As the Trump administration pursues a policy of provocation with Iran that could result in a war few Americans want, we should recognize that we’ve been here before. In 2010-2012, Israel and Saudi Arabia wanted the U.S. to attack Iran, and then too Americans had no stomach for war, and President Barack Obama refused to attack. Obama did ramp up sanctions, resulting in the negotiations that led to the Iran deal in 2015.
Now Trump has trashed Obama’s deal and gone in for a lot of bellicose rhetoric about the “official end” of Iran. But he pulled back last week from more open hostilities because he plainly does not want war– it would be a political disaster for him– and is reported to be incensed at the very war cabinet he put in place. “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting,” Trump is said to have commented on his inner circle. That circle is there because Trump is under pressure from his largest donor, Sheldon Adelson, who once urged Obama to nuke Iran.
Six years ago, Obama was under his own set of pressures. “Prime Minister Netanyahu was urging President Obama to bomb Iran,” John Kerry said in 2017. The Saudis also urged the U.S. to attack Iran, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.
Obama was also being pressed by the establishment press. Jeffrey Goldberg was then the leading reporter on Middle East issues, with close ties to Israel, where he had once served in uniform; and he was a conduit for Israeli threats to attack Iran, notably in an Atlantic magazine cover article in 2010, titled, “The Point of No Return”, which asserted on the basis of anonymous interviews with Israeli security officials that Israel was likely to attack Iran in the next year or so because of its nuclear program– so maybe the U.S. should do the job right because it was going to get dragged in anyway.
Israel never did attack Iran, of course; and many have said such reports were disinformation aimed at pushing the Americans into an attack.
“I think the Israeli threat was largely a bluff. The Israelis were bluffing both the Iranians and Obama,” says Sina Toossi of the National Iranian American Council. “It may have backfired on them because Obama added pressure and sanctions and that led to the nuclear deal.”
Andrew Sullivan called on Goldberg to admit that the Israelis used him, back in 2012:
[Goldberg’s] response was that he was thrilled that “a sustained Israeli bluff — would seem to be working so well.” He called it, if true, an “extraordinary achievement.” The reason he was not outraged by possibly being misled is that it is clear he’d be quite delighted to have played a part, even if unwitting, in a possible game of bluff, even if implausible, because it might work to America’s and Israel’s advantage.
Goldberg’s dire warnings about Iran were of a piece with the claims he passed on (in the New Yorker) in 2002 about Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda — “wholly imaginary,” Stephen Walt writes in his new book, “The Hell of Good Intentions,” which chronicles the ways that a foreign policy elite have plunged the United States into endless wars that have hurt the country’s global standing. Walt writes,
Goldberg switched from hyping the threat from Iraq to issuing equally inaccurate warnings about a coming war with Iran, but these and other questionable journalistic acts did not prevent him from becoming editor in chief of The Atlantic in 2016.
That job promotion has plainly changed Goldberg’s outlook. He has a big responsibility in taking on Trump; and for the last few years he has purposely avoided his old beat, Middle East issues.
Goldberg’s absence reflects an important difference between the establishment under Obama and the Trump. This time, the establishment does not want a war with Iran. The safe position is that of David Brooks and Richard Haass. Trump was “right not to strike Iran; costs would have exceeded benefits,” Haass put it. But he is quick to fault Trump’s lack of a coherent policy and his missing out on all the “benefits” of making a war. “[R]restraint comes at a price, as his will to use force is suspect, likely inviting future challenges,” the CFR warlover writes.
J Street and leading Democrats are almost all against a war with Iran, and some are in favor of returning to the Iran deal. And while National Public Radio and the New York Times are doing a lousy job of questioning Trump’s reckless responsibility for the crisis (NPR and PBS hosts ask guests whether Trump’s refusal to attack makes the U.S. “weak”), Tucker Carlson’s valiant stand against war on Fox seems to represent public opinion, and the cheerleading has been left to a fringe. In a word, Bret “warmonger” Stephens and Tom Cotton, and Trump’s lunatic inner circle, including John Bolton, whom Carlson calls a “bureaucratic tapeworm.”
Obama was actually more untrustworthy than Trump on foreign policy in the eyes of the establishment. He was seen as a critic of Israel, and the main bloc of the Israel lobby in official life, including many Democrats, took Obama on, often undermining his policies in the Middle East.
Jeffrey Goldberg led the way in raising questions about Obama’s feelings toward Israel and the president’s understanding of the Holocaust. And Goldberg repeatedly questioned whether Obama was willing to attack Iran.
Goldberg was emblematic of the establishment press, but the episode has left a shadow over his reporting, just like his unsavory role in the Iraq war, which as Walt points out, only seemed to lift his career. So it’s worth reviewing.
Back in 2010, many believed that Israel was going to attack Iran, and the U.S. would get dragged into the war too. Bob Woodward wrote in his book “Fear”:
As Centcom commander from 2010-2013, according to a senior aide, [James] Mattis believed that Iran “remained the greatest threat to the United States interests in the Middle East.” He was concerned that the Israelis were going to strike the Iran nuclear facilities and pull the United States into the conflict.
Just as now, such a war would be damaging to the president’s hopes for reelection, but Israel wanted it.
In his book “Rise and Kill First”, the Israeli security reporter (and friend of AIPAC) Ronen Bergman writes that “many harsh and effective sanctions on Iran in 2010-2012 did not stop Benjamin Netanyahu from making preparations for an open military assault on Iran.” But it was “not entirely clear whether he ever really intended to execute the plan.”
