Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bombing Iran: Goldberg Responds

In response to my recent post, Jeffrey Goldberg sent me the following email, which I reproduce in full:

I read your recent article, and I don't feel that the merits of your case are strong. When I completed the reporting for the Atlantic piece in June (it was shipped in July and published in August), the Obama Administration was just finishing to put in place the multilateral sanctions on Iran that have only in the past two or three months begun to hurt the regime's ability to buy, among other things, the steel it needs for its nuclear program. The Obama Administration, and the Netanyahu government, have both expressed pleasant surprise in the past two or three months about how effective the sanctions have apparently been. Also, the Stuxnet program, which of course wasn't known to me in June (and wasn't known, out of necessity, by most of the Israeli officials I interviewed) has only been shown to have been effective -- crippling as many as 20 percent of Iran's centrifuges -- over the past two months or so. At the time I wrote the article, in June, Israeli officials, of various political inclinations, believed that the military option was going to have be considered in 2011. I was not, of course, the only person to notice that Israeli officials, from Netanyahu on down, thought this way. I could not write, in June of 2010, that the sanctions would be more effective than the Obama Administration thought, because the new sanctions had not yet been put in place; and I could not write about the damage caused by the Stuxnet virus to the centrifuges, because the damage had not yet been done, or learned about by Western intelligence agencies. I reported accurately on what was generally believed at the time, both in Israel and in Washington. As for the various insults you level at me, they don't merit a response. Please feel free to publish this response.

I leave it to readers to decide whether this letter addresses the issues I raised in my various criticisms of Goldberg's article here, here, and (with Reza Aslan) in The International Herald Tribune. Read also this post and consider whether the article (entitled, remember, "Point Of No Return"), or its critics who have been calling for calm, proved more credible, and even more in line with Israeli intelligence strategists, to whom Goldberg notionally had special access, and on whose anticipated actions he was ostensibly reporting.

Just to be clear: I did not mean to level insults at Goldberg, and do not consider this a personal matter. If he feels himself personally insulted, I regret this. As I have written here in the past, I greatly admire a number of Goldberg's past articles, especially his ground-breaking coverage of West Bank settlers when he was writing for The New Yorker. We have many friends in common, who assure me he is good company.

But I believed his article this past summer was irresponsible. The fact that "Israeli officials, of various political inclinations, believed that the military option was going to have be considered in 2011" was not news and required no muckraking. Nor would the Atlantic have published any piece that was simply about an "option that was going to have to be considered in 2011."

The point of the article, clearly, was to create a sense of plausibility, even sympathy, for that belief, and even to justify a preemptive American military strike on Iran, since an "existentially" necessary Israeli attack would draw the US in anyway; to imply that even Arab regimes in the region would welcome an American strike. The article came out at a time when the Obama administration was trying to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and much to Netanyahu's satisfaction, no doubt, changed the subject from Israeli settlements to Iranian threats of genocide.

In his letter, Goldberg explains the mitigating circumstances that caused him to report what was knowable as opposed to what was not. Fair enough, I suppose. But the thing that was knowable--what Netanyahu and Israeli rightists believed, or at least said they believed--was not only knowable, it was irresponsible, too. A former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, called the prospect of war with Iran "madness." This view did not make it into "Point Of No Return."

He was not, after all, writing about the knowable and unknowable facts of a campaign for mayor of Trenton. The inference for action was regional war in which tens, if not hundreds, of thousands would die; also the preclusion of a peace process that Netanyahu, whose coalition loves the status quo, wanted to put into eclipse. If one is going to justify war, in other words, should one not know unknown facts that have a half-life longer than June, July, and August?