The Atlantic continues to heat up its “bomb Iran debate” by highlighting the views of Elliot Abrams, Patrick Clawson, Martin Indyk, Karim Sadjadpour, and a few other like-minded Iran “experts.” It is remarkable how The Atlantic seems to have systematically excluded analysts who do not support either bombing Iran or active support for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. It really is becoming Iraq all over again. Below, and in subsequent pieces, we will feature the views of important analysts who should have been included in The Atlantic’s one-sided discussion to make it an actual “debate.” We will break down the real debate into a series of important questions that are becoming prominent in public discussions on Iran in the United States.
The first of these questions, on which we focus today, is: Is there an orchestrated campaign to build public support—and political pressure—in the United States for a U.S. or U.S.-backed Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets? For our part, we clearly believe that there is such a campaign—and that this campaign is being brought to you by many of the same journalists, public intellectuals, and organizations that spearheaded the campaign to “sell” the Iraq war to the American public in the years leading up to the March 2003 invasion. From this perspective, we see Jeffrey Goldberg’s attention-getting article published last week by The Atlantic as an important step in what we anticipate will be an intensifying push for war against Iran over the next 12-18 months.
Interestingly, James Fallows argues that Goldberg—Fallows’ colleague at The Atlantic—is not, in fact, making the case for a military strike against Iran:
“I think that those reading the piece as a case for bombing Iran are mainly reacting to arguments about the preceding war. Jeff Goldberg was a big proponent of invading Iraq, as I was not—and those who disagreed with him about that war have in many cases taken the leap of assuming he’s making the case for another assault. I think this is mainly response to byline rather than argument. If this new article had appeared under the byline of someone known to have opposed the previous war and to be skeptical about the next one, I think the same material could be read in the opposite way—as a cautionary revelation of what the Netanyahu government might be preparing to do.”
We think, see here, that Goldberg’s reporting on why so many Israeli political and policymaking elites want a military strike against Iran should be read as a “cautionary revelation,” because the reasons adduced by Israeli elites for a strike are extremely weak, especially from the standpoint of American strategic interests. With regard to Fallows’ argument just cited, Ken Silverstein of Harper’s Magazine—who scrupulously catalogued Goldberg’s history of journalistic malpractice during the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq—holds, see here, that
“Goldberg’s past work as a dishonest advocate for the Iraq War and his long service in support of the Israeli military (literally for a time, when he served in the Israeli Defense Force) makes Fallows’s argument harder to accept. Goldberg has never seen an Israeli military action that he didn’t approve of. Can anyone honestly believe that Goldberg wouldn’t support an Israeli attack on Iran in the event that it came to pass?
“Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic is more balanced than his Iraq war ‘reporting’, which ranked with British propaganda from World War I about German soldiers bayoneting babies, but it’s awfully sympathetic to the Israeli point of view. If Israel does attack Iran, its supporters will surely point to Goldberg’s piece as evidence for why such a strike was necessary, just as President Bush cited Goldberg’s work in making the case for war in Iraq.”
In this regard, we also highlight Glenn Greenwald’s arresting, “How Propaganda Works”:
“Jeffrey Goldberg, in the new cover story in The Atlantic, on an Israeli attack on Iran:
“‘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.’
“Good news! Israel can successfully end a country’s nuclear program by bombing them, as proven by its 1981 attack on Iraq, which, says Goldberg, halted ‘forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.’
“Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker, 2002, trying to convince Americans to fear Iraq:
“‘Saddam Hussein never gave up his hope or turning Iraq into a nuclear power. After the Osirak attack, he rebuilt, redoubled his efforts, and dispersed his facilities. Those who have followed Saddam’s progress believe that no single strike today would eradicate his nuclear program.’
“When it suited him back then, Goldberg made the exact opposite claim, literally, of the one he makes today. Back then, Goldberg wouldn’t possibly claim what he claims now—that the 1981 strike permanently halted Saddam’s ‘nuclear ambitions’—because, back then, his goal was to scare Americans about The Threat of Saddam. So in 2002, Goldberg warned Americans that Saddam had ‘redoubled’ his efforts to turn Iraq into a nuclear power after the Israeli attack, i.e., that Saddam had a scarier nuclear program than ever before after the 1981 bombing raid. But now, Goldberg has a different goal: to convince Americans of the efficacy of bombing Iran, and thus, without batting an eye, he simply asserts the exact opposite factual premise: that the Israelis successfully and permanently ended Saddam’s nuclear ambition back in 1981 by bombing it out of existence (and, therefore, we can do something similar now to Iran).
“This is what a propagandist, by definition, does: asserts any claim as fact in service of a concealed agenda without the slightest concern for whether it’s true. Will the existence of a vast and menacing Iraqi nuclear program help my cause (getting Americans to attack Iraq)? Fine, then I’ll trumpet that. Now, however, it will help my cause (mainstreaming an attack on Iran) to claim that the Israelis permanently ended Iraq’s nuclear efforts in 1981, thus showing how well these attacks can work. No problem: I’ll go with that. How can anyone take seriously—as a Middle East expert and especially as a journalist—someone with this blatant and thorough of an estrangement from any concern for truth? Can anyone reconcile these factual claims?
