The Atlantic has posted a compelling article by Jeffrey Goldberg, who for the record is not me, on the prospects of an Israeli military strike against Iran. It’s based on extensive on- and off-the-record interviews with Israeli political and military leaders, Obama administration officials and Arab diplomats. He puts the likelihood of an Israeli strike within the next year at higher than 50%.
He does a good job of laying out the thinking behind Israel’s fears, as well as showing the ambivalence in Washington, the arguments for giving sanctions a chance and the defensiveness of the Obama team in the face of skepticism about its resolve. He also paints a fascinating picture of Bibi Netanyahu’s relationship with his 100-year-old father, suggesting a deep need for respect from the old man (although, given the stakes for the world in this very human psychodrama, a bit more exploration would have been helpful).
A great deal of attention is devoted to Bibi’s and other Israelis’ sense of obligation to Jewish history and the lessons of the Holocaust — meaning, when somebody threatens Jews with annihilation and has the means to do it, take it seriously. He also makes a convincing case that leaders of Arab states in the region fear Iran almost as much as Israel if not more, though it would have been nice to hear more about why they’re afraid — what a nuclear Iran would mean for Arab society. It would helpful, too, to explore how they can be, on the one hand, sufficiently alarmed to favor a military strike with its possibly terrible consequences, and on the other hand blasé enough to contemplate fleeing into the Iranian camp if somebody else doesn’t come to save them. Maybe it’s simply a weakness of character on their part, but I wonder if there isn’t something else going on that we’re not hearing. On this score, Goldberg (the other guy, not me) raises as many questions as he answers and makes me hungry to know more.
In a posting about the piece on his blog, Goldberg writes that he will be blogging soon about his “own personal opinion” on hitting Iran, which “involves deep, paralyzing ambivalence.” It’s too bad he didn’t put that ambivalence into the piece, which basically lays out the case for an attack with only cursory attention to the case against.
You can hear the counterarguments at length if you talk to just about any senior European diplomat. Or, for that matter, to a serious Israeli military figure who isn’t in favor of the military answer. Yes, there are some, as Goldberg notes in passing. They reportedly include the enormously respected military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, which helps partly explain Ashkenazi’s ugly tensions with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, including the fact that Barak has been unceremoniously and insultingly pushing him under the bus as his term of office prematurely winds down.
Goldberg (Jeff, that is) takes note of the most important counterarguments, but only in telegraphic fashion. Most experts on both sides agree that an Israeli strike would likely be followed by major destabilizing shifts in the Middle East balance of power, in America’s standing in the region and the world, in Israel’s all-important relationship with Washington. Also, massively destructive retaliatory attacks on Israel’s home front by Hezbollah rockets, plus bloody terrorist attacks against Jews and Jewish targets around the world. (Goldberg alludes without spelling it out to the Iran-Hezbollah attacks on Argentinian Jewish targets in 1992 and 1994, which are still considered the bloodiest anti-Jewish violence outside Israel since World War II.) Unfortunately, these considerations are dispensed with by the end of the fourth paragraph and take up just 165 of the article’s 9,700 words. (The Netanyahu family oedipal drama, by contrast, gets almost 800 words.) As a result, while the article carries an air of ambivalence, its overall impact is to build sympathy for a military strike.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that — I am ambivalent on the question myself — but a serious debate for and against attacking Iran requires a full and fair explication of both sides, including the downside.
The most frequently aired arguments against hitting Iran include the fact that war is awful, that Iranians are people too, that we attacked Iraq and look where it got us, and of course that this is all about Islamophobia. There’s some truth in those points and a lot of truth in some of them. But they oversimplify a very complicated issue. An attack on Iran might be a legitimate, perhaps even necessary answer to a terrible threat. It would also unleash a near-unimaginable world of trouble. Both sides need to be taken seriously and weighed against each other carefully to attempt a fully rational understanding of this thing. Jeff Goldberg wrote a good piece, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the definitive piece that’s still needed.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).