by Ali Gharib
Last week, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published an interview with President Obama. It’s a fascinating read, and Goldberg’s write-up as well as the full transcript are entirely worth your time. The interview focuses on Obama’s Middle East policies and, for an area where, in general, those policies are not going so well (a gross understatement), Obama has a firm grasp of the topics at hand. I want to focus on one question from the section of the interview on Iran, not for what it says about Obama, but rather what it says about Jeffrey Goldberg.
Goldberg is, of course, the “official therapist” of the U.S.-Israel relationship, according to one White House aide. And yet his prodigious output on Iran rarely hits on some of the central political issues in the debate. He’s written plenty on the negotiations and a possible nuclear deal, and these writings are largely inoffensive. But how the U.S.-Israel relationship plays out amid the levers of power in Washington gets short shrift. Probably one of the best-positioned journalists in Washington to do a great piece about Israel, AIPAC, and Congress on Iran, Goldberg has given us very little. “I try to be careful these days not to be overly critical of AIPAC, mainly because the people who hate AIPAC are not merely hating on AIPAC, but hating on what it stands for, or what they think it stands for (perfidious Jewish power, etc.),” Goldberg wrote in one 2012 blog post on the subject, whose omissions are glaring.
Yet Israel is a main character in Goldberg’s writings on Iran. Consider that his massive 2010 piece on the likelihood of an Israeli strike against Iran ignited a renewed debate about the wisdom of an attack. The reason to zoom in on Israel-Iran matters is plainly obvious and not without justification: Iran threatens Israel. This is a fact that perhaps too few advocates of diplomacy with Iran and/or ideological opponents of Israel are willing to acknowledge. That doesn’t, however, justify a disproportionate focus on it. Israel would be but a bit player in the Iran debate if not for those facets of the issue Goldberg glancingly covers: the influence of AIPAC and like-minded groups. Instead of doling out proportionate attention to these issues, Goldberg focuses on the threats almost to the total exclusion of the politics.
Zeroing in on Anti-Semitism
Goldberg is entitled to use his serial interviews with Obama to ask any questions he likes. But then I will feel free to criticize questions like this, which I’ll quote nearly completely):
I just want you to help me square something. So you’ve argued, quite eloquently in fact, that the Iranian regime has at its highest levels been infected by a kind of anti-Semitic worldview. You talked about that with Tom [Friedman]. “Venomous anti-Semitism” I think is the term that you used. You have argued—not that it even needs arguing—but you’ve argued that people who subscribe to an anti-Semitic worldview, who explain the world through the prism of anti-Semitic ideology, are not rational, are not built for success, are not grounded in a reality that you and I might understand. And yet, you’ve also argued that the regime in Tehran—a regime you’ve described as anti-Semitic, among other problems that they have—is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality. So I don’t understand how these things fit together in your mind.
This was one of four questions Goldberg asked of the president on Iran (one of which was a follow-up). The other ones were good—questions that really hit at the heart of where things stand today on the cusp of a nuke deal. The anti-Semitism question stood out. It hails from years ago, when the topic of Iran’s rationality was asked about and answered time and again. (My personal favorite answer came from my friend Matt Duss.)
There’s a lot wrong with Goldberg’s approach. The Islamic Republic is many, many things, but an irrational state is not one of them. Absolutely the most ideological Islamic Republican, the ideology’s founding father and the resulting country’s first leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, acted quite rationally himself when pressed. Just as Obama mentioned, the irrationality of holding bigotries—something we liberals believe is, indeed, irrational—doesn’t preclude doing a cost-benefit calculation, especially when, say, the threats to a country driven by a particular ideology need to be mitigated by compromising that ideology. That’s exactly what Khomeini did when he chose to end the Iran-Iraq war, a decision whose real-time coverage speaks to the obvious contradictions of ending a holy war that God had commanded him to fight until Saddam Hussein was overthrown (and makes for a fascinating time capsule).
