Jeffrey Goldberg Replies on Israel, Iran, and 'Bluffing', Round 2

Discussion in 'Americas' started by Oracle, Mar 26, 2012.

  1. Oracle

    Oracle New Member

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    MAR 23 2012, 9:45 PM ET
    This follows our first round of Q-and-A exchange, and my second-round question earlier today. Jeffrey Goldberg replies, in a message sent on early Friday afternoon but that I saw (while on the road) only now. This is it for a while, but there is a lot to digest here.
    ___
    Dear Jim,
    That's quite a lot of writing from a Tasmanian truck stop. Imagine what you achieve if you were parked at an American truck stop. Or an Iranian truck stop, for that matter.

    There's a lot to unpack here, so I won't, though I agree with most of what you've written. Let me try briefly to answer the crucial question about Israel's two principal leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak: "What version of reality are they seeing that lets them think this way?"

    By "this way," you mean, of course, the thought that a preemptive strike on Natanz and other Iranian nuclear facilities will a) work in some meaningful way; b) protect Israel in the long-term, or medium-term, at least; c) not cause a regional war; d) not cause blowback against Israel's foremost ally, the U.S.; e) not cause catastrophic death-by-counterstrike in Israel.

    Let me start with a), which slides into b). When the Israelis attacked the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, they said they hoped to delay Iraq's nuclear program by a year. In fact, it stopped forever (though it's not clear if the Israeli strike was the principal reason why -- though it certainly didn't hurt). I mention this only to note that Israeli leaders privately say they'd be happy to buy a year. But: They think they'll buy more than a year. They have drilled on this for years (and according to American military sources, they've drilled successfully on this) and they believe they can set back the Iranian program for several years. Moreover, they are somewhat convinced -- and I am most definitely not -- that an attack could set in motion an uprising against the regime. (I tend to think that this is the weakest best-case scenario of all, because I assume that the regime would use an Israeli strike as an excuse to come down hard on every semi-dissident not already in jail, and I assume many Iranians won't be happy with an Israeli strike, even those who are unhappy with the regime.) The Israeli leaders believe that every year they buy against the Iranian program is another year that would allow the regime to collapse. I, too, believe it will collapse. It's the "when" that's the problem.

    As to c), the Israeli leaders believe that -- and this is obvious -- the Arabs will quietly applaud the Israeli strike, and certainly, in the event of a technically successful strike, not line up with Iran (quite the opposite -- Persian Gulf officials have told me compromise with Israel on other matters is at least slightly more likely if Iran is neutralized as a threat). They also believe, and this makes a certain amount of sense, that the Iranians may choose to cover-up a strike, or partially cover-up a strike, which is to say the following. Many facilities are not located in the center of cities (though one very important one is in Tehran). The attack will happen on a moonless night. The Iranians will have some ability to control what their own people hear about the strikes, and of course they will control access to these sites. They may choose, this line of thinking goes, to hush-up the strike, in the manner of the Syrians after the Israeli strike in 2007, or at most announce that the Zionists unsuccessfully attempted to strike at their facilities, and then fire a few missiles at Tel Aviv. Again, this seems to me to be a plausible scenario, but not likely. But you asked me how the political echelon was thinking, and this is what they're thinking (the army, I'm led to believe, is planning for a worst-case scenario).

    On d), the Israelis actually believe that the Iranian regime is semi-rational, if not reasonable (the argument I heard from hardliners is that Hitler pursued an unreasonable goal, the murder of all Jews, in a rational way). The Iranian leadership is interested in its own survival. If Israel strikes Iran, the regime will believe that America had a direct hand in the attack. But Iranian leaders will also think hard about lashing out directly against America, because they know that America can actually bring about an end of the regime if it chose to, through a punishing bombardment that destroys Iran's military infrastructure. So I think the Israeli leadership is counting on a rational, regime-protecting response from the ayatollahs. And one more thing: Not to overstate it, but some Israelis in leadership positions believe that they would actually be helping the U.S. by neutralizing an Iranian threat. Again, maybe, but certainly not something a prudent person would bank on.

    As to e), the threat of a deadly counterstrike, Ehud Barak is on record saying that he thinks Israeli casualties in a combined Iranian/Hezbollah missile strike might top 500, or hit the low 1000s, but not be devastating. I find this aspect of the conversation Strangelovian. But the truth is, Israel has fairly good missile defenses, and its Air Force could handle Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Iran's missile force is not overwhelming.

