Friday, August 20, 2010

Who Can’t Read?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s already famous Atlantic article purportedly merely reports on and describes—rather than argues for—the likelihood that Israel will soon attack the Iranian nuclear installations (and maybe more than that) if the United States doesn’t. A number of commentators have already eviscerated the article (Steve Walt, Robert Wright, Phil Weiss, Glen Greenwald, Yossi Alpher, and others), pointing out a number of crucial factual errors in it and arguing that rather than constituting neutral journalism it is a piece of advocacy, if not outright propaganda.

Since Goldberg also describes the views of Israeli and other opponents of an Israeli attack, and forthrightly lists a number of devastating consequences that are likely to occur after such an attack, are the critical comments on his article justified, perhaps just--in this case--an unfair function of Goldberg’s well-earned reputation as a rightwing and disingenuous hardliner on most issues concerning Israel?

Joe Klein of Time, a normally perceptive  commentator, has risen to the defense of the Goldberg article against its critics, especially Greenwald. Klein writes that “Greenwald… displays his usual inability to understand what journalism is all about….[He has] the hilariously grotesque notion that Jeff's excellent cover story in the Atlantic…is an act of propaganda. It isn't. It's an act of journalism.”

Greenwald is “stupidly mistaken,” Klein continues, when he takes Goldberg’s story about what high-level Israelis are thinking to constitute agreement with them. And even if Goldberg does agree with them, Klein argues, “it is irrelevant,” for “his piece has no secret agenda….he isn’t making an argument, he’s reporting the mood in Israel as he sees it… Any and all attempts to smear this very good piece of reporting as propaganda is propaganda.”

Harsh words. The best way to see who is “stupidly mistaken” is to closely analyze the wording and structure of the Goldberg article.

It is true that Goldberg begins by describing the downside of an Israeli attacks, which “stands a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.”

Wow. In that case, who could possibly want Israel to attack? But consider Goldberg’s next paragraph, the key word of which is “however”:

“If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program, however, Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism; it may derive for itself the secret thanks (though the public condemnation) of the Middle East’s moderate Arab regimes, all of which fear an Iranian bomb with an intensity that in some instances matches Israel’s; and it will have succeeded in countering, in militant fashion, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East….”

But could an Israeli attack work? Here Goldberg drops his guise of just reporting what others think and speaks in his own voice: “Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean–built reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.”

Those are simply the facts of the matter, Goldberg wishes us to think. But they are not facts at all. As others have pointed out, rather than stopping an Iraqi nuclear program, it either created it or, at a minimum, caused it to be vastly expanded. Moreover, so far as I know there has been no independent verification, as opposed to an Israeli claim, that what the Israelis struck in Syria was a North Korean nuclear reactor. Even if it was, an attack on a single reactor sitting above ground in an open desert would provide no useful precedent whatsoever for judging the likely success of an attack on the extensive, dispersed, hidden, hardened, and underground Iraqi nuclear program.

Throughout the article, Goldberg extensively quotes Benjamin Netanyahu and other advocates of an Israeli attack on the dangers of a new “holocaust” if Iran gets nuclear weapons. One quote is particularly significant: “The only reason Bibi [Netanyahu] would place Israel’s relationship with America in total jeopardy is if he thinks that Iran represents a threat like the Shoah,” an Israeli official who spends considerable time with the prime minister told me. “In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation. But now we have the power to stop them. Bibi knows that this is the choice.”

Soon afterwards, Goldberg again speaks in his own voice, musing: “If the Jewish physicists who created Israel’s nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability—a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force—during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust.”

And here is Goldberg’s conclusion: “Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program; and Obama knows—as his aides, and others in the State and Defense departments made clear to me—that a nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to the interests of the United States.” Note that Goldberg does not say that “American officials believe” that a nuclear-armed Iraq would be a serious threat to the U.S. national interest—presumably serious enough to justify a U.S. or US/Israel attack—he says that it is such a threat.

