Moreover, rather than guess at Jeff Goldberg's policy prescriptions, we can read his explicit presentation of them, here. He argues that there is one highly desirable outcome -- success of the "Obama plan," a combination of pressures, threats, and incentives to shift Iran toward a different path. If that doesn't work, as he explains, the remaining options are all bad, and we will choose among them when we have to. So disagree with him about Iraq, if you will and as I did. But after that, please take his reporting for the achievement and contribution that it is, and his "profound, paralyzing ambivalence" about military strikes on Iran on its own merits.
2) How does it square with other things the magazine has written on the topic? In addition to Jeff Goldberg's article and subsequent posts, please read Robert Kaplan's assessment in this issue of what deterrence would mean in dealing with an Iran that did get nuclear weapons; plus Clive Crook's response and a chain of others that he links to, including this and this.
And then there was the previous Atlantic cover story about bombing Iran, which I did back in 2004. It was based on a mock war-game exercise to see what, in practical terms, it would mean to "take out" Iran's nuclear facilities. The conclusion was that, even then, Iran's facilities were too dispersed to eliminate by an aerial attack; that an attack would likely unify and motivate Iranians behind their government and the drive to become a nuclear power; that even if Israel attacked on its own, the United States would still be blamed; and that even the most "successful" attack would exchange a temporary tactical advantage (temporary delay in Iran's plans) for a major strategic setback, namely lasting complications and vulnerabilities for the U.S. around the world. Last year Anthony Cordesman, of CSIS, laid out a similar analysis of an Israeli strike, which came to similar cautionary conclusions.
How can these two cover stories be reconciled? Well, maybe they don't have to be. They're by two different people; the magazine is meant to contain a lot of different views; and a lot of time has passed, with changes in relevant circumstances. But I think there is less tension between them than may appear.
In the final part of his article, Jeff Goldberg is unblinking about the challenges and possible failures of a military attempt to remove Iran's nuclear facilities, especially if done just by Israel. This point, in one of today's posts, is exactly congruent with the argument I made five-plus years ago:
The larger point here is that the Israelis claim that Menachem Begin, then the prime minister, launched the Osirak attack in 1981 thinking that it might only set back the Iraqi nuclear program by one year. Some Israelis in leadership positions today tell me that they think an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be similarly worthwhile if it only delayed the Iranians by a year. This certainly doesn't seem worth it to me.
If we disagree about Iran, I think the difference comes down to this. He says today:
I suspect that the price of inaction might be greater than the price of action, but the opposite could just as easily and plausibly be true.
I agree with him that we are all operating in the dark here. But my instinct is that on any given day, the price of action -- ordering an attack -- is likely to be higher than the price of inaction. The big difference is reversibility. If you don't attack today, you can always change your mind tomorrow. But once you attack, you've foreclosed decisions for decades, not to mention the other consequences of initiating a war. (We will certainly have troops in Iraq ten years after George Bush decided that he couldn't wait any longer to invade.) History provides examples of both kinds of costs -- of being too slow, and being too hasty. But because the main example of the cost of inaction -- the rise of Hitler -- is so horrific, it tends to blot out distinctions and make restraint reek of Chamberlain, rather than, say, Eisenhower.