    But (and here's the key point): It doesn't matter. Not much of the preceding conversation matters. What people don't understand is that Netanyahu and many other Israelis view the Iranian regime, which is committed ideologically to Israel's destruction and seems to be seeking a weapon of mass destruction, as an extinction-level threat. The entire ethos of Israel is: "In every generation, someone rises up who wants to murder the Jewish people, but this time, we're not going down without a fight." That's in the DNA of the military and the political leadership. I asked President Obama if he thought Israeli leaders had overlearned the lessons of the Holocaust. He reminded them, through the interview, that they were running a modern state which has a need for a reality-based foreign policy, but he also acknowledged the awesome power of history to shape a worldview, and he treated that history very respectfully. This is a roundabout way of saying that if Israeli leaders see on the horizon an eliminationist anti-Semite who may be moving to acquire a nuclear weapon, they will try to stop him. This is why I think they are not bluffing. The problem with much of the analysis of Israel's actions in this area is in the mirror-imaging: Many people outside Israel wonder why the country would take the military, political and diplomatic risks associated with attacking Iran's nuclear program. But what they don't remember is that the worst thing, from Israel's perspective, has already happened: The murder, 70 years ago, of one out of every three Jews on the planet.

    By the way, just so we're clear, I think this is a precipitous way to think, and I think very definitively that 2012 isn't 1938, and not only because of the existence of a nuclear-armed Jewish state. But I certainly understand the mentality.

    I hope this is helpful.

    Best,
    Jeff

    TheAtlantic
     
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  3. Oracle

    Oracle New Member

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    The first round:

    An Exchange With Jeffrey Goldberg on 'Bluffing,' Israel, and Iran

    MAR 21 2012, 9:30 PM ET
    My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and what Israel and the United States might do in response, has drawn tremendous attention over the past two years, most recently after his interview with President Obama on this topic. It has also generated controversy, especially after his latest reporting trip to Israel with its updated assessments of the Netanyahu government's possible intention to attack.

    Jeff Goldberg's office is right next to to mine at The Atlantic, and in normal circumstances we would talk in person about what he has reported, how his views have changed, and how his reports have been received. But we're both out of Washington at the moment -- he is on the road in the US; I have, improbably, arrived just now in Tasmania -- and he has agreed to (in fact, suggested) a public Q-and-A email exchange with me about what he has written and how he has come to the conclusions he has drawn.

    I sent him a very long opening "question" a few hours ago, and he has now sent back his first-round reply. With his approval, I'm putting this round up now. Tomorrow I will follow up with more questions, and I'll post those and his reply when they're ready. For now, here is the initial round.
    ___
    Dear Jeff:

    Thanks for being willing to discuss the background and circumstances of your reporting on the Iran-Israel-United States showdowns of the past two years.

    You are in a very important position to talk about this story, because your reporting, mainly for The Atlantic, has had significant international effects. Two years ago, you did a famous cover story saying that Israel was deadly earnest about striking Iran's nuclear facilities -- unless it was sure the United States would do the job on its own. Last month, President Obama called you to the White House for an interview in which, among other things, he signaled a tough line against Iranian nuclear ambitions as well.

    Then this month, during a trip to Israel, you reported for Bloomberg that maybe Netanyahu had been bluffing all along! Maybe "he has never had any intention of launching air and missile strikes against Iran's nuclear program, and is working behind the scenes with Obama to stop Iran through sanctions." And finally, just two days ago, you reported also for Bloomberg that -- on the contrary -- some Israeli officials had started to believe their own "best-case" scenarios and were back to planning an attack.

    My first question is, very simply: can you put these stories together for us? We reporters operate in real time, making the best of what is always imperfect information. As you have said recently on our site, when the facts change, we do our best to adjust our reporting to the new realities. But as you look back over these two-plus years, can you give us some narrative of how you think facts have changed? Or your assessment of them? Has the degree of "existential" concern -- and therefore determination to attack -- changed in Israel? Has its assessment of US intentions changed? Has the group of people you've talked with in the US or Israeli governments -- or who have made themselves available or unavailable -- changed? We've seen each of your reports, but they have more or less stood alone. Can you give us an idea of whether you think these changed assessments reflect real changes in Israeli (or US) policies, or different emphases you heard, or changes in your own gut instinct about who is telling the truth?

    Second, I'll ask what I call my "Usual Suspects" question. I'm thinking of the last few minutes of that famous Kevin Spacey / all-star-cast movie, in which the Chazz Palminteri character finally understands what has really been going on. He then replays all the preceding events of the movie in an entirely different light, seeing with the benefit of hindsight connections he had not recognized before.