His defense minister, Ehud Barak, maintained that, ‘if it depended on me, Israel would have attacked,’ but there are others who believe that Netanyahu–who had the last word–only wanted to make Obama believe that he intended to attack, in order to force Obama’s hand, to steer him to the conclusion that America would inevitably get embroiled in the war anyway, so it would be better for the United States to carry out the attack itself, first, in order to be able to control the timing.
The Obama administration feared that an Israeli attack would send the price of oil soaring and that chaos would ensue in the Middle East, harming the president’s chances of reelection in November 2012. The administration also estimated that Israel was likely to attack soon and worriedly watched Israel’s every move–even regular army brigade maneuvers became a source of apprehension…”
Wittingly or not, that was Goldberg’s role in 2010: “to force Obama’s hand, to steer him to the conclusion that America would inevitably get embroiled in the war anyway, so it would be better for the United States to carry out the attack itself, first, in order to be able to control the timing.”
Goldberg’s piece “The Point of No Return” contained that message. Obama was a wimp if he would not attack Iran. And by the way, it would be easy.
[A]re there any circumstances under which President Obama would deploy force to stop Iran from going nuclear? Everything depends on the answer.
The Israelis argue that Iran demands the urgent attention of the entire international community, and in particular the United States, with its unparalleled ability to project military force….
Several Arab leaders have suggested that America’s standing in the Middle East depends on its willingness to confront Iran. They argue self-interestedly that an aerial attack on a handful of Iranian facilities would not be as complicated or as messy as, say, invading Iraq. “This is not a discussion about the invasion of Iran,” one Arab foreign minister told me. “We are hoping for the pinpoint striking of several dangerous facilities. America could do this very easily.”..
Goldberg interviewed Obama’s aides Ben Rhodes and Rahm Emanuel and put them to the test. Were they afraid to start another war?
At one point, I put forward the idea that for abundantly obvious reasons, few people would believe Barack Obama would open up a third front in the greater Middle East. One of the officials responded heatedly, “What have we done that would allow you to reach the conclusion that we think that a nuclear Iran would represent a tolerable situation?”
But Goldberg was unconvinced:
It is undeniably true, however, that the administration has appeared on occasion less than stalwart on the issue…
Most of the article consisted of the claim that the Israelis were about to strike Iran, so the U.S. would lose control of the situation.
I have interviewed roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials. In most of these interviews, I have asked a simple question: what is the percentage chance that Israel will attack the Iranian nuclear program in the near future? Not everyone would answer this question, but a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.
Of course Israel never did attack Iran, but Goldberg made it seem like they were about to do so. And the U.S. should get cracking.
Benjamin Netanyahu feels, for reasons of national security, that if sanctions fail, he will be forced to take action. But an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, successful or not, may cause Iran to redouble its efforts—this time with a measure of international sympathy—to create a nuclear arsenal. And it could cause chaos for America in the Middle East.
Israel’s then-president the late Shimon Peres assured Goldberg that Obama would jump in too.
he believes, unlike many Israelis, that President Obama will, one way or another, counter the threat of Iran, not on behalf of Israel (though he said he believes Obama would come to Israel’s defense if necessary), but because he understands that on the challenge of Iran, the interests of America and Israel (and the West, and Western-allied Arab states) naturally align.
Goldberg continued to question the U.S.’s willingness to jump in, and to goad Obama.
Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program; and Obama knows—as his aides, and others in the State and Defense departments made clear to me—that a nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to the interests of the United States, which include his dream of a world without nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, I agreed with those, including many Israelis, Arabs—and Iranians—who believe there is no chance that Obama would ever resort to force to stop Iran; I still don’t believe there is a great chance he will take military action in the near future—for one thing, the Pentagon is notably unenthusiastic about the idea. But Obama is clearly seized by the issue. And understanding that perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real, the Obama administration seems to be purposefully raising the stakes.
Andrew Sullivan later wrote that Goldberg was likely lied to by “Netanyahu in order to produce a cover-story to advance the Israeli government’s agenda over the American administration’s,” and that Goldberg took the lie lying down.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon described Israel’s strategic game last year. Iran will only shift its policies — from nuclear enrichment to support for Israel’s enemies — if it fears a military attack. So a military threat has to be credible.
But the great weakness in that strategy is that the United States abandoned its project of regime change in the Middle East because the American people didn’t want a war. “[Supreme Leader Ali] Khameini saw this threat of the military option was removed because of the political pressure inside the U.S.”
Ya’alon all but said that the U.S. had to lead such a threat, for Israel.
“Israelis should not jump ahead of themselves. They say that the work of the just is done by others for them.”
Yossi Alpher of Peace Now says that Israel’s agenda was to get the U.S. to attack. He said:
“Senator Lindsey Graham [said this week] ‘Israel will, as a last resort, attack to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. We’ll come to their aid.’ Whoa, wasn’t Netanyahu’s idea that the Americans would take care of this? Now Graham is volunteering Israel for the job?”
I agree with Sullivan that Goldberg loved being in middle of the action. And certainly, Israel used Goldberg but he likely was fooled. But Goldberg ideologically “wanted” an attack. Goldberg’s project in the Iran discourse was to associate Iran with Nazi Germany, “eliminationist anti-Semitism” and Jew hatred from the distant past. He didn’t do it on behalf of Netanyahu or Israel, as some have alleged. It’s just that Goldberg and Netanyahu share the same “hasbara culture” perspective.
While Steve Walt points out that only one reporter has suffered for being wrong about Iraq, the New York Times’s Judy Miller. She “wrote several of the false stories and eventually left the newspaper in 2005 with her reputation in tatters.” She’s still a punching bag deservedly; the Onion lately savaged her and the New York Times. Goldberg has escaped the fallout.