Last year, in a widely debated article in the Atlantic Monthly, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that based on conversations with roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers, as well as many American and Arab officials about a strike on Iran, “a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.”
Marking today’s deadline, Salon’s Justin Elliott spoke with Goldberg about what he may have gotten wrong:
Reached by phone at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Goldberg told me that he believes the article captured the “high level of anxiety” about Iran he encountered during a month reporting in Israel last summer.
“We wrestled with how to frame it and decided to frame it in a way that would drive concentrated attention to what we thought was a serious and urgent problem,” he said. “I would point out that by saying there’s a greater than 50 percent chance, we were still suggesting there’s a 40-plus percent chance it wouldn’t happen.”
It’s true that the article was written with a number of significant caveats. But it clearly asserted an Israeli consensus about the nature of the Iranian threat and the likely Israeli response that, in light of subsequent comments from former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevi, seems extremely questionable at best.
As to the impact made by the article, Elliott reports that Goldberg pointed to “communications between American officials and their Israeli counterparts that Goldberg said were prompted by his Atlantic story”:
[Goldberg] said that Obama officials reached out to the Israelis to reassure them that “we’ve got this” — but Goldberg added he’s not sure how much stock to put in those communications.
I’m not sure how much stock to put in those communications either. Or, more to the point, I’m not sure how much stock to put in Goldberg’s characterization of them. It’s been pretty widely reported (and, of course, strenuously ignored by Obama’s critics) that President Obama made deepening cooperation with Israel on the issue of Iran a key priority of his administration from the moment he took office. An Israeli official told me last summer (before Goldberg’s article ran) that the depth of U.S.-Israeli coordination on the Iranian nuclear program is “even better than under President Bush.” If Goldberg’s article “prompted” any communication from the Obama administration to the Israelis, it was probably something along the lines of: “Why are you trying to play us like this?”
Elliott also passes along this defensive email from Atlantic editor James Bennett:
“I’m proud of the story, and I think it holds up very well. We didn’t anticipate Stuxnet specifically, but we did emphasize that changing circumstances could affect the timeline we described in the piece. The story succeeded in provoking a tremendous amount of debate about one of the biggest foreign policy questions of our time, and nine months after we published it, it remains the definitive article on the complex strategic thinking here and abroad about Iran’s nuclear program.”
Yeah, who cares if they actually got the story right? The point is they sparked debate. And, of course, generated a lot of web hits and sold some magazines with a title screaming “ISRAEL IS GETTING READY TO BOMB IRAN.”