The cat is out of the bag. Eliminate the clever—not that clever—slipperiness, and here is my translation of what Goldberg is saying: An Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear installations would have dangerous consequences, but is still necessary to prevent a new Holocaust. Even if Iran is not so irrational as to commit national suicide by launching nuclear weapons against Israel, Israel would suffer other unacceptable consequences—like, for example, causing large numbers of Israelis to emigrate, fearing an eventual Iraqi attack. However, it is unlikely that an Israeli attack on its own could succeed in eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat. Therefore, the United States should attack, for its national interests would be so threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons as to require an overwhelming military attack, regardless of the probable devastating consequences. And it had better attack soon, because otherwise Israel will.

So who is it that can’t read, Klein or Greenwald?


Richard Witty said...

I think you are indulging in suspicion on this one. In the recent NPR interview, Goldberg on two occassions explicitly described his active opposition to Israeli or US unilateral military action on Iran.

In fact, the article and subsequent interview is a "call to argument", an invitation for intelligent bloggers and journalists and leaders to confidently articulate the content that construct the better argument.

To fail to accomplish that analysis, in favor of shooting the messenger, would be a much much larger failing, than the suspicions that Goldberg is secretly advocating for military attack, or that he is functionally making it palatable.

Jerome Slater said...

Interesting. I knew Goldberg was going to announce--Ta Dah!--his position on Iran, and if you're right, he has already done so. But that makes his essay even odder. Yossi Alpher, hardly a leftist, has written that he finds it hard to believe that Goldberg could be so naive as to not have realized that he was speaking to Israeli hardliners who were using him.

Richard Witty said...

I think his article was literally just journalism, laying out the arguments in play, and who is making them.

I think to infer more than that is an abdication of the responsibility of dissent to present arguments that leaders and masses can rely on confidently, both conclusions and contributing primary principles and criteria.

And, to present them nakedly and honestly.

Present your math if you differ. The advocacy for invading Iraq was first presented by neo-conservatives in the late 90's. The logic was rejected. Individuals made better arguments and kept those better arguments seen.

It wasn't until GW bearing his own personal biases and seeking rationalization, and his naive deferrence to Cheney and Rumsfeld, that the thesis of attacking Iraq got any rubber on the road.

I think you can expect opportunists of many many stripes to use every piece of information presented in the world.

The criticism of Goldberg's writing and interview is exagerated and personal.

Anonymous said...

"The criticism of Goldberg's writing and interview is exagerated and personal. "

I second this statement. Reminds me of when Steve Walt peed himself responding to Lee Smith.

Ahmed said...

You've used Iraqi instead of Iranian in the following sentences...

>>>the extensive, dispersed, hidden, hardened, and underground Iraqi(?) nuclear program.

>>>for example, causing large numbers of Israelis to emigrate, fearing an eventual Iraqi(?) attack.

Clif Brown said...

A "never again" policy is nothing new. How many nations in Europe harbored it as the continent writhed under the desire for revenge for centuries. What is novel in the case of Israel is pre-emptive attack, sadly aped by GW Bush in Iraq with disastrous consequences that have yet to end.

Think of pre-emption as putting the cart before the horse, a kind of revenge-lite before a hypothetical attack that, in the fearful mind of the pre-emptor takes on the illusion of certainty. This is how the Holocaust truly lives on and on and on.

Israel has nuclear weapons. Iran, along with the entire world, knows it. If Iran should get nuclear weapons, Israel will still have its atomic arsenal and Iran will still know it. It's nonsense to believe that Iranians value their own lives so little that they would launch an attack with or without nukes against the regional superpower.

Was nothing learned from the folly of ultimatums issued before the start of WW1? No nation is receptive to having others tell it what it may/may not do. Ahmadinejad plays this to the max, almost begging Israel to light a spark. For Iran to launch an attack would be suicide but to have the glory of justifiable counter-attack - now that's a different matter. Will Israel obediently play his game?

Well it might because Israel's leadership appears to believe in exceptionalism due to the Holocaust - Israel may do what others may not. But there is no Holocaust analogy with a belligerent Iran - Israel is hardly an unarmed collection of helpless people to be singled out, rounded up and eliminated without resistance. What we see is mythological thinking posing as rationality.

This fantastic thinking is only one more reason to put daylight between America and Israel, instead of bolting America to a trigger finger looking to strike first then fall back on an unlimited arsenal from afar.

To go about slapping the face of everyone suspected as a threat is not a sustainable policy for an individual or a country - but it's understandable option if one has a big dumb bruiser willingly standing behind. Are you listening America?