out (not that Bush's theory worked either, which could lead you to conclude that perhaps peace is not in the offing).

    8) If I lived in southeastern Virginia, I wouldn't be happy with Obama. More ships, please.

    9) People are picking on Romney for highlighting Russia's role in the world, but that role is mainly nefarious, so I don't see much of a problem with that.

    10) In the competition to decide which country is a greater threat to world peace, Pakistan or Iran, I would have to vote for Pakistan for the moment. One has nukes, one, so far at least, doesn't.

    11) Obama once again speaks very clearly on Iran. Iran will not get nukes. He's made this his policy. People haven't adequately considered the possibility that one reason he wants to take Iraq and Afghanistan off the table is because he's squaring up to confront Iran, and doesn't want to do it when the country is exhausted by over-extension.

  • Questions for Romney About Israel and China

    Here's what the former governor should be asked tonight.

    Here are some of the questions (from this column) that I hope Bob Schieffer would ask Mitt Romney tonight:

    You've said that on the first day of your presidency, you will label China a currency manipulator. What will be your response if, the next day, China announces that in retaliation it will no longer buy airplanes from Boeing and instead move all its business to Airbus?

    You've promised that the first country you will visit as president is Israel. Why not Canada, Mexico or the U.K.? Is Israel America's most important ally?

    -Can Israel survive as a Jewish democracy if it continues to rule the West Bank?

    -Unlike President Obama, you've said you will act to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons "capability," rather than a nuclear weapon. Right now, Iran has the capacity to produce enriched uranium sufficient for several weapons, a credible ballistic missile program, and, most likely, designs for a nuclear warhead. Would you strike Iran today if you were president?

    Your running mate Paul Ryan accused the Obama administration of allowing Russia to water-down sanctions against Iran. Do you believe it is possible to effectively sanction Iran without Russian support?

  • Questions and Challenges for Obama on Foreign Policy

    Here are a few of the questions the president should have to answer tonight.

    Here are a few of the questions I'd like to see President Obama asked in tonight's debate (from my Bloomberg View column; I'll post some questions for Romney later):

    The U.S. successfully contained the Soviet Union, which possessed a nuclear arsenal sufficient to kill all U.S. citizens. A nuclear Iran would not have that capacity. Why have you ruled out containment and threatened to use military force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?

    Neither the Israeli prime minister nor the Palestinian president trusts you to be an effective broker in what is now a comatose Middle East peace process. How did this come to pass?

    Why have you not visited Israel once in four years as president?

    Why do you spend so little time building friendships with foreign leaders, especially leaders of allied countries?

    You've promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014. What would you do if U.S. intelligence informed you at the end of 2014 that the Taliban was poised to capture Kabul and once again assert control over most of Afghanistan?

    Drone strikes you've ordered against targets in Pakistan have killed, by some estimates, several hundred innocent civilians, including many children. Is this a moral strategy to defeat terrorists?

    I would also point you to this essay by Walter Russell Mead on what he calls "The Great Extrication," the effort by the president to lower America's profile, and reduce its responsibilities, in the Middle East. It ain't easy, as Walter notes (and as I noted in this essay a couple of weeks ago):

    The first problem, and it is a big one, is that the Great Extrication doesn't seem to be working. Part of this is Iran; getting a nuclear deal with the mullahs has always been critical to Obama's grand design, but the mullahs so far have been unresponsive. Vital allies in the region and beyond are terrified by Iran's nuclear ambitions. In order to gain time for his diplomatic strategy to work, President Obama has had to issue an increasingly unambiguous commitments to take military action against Iran's nuclear drive if the Iranians don't negotiate an agreement. As the clock runs down, the likelihood of yet another major Middle Eastern conflict involving American forces looms much larger; it is hard to base your policy on withdrawing from a region in which you seem increasingly committed to a dangerous and unpredictable war.