    You've raised, in your recent reports, the possibility that the Netanyahu government has actually been carrying out an elaborate high-stakes bluff. Eg, "How has Obama convinced the world that these sanctions [on Iran] are necessary? By pointing to Netanyahu and saying, 'If you don't cooperate with me on sanctions, this guy is going to blow up the Middle East.' Obama's good-cop routine is then aided immeasurably by the world's willingness to believe that Netanyahu is the bad cop."

    If it was a bluff, it's one you've had a unique opportunity to see and assess. If they really were bluffing, presenting you with the evidence and data for your 2010 cover story would have been a very important step. As you think back, Chazz Palminteri style, on what you heard and saw in 2010, knowing what you now know -- about two years with no attack, and about the "bluff" hypothesis you've now raised -- is there anything that seems different to you in retrospect? Anything that now increases your suspicions that they were bluffing at the time? We report what we know in real time -- but every so often there is a chance to look back and see how it worked out. I would be fascinated to know how your notes and instincts from 2010 look to you, as you review them in light of developments since then.

    Thanks, Jim

    ____

    Here is his reply:

    Dear Jim,

    Thank you for doing this. I'm glad you're interested in understanding the development of my reporting over the past couple of years. First, a correction: You write: "During a trip to Israel, you reported for Bloomberg that maybe Netanyahu had been bluffing all along." First, in that column, I wrote that I still suspected Netanyahu wasn't, in fact, bluffing, but then I explained why it was a plausible scenario. I promise never to think out loud in that way again -- it seems to offend Andrew Sullivan when I do. Also, I wrote that column before I went to Israel, not when I was in Israel. I went to Israel to update my reporting in part because I wanted to test out this notion. After a week in Israel, I came to the conclusion that there is nothing much to the idea that Netanyahu is bluffing, and this is what I wrote in my column this week.

    In any case, I've always believed that the Israeli leadership is sincere about contemplating a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. This is why I wrote that cover story in 2010. As you know, I wrote in that story that if current conditions at the time of writing pertained, there was a better than 50 percent chance that Israel would strike by the fall of 2011.

    After the story appeared, I spoke, as I often do, with figures in the American national security establishment, who told me -- not to a person, certainly -- that they thought Israel was serious about its intentions, but they were unsure of the timeline I suggested. Then, about six to nine months after the story appeared, I began hearing from American officials that they believed Israel was ramping-up its plans, and accelerating its timeline. Of course, by late 2011, and certainly early 2012, the Obama Administration was seized by the fear that Israel would strike Iran sometime this spring. Leon Panetta, of course, said that he believed an Israeli attack would come by June of this year. One thing people misunderstand about my reporting is that they think I'm making my judgments based only on what Israeli officials tell me. On the contrary, I test everything I hear in Israel with American officials, and non-governmental experts, and I ask them to judge the sincerity of Israeli intentions. Panetta's answer -- first reported by David Ignatius -- is one of the main reasons I also judge the Israelis to be sincere.

    You ask if my interpretation of the facts have changed over the past two years. Actually, no, not that much. I think the crisis has intensified, but I think we're on a kind-of straight line here. Sometimes I try to second-guess myself, as I did with the column last week, but obviously there's a danger in doing that because ideologically driven readers expect consistency. I'll probably still do it, however.

    One thing that has changed for me is that I more firmly believe now that an Israeli strike, especially this year, would be a mistake. I've written that repeatedly, of course. I understand Israeli motivations, and I take the fear of an Iran with nuclear weapons seriously. But let me put it this way: I didn't disagree with very much at all of what President Obama told me when I interviewed him on February 29th. The White House position on this seems like a sound one.

    You've packed a lot of questions into one question, so I'm sure I've missed something, so maybe we can revisit in later questions, but to answer your Chazz Palminteri question, I don't think I've been bluffed, and I don't the U.S. government has been bluffed. Certainly, no one in the Administration or the Pentagon is acting as if Israel is bluffing.
    ___

    More to come.
     
  4. Oracle

    Oracle New Member

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    The second round:

    MAR 23 2012, 12:25 PM ET
    Here is round two of the online exchange with Jeffrey Goldberg that began here.

    ___

    Dear Jeff:

    Thank you very much for this reply. For our second round - which will be the last round for a while, as I'll explain - I'd like to shift from asking about the reporting you've been in the middle of, to the substance of the choice that the Israeli government will make.

