Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes Middle Eastern and other conflicts. He also blogs on his own website Rootless Cosmopolitan. This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
America's march to a disastrous war in Iraq began in the media, where an unprovoked U.S. invasion of an Arab country was introduced as a legitimate policy option, then debated as a prudent and necessary one. Now, a similarly flawed media conversation on Iran is gaining momentum.
Last month, TIME's Joe Klein warned that Obama administration sources had told him bombing Iran's nuclear facilities was "back on the table." In an interview with CNN, former CIA director Admiral Mike Hayden next spoke of an "inexorable" dynamic toward confrontation, claiming that bombing was a more viable option for the Obama administration than it had been for George W. Bush. The pièce de résistance in the most recent drum roll of bomb-Iran alerts, however, came from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly. A journalist influential in U.S. pro-Israeli circles, he also has access to Israel’s corridors of power. Because sanctions were unlikely to force Iran to back down on its uranium enrichment project, Goldberg invited readers to believe that there was a more than even chance Israel would launch a military strike on the country by next summer.
His piece, which sparked considerable debate in both the blogosphere and the traditional media, was certainly an odd one. After all, despite the dramatics he deployed, including vivid descriptions of the Israeli battle plan, and his tendency to paint Iran as a new Auschwitz, he also made clear that many of his top Israeli sources simply didn’t believe Iran would launch nuclear weapons against Israel, even if it acquired them.
Nonetheless, Goldberg warned, absent an Iranian white flag soon, Israel would indeed launch that war in summer 2011, and it, in turn, was guaranteed to plunge the region into chaos. The message: the Obama administration better do more to confront Iran or Israel will act crazy.
It's not lost on many of his progressive critics that, when it came to supporting a prospective invasion of Iraq back in 2002, Goldberg proved effective in lobbying liberal America, especially through his reports of "evidence" linking Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Then and now, he presents himself as an interlocutor who has no point of view. In his most recent Atlantic piece, he professed a "profound, paralyzing ambivalence" on the question of a military strike on Iran and subsequently, in radio interviews, claimed to be "personally opposed" to military action.
His piece, however, conveniently skipped over the obvious inconsistencies in what his Israeli sources were telling him. In addition, he excluded perspectives from Israeli leaders that might have challenged his narrative in which an embattled Jewish state feels it has no alternative but to launch a quixotic military strike. Such an attack, as he presented it, would have limited hope of doing more than briefly setting back the Iranian nuclear program, perhaps at catastrophic cost, and so Israeli leaders would act only because they believe the "goyim" won't stop another Auschwitz. Or as my friend Paul Woodward, editor of the War in Context website, so brilliantly summed up the Israeli message to America: "You must do what we can’t, because if you don’t, we will."
Goldberg insists that he is merely initiating a debate about how to tackle Iran and that debate is already underway on his terms -- that is, like its Iraq War predecessor, based on a fabricated sense of crisis and arbitrary deadlines.
Last Friday, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had convinced Israel that there was no need to rush on the issue. Should Iran decide to build a nuclear weapon (which it has not done), it would, administration officials pointed out, quickly make its intentions clear by expelling the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors who routinely monitor its nuclear work, and breaking out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After that, it would still need another year or more to assemble its first weapon.
In other words, despite Goldberg's breathless two-minutes-to-midnight schedule, there's no urgency whatsoever about debating military action against Iran. And then, of course, there’s the question of the very premises of the to-bomb-or-not-to-bomb “debate.” Perhaps, after all these years of obsessive Iran nuclear mania, it’s too much to request a moment of sanity on the issue of Iran and the bomb. If, however, we really have a couple of years to think this over, what about starting by asking three crucial questions, each of which our debaters would prefer to avoid or ignore?
1. Does the U.S. have a right to launch wars of aggression without provocation, in defiance of international law and an international consensus, simply on the basis of its own suspicions about another country's future intentions?
Or to put it bluntly, as former National Security Council staffers Flint Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have: Does the U.S. have the right to attack Iran because it is enriching uranium?
The idea that the U.S. has the right to take such a catastrophic step based on the fevered imaginations of Biblically inspired Israeli extremists -- Goldberg has previously suggested that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes Iran to be the reincarnation of the Biblical Amalekites, mortal enemies the ancient Hebrews were to smite -- or simply to preserve an Israeli monopoly on nuclear force in the Middle East is as bizarre as it is reckless. Even debating the possibility of launching a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as a matter of rational policy, absent any Iranian aggression or even solid evidence that the Iranian leadership intends to wage its own version of aggressive war, gives an undeserved respectability to what would otherwise be considered steps beyond the bounds of rational foreign policy discussion.
Perhaps someone in our media hothouse could take just a moment to ask why, outside of the United States and Israel, there is no support -- nada, zero, zip -- for military action against Iran. In Goldberg's world, this may be nothing more than the eternal beast of anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in the form of disdain for the rise of yet another Amalek/Haman/Torquemada/Hitler. A more sober reading of the international situation would, however, suggest that most of the international community simply doesn't share an alarmist view of what Iran's nuclear program represents.
Indeed, it is notable that, in Goldberg's world, Arabs and Iranians never get to speak. The Arabs, we are told, secretly want Israel or the U.S. to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities out of fear that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would embolden their Persian rivals. They are, so the story goes, just not able to say so in public. Of course, when Arab leaders do publicly express their opposition to the idea of another war being launched in the Middle East, they are ignored in the Goldberg-led debate.
Similarly, their rejection of Washington’s long-held premise that Israel's special security must be exempted from any discussion of the creation of a nuclear-free Middle East remains outside the bounds of the Iran-debate story. And don't expect to see any mention of the authoritative University of Maryland annual survey of Arab public opinion either. After all, it recently reported that, contrary to claims of an Arab world cowering under the threat of Iranian nukes, 57% of the Arab public actually believe a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for the Middle East!
The idea that Iran's regime might exist for any purpose other than to destroy Israel is largely ignored as well. Bizarrely enough, Iranians don’t actually feature much in the American “debate” at all (beyond citations of Mad-Mullah-like pronouncements by some Iranian leaders who wish Israel would disappear). The long, nuanced relationship between Israel and the Islamic Republic, as explained by Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, is simply ignored. So, too, is every indication Iran's leaders have given that they have no intention of attacking Israel or any other country. In fact, in the Goldberg debate, domestic politics in both the U.S. and Israel is understood as an important factor in future decisions; Iran, with the Green Movement presently suppressed, is considered to have no domestic politics at all, just those Mad Mullahs.
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