A Guest Post by Daniel Luban
Is there a more frustrating journalist than Jeffrey Goldberg? From his various perches at the New Yorker, New Republic, and now the Atlantic, Goldberg has shown himself to be a talented writer and has done some good work in bringing issues like the settlements to mainstream attention. On the other side of the ledger has been his recurrent willingness to serve as a liberal fig leaf for the neoconservative agenda, epitomized by his crucial role in disseminating alarmist information about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities in the runup to the Iraq war. (Ken Silverstein provides a nice recap of Goldberg’s Iraq alarmism.)
The schizophrenic quality of Goldberg’s politics was especially evident in his contribution to the “Israel lobby” debates of recent years. He provided the requisite hatchet job on Walt and Mearsheimer’s Israel lobby book for The New Republic, penning a much-read (and, in my view, deeply misleading and unfair) review that likened the authors’ views to Osama bin Laden’s anti-Semitism and called the book “the most mainstream attack against the political enfranchisement of American Jews since the era of Father Coughlin.” But only months later, he turned around and wrote an excellent New York Times op-ed that appeared to endorse the bulk of the Israel lobby thesis — all while remaining insistent that his own views had nothing at all in common with those of the dastardly “Sheik Hassan Mearsheimer“.
Unfortunately, it is the Bad Goldberg that has been most on display in recent months. While he offered a few timid criticisms of the Gaza war on his blog, most of his posts have been devoted either to, on the one hand, pieces of Jewish-community inside baseball with limited interest to most readers (I suspect that I may be the only living human who actually read his annotated commentary on Newsweek’s Top 50 Rabbis list from start to finish), or, on the other hand, repetitive accusations that various critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semites. (Glenn Greenwald’s excellent rundown of Goldberg’s crying wolf on anti-Semitism is worth reading in full.) He and Jonathan Chait served as the two primary liberal accomplices to the anti-Chas Freeman smear campaign, and more recently he has devoted a great deal of virtual ink to the alleged “blood libel” of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children.
However, Goldberg’s main fixation at the moment is on propagating alarmist characterizations of the Iranian regime and seeding the ground for a potential Israeli attack. This has put him on a collision course with Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist who has become a rare voice of sanity regarding Iran; in the last few weeks, the feud has gotten personal. Goldberg’s familiar bad habits have, unfortunately, been on display during his recent anti-Cohen kick — above all, a tendency to substitute sanctimonious table-pounding for actual argument or analysis.
The Cohen-Goldberg feud began in February, when Cohen published the first of several op-eds arguing for the Iranian regime’s basic pragmatism, evidenced by the experience of its Jewish community. Cohen’s piece provoked howls of outrage from predictable quarters, as neoconservatives charged that he underplayed the suffering of Iranian Jews. However, as Cohen correctly pointed out in a second piece, the real reason for these hysterics was not that Cohen’s critics were offended that he might have miscalibrated the precise degree of oppression faced by Iranian Jews. Rather, it was that the very existence of an Iranian Jewish community shatters the paranoid vision of “an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.” Once the (frankly absurd) premise that Tehran’s only desire is to kill as many Jews as possible regardless of consequences is discarded, the case for military action against Iran becomes considerably weaker. The hawks sensed that Cohen’s argument was an extremely dangerous one for them, hence the almost comical fury directed at his columns.
Goldberg quickly got in on the act, accusing Cohen of being overly “credulous” for not realizing that the personal hospitality he experienced from Iranians was “irrelevant to their politics, or to their beliefs about what should happen to the Jewish state and its supporters.” This was a perfectly fair point — although, as just noted, one could easily accept the idea that the gracious treatment Cohen received concealed some uglier realities without leaping to the neocon conclusion that the Iranian regime is suicidally anti-Semitic.
As it turned out, Goldberg was just getting started. After a little more scuffling with Cohen in print, he soon helped broker an event in which Cohen would visit Sinai Temple, a predominantly Iranian-Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, to debate its rabbi, David Wolpe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Cohen nor Wolpe left the event particularly satisfied with the quality of debate. (Cohen wrote about it here.)
On his blog, Goldberg highlighted one “extraordinary” exchange between Cohen and Wolpe, which, he claimed, demonstrated that Cohen was “something more than naive”. Since Goldberg attaches so much importance to this exchange, it is worth quoting at length:
Rabbi David Wolpe: I grant you that this is not a perfect analogy to Iran and Israel, but right would you say that Israel is much more powerful than Hezbollah, much more powerful than Hamas. Let’s say tomorrow, it were reversed. Let’s say Hezbollah had the firepower of Israel and Israel had the firepower of Hezbollah. Let’s say Hamas had the firepower of Israel and Israel had rockets—
Roger Cohen: We can say, we can say–.
DW: Wait, wait, wait, wait—
RC: We can—
DW: Let me finish my question. You don’t know what to respond to until I’ve finished my question. What do you think would happen to Israel were the balance of power reversed? And the reason I’m asking that is because Iran is pursuing means by which they could actually in the end be more powerful than Israel so it’s not just hypothetical. If Iran gets several nuclear bombs, they have much more territory and they could be more powerful than Israel. What would happen if Hamas and Hezbollah — which are Iran’s proxies — had that power tomorrow?
RC: I don’t know what would happen.
DW: I do.