What’s so strange about Goldberg’s question, in the context of his oeuvre, is that his bigotry-cum-irrationality argument seems to speak only to Iran. There are perfectly good reasons to worry about the anti-Semitism coming out of Iran. It is very real and goes right to the top. Khomeini’s successor, the current Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is its chief purveyor. And there are policy consequences: Iran’s anti-Semitism no doubt fuels its support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, the anti-Israel militias that harbor anti-Semitism in no small measure themselves.
That Iranian anti-Semitism is directed primarily, though not exclusively, at Israel gives us a hint of where Goldberg is coming from. Part of what makes his lack of practically any focus on Iran policy in Washington so curious is that Iran policy in Washington is dominated by the politics that swirl around Israel in Washington. And don’t just take my word for it: one needs only consult hawkish members of Congress themselves, whose concerns about Iran are often pegged to vague and passing mentions of American national security, but always with the addendum that Iran threatens “our best ally in the Middle East, Israel,” or some such phrasing. Goldberg, of course, is himself very focused on matters Israel, so it should come as no surprise that he’s sought to position himself as a go-to journalist on Iran policy. There is, then, a politics in which Goldberg is steeped that profoundly affects one of the issues he writes about most often, and which he nonetheless avoids addressing in any depth.
Curious as that may be, the notion doesn’t obviate the other glaring flaws—and flaws of omission—in Goldberg’s analysis here. HIs focus on Israel and Jewish issues, specifically anti-Semitism, are as I said before his every right. His personal hobby horses aside, however, modern anti-Semitism, with all its murderous consequences, warrants particular attention among the pantheon of bigotries. But other bigotries exist as well, some of them just as if not more pervasive.
And that is precisely what I am left wondering: does Goldberg’s analysis that anti-Semitism-equals-irrationality applies to those other bigotries as well? Has Goldberg, whose Middle East interests certainly venture beyond Iran and Greater Israel, ever noted that the U.S. is arming Saudi Arabia, the most misogynistic country in the world, to the teeth? Or, returning to Israel itself, that the U.S. not only arms the Jewish state, but funds it despite what is, if not a matter of direct state ideology, a burgeoning ugly anti-Arab bigotry among the upper echelons of the government there? Would Goldberg question the rationality of these states? (It’s worth noting that Bret Stephens latched onto this line of questioning for a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. “Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot?” Stephens rhetorically set out, with the answer obviously ending up at no. Can anyone imagine him making such an argument about the bigots in Israel’s government, up to and including the prime minister?)
A More Useful Line of Questioning
I don’t want to be too hard on Goldberg here. We’ve mutually entertained the idea of being “frenemies” before and even once shared a pleasant meal at which his vibrant sense of humor was on glorious display (all in the past, apparently). In general, he has defended diplomacy with Iran on solid grounds, despite some serious reservations and his few blind spots. I just question whether asking the president about Iran’s irrationality is a good use of their and our time at this point. Because of where we are in negotiations, the question is basically a non-issue.
And Goldberg is at his critical, skeptical best on an Iran deal when he focuses on the actual issues, primarily those that address the contours of the deal itself. What’s more, he has raised these recently: in his Face the Nation appearance in April, and in interviews with the pro-deal side (the White House) in March and the deal-skeptical side (Congress), again in April. Compared to the question of Iran’s rationality, the verification program of an eventual agreement is of paramount importance. Indeed, the most salient point here is that a strong verification regime obviates the question of rationality altogether.
So if you’re going to ask the president of the United States, who is by all accounts close to negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, four questions about that deal, how about forgoing the spurious rationality issue and raising instead the verification regime? On Face the Nation, Goldberg spoke to precisely these latter questions, arguing their importance and noting that we don’t have specific answers. I sure would like those answers; why he didn’t ask for them last week is beyond me. In Goldberg’s interview with the president, in fact, it was Obama who raised the subject of verification, in the context of explaining the inspections regime at the recent summit with Gulf Arab powers (to their satisfaction, Obama said). That Goldberg’s next query was the bigotry-cum-irrationality question, as I said, speaks to where he comes from on these issues. Maybe we’ll get to those other important questions—and, hopefully, their answers—in his next interview with Obama.