    (This is the last round for a while, because you're about to go out of communications range for a week, and I'm already in Internet limbo - this comes from a truck stop on the Tasman Peninsula that has just enough one-bar cell phone coverage to support an Android hotspot. I hope we can resume when we're both back.)

    I understand the points you're making here -- about believing all along that the PM Netanyahu's threats have been serious, and that your recent "could he be bluffing?" column was meant as a thought-experiment more than a shift in conclusion.

    Let me explain why I have felt all along that at some level this had to be a bluff, and why it remains hard for me to believe that, in the end, "even" Binyamin Netanyahu would go ahead and order this strike.

    You and I agree that it would be better in a thousand ways if Iran does not develop a nuclear-weapons capability. The #1 reason, on my list, would be the ripple-effect pressure for proliferation in nearby countries- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. I recognize that the Israeli government has a different reason #1. But although many people, for many reasons, share the goal of avoiding a nuclear-armed Iran, a solution that doesn't solve the problem is not a "solution." And everything I have known, learned, and thought about this issue tells me that an Israeli strike would likely make the entire situation worse. Including the parts of "the situation" that put Israel in direct peril.

    You're familiar with all these arguments, but as a refresher-summary for our discussion:

    - Merely buying time. No one seriously contends that an aerial strike would eliminate Iran's nuclear potential in any permanent way. It's a matter of buying time - a year or two, by most estimates.

    - Increasing resolve. In exchange for possibly buying that time, most analyses I've seen indicate that a strike would only intensify Iran's determination to go ahead with its program.

    - Strengthening the regime. You can find examples in history of an external strike making a troubled regime seem fatally weak and vulnerable. (Eg: The effect of defeat in WW I on the Tsarist Russian regime.) But I can find more examples of foreign attacks being used as rallying tools - eg, as I mentioned recently, Castro with the Bay of Pigs. Every report I've read suggests that this is the more likely result within Iran.

    - Short and medium term "kinetic" effects on Israel - and the United States. The "war game" that the Atlantic ran back in 2004 reached the same conclusions the Pentagon's recent war game reportedly did: that a motivated Iran would have lots of ways to inflict retaliatory damage, directly on Israel and on U.S. troops and installations in the region, and indirectly on the world economy and American interests in general.

    - Long term strategic effects on Israel. I recognize that the Netanyahu view of Israel's best long-term interests differs from mine. For instance, his expansion of the settlements is, in my view, a near-certain path to tragedy for Israel - and I feel that in part because I've been convinced by your writing on this subject.

    But even Netanyahu must see that no nation fashions a long-term peace for itself with a foreign policy based exclusively on "hard" power. That last for a while, but only so long. And if Netanyahu applies a "hard power" "solution" to the Iranian problem - a bombing run that, at best, buys a few years of time- but in exchange undermines Israel's long-run wellbeing, he will have done something very damaging for his nation. A crucial element of that well-being is of course Israel's ties with the only ally that matters, the United States. If an Israeli prime minister launches a "discretionary war" that his main ally plainly does not want, and that has tremendous open-ended potential to damage America and its interests, how is this not a disastrous decision for his country? (How could it damage America? The U.S. military, already grossly over-extended, could be called into service in yet another theater; the American economy would be among many harmed by an oil-supply panic; there could be a new rationale for terrorist attacks on Americans at home and abroad.)

    Maybe none of these things would happen. But maybe all of them would.

    In short, I can imagine a lot in the world. But it is hard for me to imagine how a rational Israeli government - no matter how "hard line," no matter how "hawkish" -- could go ahead with a step that has such potential to be ruinous for Israel itself. Yes, an Iranian bomb could arguably pose an "existential" threat to Israel. (I don't think it should be seen that way, but we'll debate that later.) But, again, if a bombing raid makes Israel's overall problems worse, how is it a "solution"?

    That's why I have thought that, in the end, the escalating threats must be a bluff.

    Obviously I'm not asking you to endorse a bombing raid. You've argued many times, and in this latest exchange, that it would be a bad idea. But if, as you say, the current Israeli government really isn't bluffing, then they must have convinced themselves that this will work. What version of reality are they seeing that lets them think this way?

    I'll be interested in whatever you can say about their state of mind, before your upcoming hiatus. Thanks for taking these topics on so openly. We both know that this subject will stay in the news, and I hope that when we're both back in Washington we can continue this exchange as events warrant. Next time, I will even try to be concise.

    - Jim

    TheAtlantic
     
  5. The Messiah

    The Messiah Bow Before Me! Elite Member

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