Cohen’s “extraordinary” naivete leaves Goldberg in shock. “The mind reels,” he says.
Goldberg and Wolpe both evidently feel that this exchange speaks for itself, so much so that its logic need not even be spelled out. Of course a nuclear Iran would utterly reverse the power dynamic in the Middle East, and of course Iran would immediately take advantage by obliterating Israel (including, of course, Muslim holy sites and the infrastructure constituting a future Palestine) before perishing in a nuclear holocaust of its own. To doubt this is to put oneself beyond the pale of rational discussion.
It is worth noting, then, that neither the premise nor the conclusion here stand up to even the most casual scrutiny. Let’s begin with the notion that Iran acquiring the bomb would reverse the balance of power, thereby giving Iran the relative strength that Israel currently possesses vis-a-vis Hezbollah. In this regard, it is surely relevant that Israel alone possesses around 80 nuclear weapons, according to the Federation of American Scientists (other estimates are significantly higher); of course, its American patron possesses vastly more. Similarly, Israel’s military budget is around twice Iran’s, a disparity that would become far greater if the U.S. defense budget were factored in, and this does not even account for any qualitative advantage derived from Israel’s access to superior American technology. To suggest that an Iran armed with one nuclear weapon — or even ten nuclear weapons — would be able to outgun Israel the way that Israel currently outguns Hezbollah is simply ludicrous.
If the premise is faulty, the conclusion is even worse. Goldberg and Wolpe would have us believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would forsake any goal beyond Jew-killing, that this is so obvious that it needs no evidence in support, and that to disbelieve such a thing is a sign of pure naivete. As he has before, Goldberg advances highly tendentious conclusions by invoking his experience reporting from the Middle East, and attempts to delegitimize his opponents by accusing them of simple ignorance of the mysterious ways of the Arabs (and now Persians). Recall his now-famous line from the runup to the Iraq war: “[War skeptics’] lack of experience causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected.”
Shortly thereafter, Goldberg’s interview with Benjamin Netanyahu was published in the Atlantic. In it, Netanyahu stated outright what had merely been insinuated in Goldberg’s writings: “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”
The Netanyahu interview prompted another good column from Cohen, in which he disputed the characterization of the Iranian regime as a “messianic apocalyptic cult” and took an offhand swipe at Goldberg for serving as Bibi’s “faithful stenographer”. This jab truly set Goldberg on the warpath; he seems to have cut short a planned blogging hiatus to pen a petulant response, calling Cohen a “Jewish apologist for an anti-Semitic regime” who had “debased himself.” Since then, he has been taking shots at Cohen with a frequency usually reserved for betes noirs like Mearsheimer and Walt.
Once again, however, these posts have been long on sneering and short on analysis. One post approvingly quoted Max Boot — never a good sign in itself — to the effect that Cohen believes that “if only the nasty Israelites would let the nice Iranians have a nuclear program, everyone could walk off into the sunset, arm in arm.” Cohen’s perspective, Boot tells us, is “rare…outside of official Iranian government organs.” This sort of talk is what one would expect on the Commentary blog, which is after all the source of Boot’s post, but it is somewhat surprising to see a card-carrying Serious Liberal such as Goldberg repeat it as the God’s truth — much less a Serious Liberal who gets mortally offended when he is accused of carrying water for the neocons.
Next up, Goldberg turned to David Brooks, who apparently “gets it” about the Middle East. I suppose it is no surprise that the brief passage Goldberg takes as evidence of Brooks’s “getting it” is precisely the one that struck me as especially pedestrian and that Jim blogged about earlier this week. Brooks reiterates that “Iran poses an existential threat that is too big for Israel to deal with alone,” while “Hamas and Hezbollah will frustrate peace plans, even if the Israelis magically do everything right.” (Hence there is no particular reason to try to do everything right.) Goldberg finds this analysis especially clear-eyed and astute, whereas “[a]ccording to Roger Cohen, of course, Israel poses an existential threat to Iran.”
Here as before, Goldberg does not bother to make a real argument, but simply treats this as self-explanatory evidence that Cohen is too crazy to be listened to. And as before, it is worth devoting a little attention to what is actually being said. I do not personally know whether Cohen considers Israel and the U.S. to be an “existential threat” to Iran, but I would certainly hope he does, as it appears to be a rather obvious and incontestable statement. In fact, if Iran’s rulers do not perceive their regime to be existentially threatened by Israel and the U.S. — two nuclear-armed and militarily dominant states that have in the recent past demonstrated a preference for regime change in Iran and a willingness to wage wars of aggression — then they are far more irrational than even Bibi Netanyahu would give them credit for. To say this is not to take a position on how the U.S and Israel should actually deal with Iran. Many countries arguably face existential threats of one sort or another and to recognize these threats is not to legitimate any particular demand they might make, nor is it to deny that Israel (and the U.S.) face threats of their own to which they have valid reasons to respond. Rather, it is simply to insist on a basic respect for factual accuracy instead of slipping into vague insinuation and content-free sanctimony.
Ultimately, I am not terribly surprised to see Jeffrey Goldberg engage in fear-mongering about Middle Eastern threats and serve as a liberal fig leaf for his neoconservative fellow travelers. This is a familiar role for him. I am a little surprised, however, at the sheer laziness of the analysis being offered by the man who is ostensibly America’s Most Important Jewish Journalist.