    Beyond that, the assassination of Osama bin Laden is looking less like VQ Day (Victory over al-Qaeda) as time goes by. The brand survived the founder, and while the specific organizational apparatus around the man who inspired the 9/11 attacks has been severely degraded, the collection of loosely organized affiliates and copy-cats who embrace the al-Qaeda name and at least some of its ambitions and tactics is a growing not a shrinking concern. The murder of the four Americans in Benghazi poses a political problem for the administration partly because it undercuts the idea that al-Qaeda, as former Vice President Cheney might have put it, is in its death throes and ironically, the death of bin Laden set the stage for a return to the global war on terror approach the administration hoped to bury.

    It is far from clear that the President's planned withdrawal from Afghanistan will pass off without serious problems, and it is abundantly clear that the strategy of reconciling the Islamic world to the United States by pressuring the Israelis to make major concessions to the Palestinians blew up in the President's face.

    But there's more. The Arab Spring has sucked the Obama administration back into the quagmires it was hoping to leave. In Libya, the administration launched its own war for regime change; the chaotic and bloody international mess that resulted--clearly never envisioned by the White House idealists who with Rumsfeldian confidence thought taking Qaddafi out would be a consequence-free "cakewalk"--has once again put the United States in the position of nation building in an anarchic and violent Arab land.
  • Did Joe Biden Just Go Soft on Iran?

    In his debate with Paul Ryan, the Vice President seemed nonchalant about the challenges posed by Iran's nuclear program.

    In my Bloomberg View column, I made the observation that Barack Obama's foreign policy record is far from flawless. On Syria, he is AWOL; he has helped create a situation in which both the Palestinian leader and the Israeli leader don't trust him, and so on. On Iran, of course, I think he's been generally stalwart, but I took note of the fact that Joe Biden, in his debate with Paul Ryan, seemed very nonchalant about the challenges posed by Iran's nuclear program. Here's an excerpt:

    "Biden attempted to portray Representative Paul Ryan as a hysteric on the subject, even though Ryan's seriousness on Iran matches the president's.

    In so doing, Biden downplayed the importance of confronting Iran. Biden said that when Ryan "talks about fissile material, they have to take this highly enriched uranium, get it from 20 percent up. Then they have to be able to have something to put it in. There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know -- we'll know if they start the process of building a weapon. So all this bluster I keep hearing, all this loose talk -- what are they talking about?"

    Biden's statement represents a mostly unnoticed, but dramatic, deviation from the administration's line on Iran. It was also technically inaccurate.

    A country must do three things to have a deliverable nuclear weapon: Enrich uranium; design and make a warhead; and build a delivery system. The Iranians are already enriching uranium, and are moving their centrifuges underground. They already have ballistic missiles. They could design and manufacture a warhead in as little as six months.

    "Biden made it sound as if we shouldn't worry, we have tons of time," David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, told me. He said weapons manufacturing can also be done more surreptitiously than uranium enrichment. "You only need a very small facility," Albright said. "It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering."

    In response to this column, Zack Beauchamp, writing on the Think Progress security blog, writes:

    Goldberg worries the United States, Israel, and other allies would not be able to track Iran's progress in enriching uranium to the purity needed for a nuclear weapon and quotes non proliferation expert David Albright saying, "You only need a very small facility [to make weapons]. It poses a greater challenge for intelligence gathering." But a recent report, which Albright coauthored, highlights the difficulty for Iran to "breakout" and enrich to 90 percent levels for weapons without getting caught, and so it wouldn't in the near term:

    Although Iran's breakout times are shortening, an Iranian breakout in the next year could not escape detection by the IAEA or the United States. Furthermore, the United States and its allies maintain the ability to respond forcefully to any Iranian decision to break out. During the next year or so, breakout times at Natanz and Fordow appear long enough to make an Iranian decision to break out risky. Therefore, ISIS assesses that Iran is unlikely to break out at Natanz or at Fordow in the near term, barring unforeseen developments such as a pre-emptive military strike.
    International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors also routinely inspect Iran's nuclear facilities, which would make it very hard for Iran to leap towards a bomb without getting caught red-handed -- a key point which was highlighted at a recent CAP event on U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran.