“…[T]he core premise of Goldberg’s article—that Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons—is asserted, in the very first sentence, as indisputable fact without so much as acknowledging, let along resolving, the substantial evidence casting serious doubt on that scary claim…Goldberg’s latest historical assertion—that the 1981 Israeli attack ended Saddam’s nuclear efforts—is the precise opposite of reality: Iraq had no genuine nuclear weapons program prior to 1981, but it was the Israeli attack which caused Saddam to conclude that he needed one. That is what spawned the very substantial Iraqi efforts from 1981 to 1991 to develop nuclear weapons: efforts which were actually ended by Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent U.N. inspection regime…Goldberg wants to obfuscate those facts lest one conclude: just as happened with Iraq, nothing would spur an Iranian desire for nuclear weapons more than a bombing campaign against their country.”
Drawing, in part, on the work of another blogger, Jonathan Schwarz, Greenwald insightfully describes Goldberg’s role in the current “propaganda effort” regarding Iran:
“Goldberg is not Bill Kristol or Charles Krauthammer, at least in terms of function. He’s not going to run around overtly beating his chest demanding that the U.S. attack Iran (or that the U.S. support Israel’s attack): at least not yet. Although Goldberg did precisely that in the run-up to the attack on Iraq, his function now is more subtle, and more insidious. He’s nothing if not shrewd, and certainly shrewd enough to know that if he spouts nakedly bellicose demands for a war with Iran, he’ll be quickly dismissed as a neocon fanatic, especially in light of his discredited and falsehood-filled campaign to persuade Americans to attack Iraq. Indeed, Goldberg himself notes that even George Bush derided Kristol and Krauthammer as ‘the bomber boys.’ He’s much too smart to let himself be consigned to the lowly and limited (though important) role of fanning the flames of right-wing fanaticism; he’s intent on re-branding himself after what he did in 2002 and 2003 and preserving his mainstream influence.
“Thus, his pose is objective journalist. He’ll feign ‘ambivalence’ about whether Iran should be bombed—thus showing how thoughtful and non-ideological he is—while infecting the discourse with the kinds of factual falsehoods documented here, all in service of skewing the debate towards ensuring an attack happens. At its core, it’s only a slightly modified version of what he did with Iraq (I’m merely ‘reporting’ on Saddam’s extensive relationship with Al Qaeda and his nuclear program/I’m merely ‘reporting’ on the view of Israeli leaders that ‘a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people’).
“It’s really one of the strangest and most revealing facts that the ‘objective journalist’ to whom America’s political elites most faithfully turn for ‘reporting’ on the Middle East is someone whose loyalty to Israel is so overarching that he actually went and joined the IDF (just try to imagine an American journalist reporting on this conflict for a large media outlet who previously joined the Iranian military or the military of any predominantly Muslim country). There’s nothing wrong per se with his doing so or with maintaining loyalty to other countries; many Americans do so with all sorts of countries and for all sorts of reasons. It’s also true that Goldberg’s intense, Israel-devoted agenda doesn’t preclude some good reporting; there are interesting and even revealing aspects in his article about how Israeli leaders think about Iran, or at least how they want Americans to believe they think about Iran.
“But Jeffrey Goldberg is no more of an objective reporter on such matters than Benjamin Netanyahu is, and the fact that so many are willing to treat him as though he is provides a valuable testament to the ongoing vitality of the Supreme Law of Beltway Life: Seriousness credentials, once vested, can never be revoked, no matter how grave one’s past sins of falsehood and error are. The purpose of this Atlantic article is as obvious as it is odious: to mainstream the debate over an Israeli or American attack on Iran by defending its rationale, all masquerading as objective reporting (I’m merely describing the substantial possibility that it could happen and, if it does, why it would be justifiable). I’m tempted to say that anyone who falls for Jeffrey Goldberg’s act again deserves what they get, except that—as always—they’re not the ones who will pay the price for the fallout.”
Greenwald also usefully underscores Goldberg’s frequent comparisons of Iran to Nazi Germany, reminding us “it was endlessly claimed that it was Saddam who was the New Hitler in order to ratchet up fear levels and justify an attack on that country, too. How many times can we be persuaded to attack the New Hitler?” (We have argued that the comparison of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Hitler’s Germany is particularly misplaced; see here.)
Finally, Flynt’s New America Foundation colleague Robert Wright, writing on The New York Times’ “Opinionator” blog, suggests that the main issue with regard to “Goldberg as propagandist” is the way in which his article helps to frame future public 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 be next July’…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 a subsequent piece for www.RaceForIran.com, we will look at how the “bomb Iran” debate is shaking out on another important question: what is the justification for what some euphemistically describe as “preventive war” against Iran? Note: Some advocates of starting a war with Iran use the phrase “pre-emption”, but this is a misleadingly inaccurate formulation. Pre-emption means that there is an imminent threat—the gun is not just loaded, but cocked, and the “evildoer” is pointing the gun at an innocent victim with his finger around the trigger, preparing to fire. A “preventive war” scenario means, by definition, that there is no imminent threat, but that a national government somehow concludes it should act anyway to prevent such a threat—which may not even be theoretically possible now—from emerging.
We think that “preventive war” is itself a somewhat euphemistic formulation, which could be used, as Flynt’s former colleague Paul Pillar put it so well, to “make aggression respectable”. Nevertheless, it is important not to let those making the case for initiating military action against Iran get away with labeling this “pre-emption”.
But we will save a discussion of the case for “preventive war” with Iran—as we have written before, we think it is a very bad idea, on multiple levels (see, for example, here and here—for another day.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett