Why Not to Bomb IranBy ROBERT WRIGHT
Has the Atlantic magazine become a propaganda tool — “a de facto party to the neoconservative and Israeli campaign to initiate a global war with Iran”? That question was being discussed last week on The Atlantic’s own Web site, among other places, after the magazine unveiled a cover story saying that Israel is likely to bomb Iran within a year.
The article wasn’t an argument for bombing, just a report on Israel’s state of mind. So why all the outrage — why, for example, did Glenn Greenwald of Salon title his slashing assessment of the Atlantic article “How Propaganda Works: Exhibit A”?
In part because the author of the article is Jeffrey Goldberg, who has previously been accused of pushing a pro-war agenda via ostensibly reportorial journalism. His 2002 New Yorker piece claiming to have found evidence linking Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda is remembered on the left as a monument to consequential wrongness. And suspicions of Goldberg’s motivations only grow when he writes about Israel. He served in the Israeli army, and he has more than once been accused of channeling Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
There is certainly a bit of channeling in Goldberg’s Atlantic piece. For example: “Netanyahu’s belief is that Iran is not Israel’s problem alone; it is the world’s problem, and the world, led by the United States, is duty-bound to grapple with it.” Still, the piece is no simple propaganda exercise. Indeed, what’s striking is that, for all the space given to the views of hawkish Israeli officials, they don’t wind up looking very good, and neither does their case for bombing Iran. The overall impression is that, as Paul Pillar, a former C.I.A. official, put it after reading Goldberg’s piece, Israel’s inclination to attack Iran is “more a matter of the amygdala and emotion than of the cortex and thought.”
For starters, Netanyahu comes off in Goldberg’s article as so psychologically enslaved by his uberhawk father as to be incapable of making autonomous policy decisions. (One Israeli politician told Goldberg that there can be no two-state solution until the 100-year-old father dies.) So the elder Netanyahu’s manifest enthusiasm for military action against Iran may be one of the most powerful forces behind it. This shouldn’t inspire American confidence in such a policy — and one thing the Atlantic article drives home is that Israel very much wants America to support air strikes or, better yet, actually conduct them.
The debate becomes about who should bomb Iran, not about whether Iran should be bombed.
When the subject turns from Netanyahu’s psychology to Israel’s psychology, the inclination to bomb Iran still looks none too cerebral. One of the prime movers behind it is that Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly has “near-sanctity, in the public’s mind” because it has “allowed the Jewish state to recover from the wounds of the Holocaust.” This is an understandable reaction to the trauma of the Shoah, and it helps explain the political pressure to bomb Iran, but it’s not a sound strategic reason to do so.
Memory of the Holocaust also, of course, informs Israel’s Iran policy in another way. “The Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us,” an anonymous Israeli official tells Goldberg. “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.”
Actually, my own sources tell me that, though many Israelis take seriously this prospect of Iran trying to annihilate them, Israel’s policy elites by and large don’t. They realize that Iranian leaders aren’t suicidal and so wouldn’t launch a nuclear strike against a country with at least 100 nukes. On close reading, as others have noted, the Atlantic piece suggests that this sober view indeed prevails in Israel’s higher echelons. Though Netanyahu warns us about a “messianic apocalyptic cult” possessing nuclear weapons, he doesn’t seem to be seriously imagining the “cult” launching a first strike. Goldberg writes: “The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me.”
So what are those challenges? For one thing, “Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella.” Whether heading off this prospect would justify bombing Iran is an interesting question, but we don’t need to ask it, because the prospect isn’t real. There’s no way Iran’s having a nuclear weapon would keep Israel from taking out Hezbollah missile sites in Lebanon as missiles from them rained down on Tel Aviv. If the Holocaust has left Israelis with an exaggerated fear of Iran’s intentions, it has also left them with an absolute refusal to be cowed.
One “existential” threat that Israel’s policy elites do seem to take seriously is that a nuclear Iran might render Israel such a scary place to live as to induce a brain drain. “The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” defense minister Ehud Barak tells Goldberg. Here again, I think the threat is overstated. After a year or two, Iran’s possession of nukes would become background noise for the average Israeli, less salient than periodic flurries of missiles from Lebanon or Gaza — flurries that so far have failed to noticeably drain Israel of intellectual capital.
The “brain drain” issue illustrates what weak “propaganda” much of Goldberg’s piece is: America is supposed to support — or even conduct — a military attack designed to keep talented people from immigrating to America? If I were Israel, I’d hire a new propagandist.
So, if this piece, read closely, makes for such an ineffectual pro-bombing pamphlet, why is Goldberg being pilloried as a propagandist?
For starters, there’s the claim that, though he spends a fair number of bullet points on the blowback from an attack on Iran, he still understates it. No mention, for example, of how an American-backed attack (and America would surely stand by Israel in the end) would feed the war-on-Islam narrative that is already starting to fuel home-grown terrorism in America.
But the main charges against Goldberg aren’t about loading the cost-benefit analysis. They’re about framing the future debate. His piece leaves you thinking that Israel will attack Iran very soon unless America does the honors. So the debate becomes about who should bomb Iran, not about whether Iran should be bombed.
And this is the way Israel’s hawks want the debate framed. That way either they get their wish and America does the bombing, or, worst case, they inure Americans to the prospect of a bombing and thus mute the outrage that might otherwise ensue after a surprise Israeli attack draws America into war. No wonder dozens of Israeli officials were willing to share their assessments with Goldberg, and no wonder “a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.”
Yossi Alpher, an Israeli peace activist and a 12-year veteran of the Mossad, has opined that Goldberg was “naïve” in not realizing that these officials were using him as part of a public relations campaign. As accusations against Goldberg go, “naïve” is pretty flattering, and I do think it may be more apt than “cynical.” I’ve long felt that most ulterior motives are subconscious, and Goldberg seems to be a case in point. Back in 2002, when he was vociferously arguing for an invasion of Iraq, he just wanted to believe that his Kurdish sources were giving him solid evidence of Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda — notwithstanding the fact that they, as fellow invasion advocates, had an interest in fabricating evidence. Now Goldberg again seems eager to accept the testimony of people whose testimony is obviously suspect.
In any event, his article shouldn’t distract Americans from the real question: Given that the United States would almost certainly be drawn into war with Iran in the wake of an Israeli strike, and given that America would be blamed for the strike whether or not it had green-lighted it, and given the many ways this would be bad for national security, how can American leaders keep it from happening?
Here, at least, Goldberg has performed a service. His article, read closely, suggests that even from Israel’s point of view, there’s no sound rationale for bombing Iran, especially when you consider the long-term downside: an attack would radically dim what prospects there are for lasting peace in the Middle East; Israel’s downward spiral — in which regional hostility toward it leads to conflicts that only deepen the hostility — would be sustained big time. If appealing to America’s interests isn’t enough to keep Israel from attacking Iran, maybe appealing to Israel’s interests will help.