    Beauchamp inaccurately describes my complaint about Biden's statement. Biden was talking specifically about warhead design and manufacture, which can easily be done in secret. He wasn't talking about the enrichment process. And neither was I. The enrichment process is becoming truncated, but nuclear break-out would still be noticed (unless it was being done in a facility not yet discovered by inspectors or by Western intelligence agencies). My worry is that the Iranians get all the other components of a nuclear weapons program in place -- a working warhead, a reliable delivery system -- and only then move to 90 percent enrichment of uranium. There would still be time for a strike, unless, of course, the West decides that it needs more time to contemplate a strike..

  • The Benghazi Embarrassment

    The embarrassment of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi is not that it happened. It's that our political culture makes it impossible to have an adult conversation about it.

    The embarrassment of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi is not that it happened. America has its victories against terrorism, and its defeats, and the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American security personnel represents one defeat in a long war. The embarrassment is that political culture in America is such that we can't have an adult conversation about the lessons of Benghazi, a conversation that would focus more on understanding al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa, on the limitations and imperfections of security, and on shortfalls in our intelligence gathering, than on who said what when in the Rose Garden.

    What we've got now is a discussion about who needs to be fired, and which candidate is in a better position to score cheap points. Does Mitt Romney actually think that Barack Obama doesn't believe that what happened in Benghazi was an act of terror? A larger question: Does anyone seriously believe that Barack Obama, a president who is at war in more Muslim countries than any president in American history, is soft on al Qaeda? And one other question: Does Barack Obama believe that Republicans somehow aren't allowed to raise serious questions about the Administration's response to the attack? Again, I wish the Republicans would frame these questions not to raise doubts about the commander-in-chief's innermost feelings about terrorism, but to ask what specific actions do we need to take, quickly, to try to prevent follow-on attacks? Whatever happened to that whole notion of politics stopping at the water's edge?

    Four quick points:


    1) Because the conversation around Benghazi is so stupid, we're going to end up with more mindless CYA security "improvements" that will imprison American diplomats in their fortress compounds even more than they are already imprisoned.
     
    2) It would be good if at least some of the blame for the assassination of Chris Stevens was apportioned to his assassins. Both candidates would do us a service if they would re-focus the debate on ways to defeat Islamist terrorism.

    3) Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama can both take the blame, or the responsibility, for this attack if they want, but the truth, quite obviously, is that neither one of them is in charge of assessing the security needs of individual American embassies and consulates. The job of leaders is to hire well, supervise their hires to the degree possible, and then, if something goes wrong, spend the time and energy to figure out how to fix the problem. It is unrealistic to believe that either leader could have known about what is ultimately a small problem in a large war. We should spend more time judging them on how they respond to defeats then on blaming them for the defeats. (By the way, I would hold George W. Bush to the same standard re:  9/11, and Bill Clinton to the same standard when it came to his Administration's unsuccessful efforts to stop the spread of al Qaeda in the late 1990s.)

    4) As Blake Hounshell put it, "Amb. Chris Stevens was a big boy and he made his own decision to go to Benghazi despite the risks. If he thought it was too dangerous, he should not have gone." We've lost thousands of American government employees over the past 10 years in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Nearly all of them were in uniform, but Foreign Service officers know the risks as well. We need to treat the loss of these four men in Libya as a battlefield loss. That would require people such as Darrell Issa, who chaired a House Oversight committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks, from saying foolish things, like he did the other day. I wrote about this in my Bloomberg View column:
    What Republicans shouldn't do is make statements like the one Issa made on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Oct. 14. Issa argued that if security officials had repeatedly requested reinforcements for U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya "and that's not being heard, then it isn't just Ambassador Stevens who is now dead -- it's everybody who works throughout the Middle East is at risk."

    Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, and 12 years after the fatal raid on the USS Cole in Yemen, and Issa has just realized that assignment to the Middle East might pose risks for American government personnel!

    Here's the problem with Issa's stunning insight: In his desire to cast the administration as incompetent, he does an enormous disservice to the cause of forward-leaning diplomacy and engagement. American embassies are already fortresses. Issa would dig a moat around them. After a point, there's simply no reason to dispatch diplomats to hostile capitals if they can't engage with actual citizens. Risk is inherent for U.S. diplomats posted to the Middle East.

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