Friday, May 01, 2009

Guessing About Iran

When nations are in conflict – and often when they are not – diplomacy is largely a guessing game. When the stakes escalate, so does the guesswork. States cannot be certain about what they will do down the road, in some measure because they are undecided and also because they cannot know for certain what the nations with which they interact will do. There is intelligence gathering, some of it errant and much of it irrelevant, and also rhetoric and speculation as diverse scenarios are simulated. When push comes to shove, matters can get out of hand or have a life of their own and whatever planning or diplomacy preceded the later events, what was planned and expected is readily discarded.

When a nation’s security is at stake, its calculations should allow for a greater margin of error, which is to say that this is not a time for rose colored glasses. Planning must be based to a significant extent on the worst case scenario and borrow in a sense from the clear and present danger test that for decades determined when government could limit otherwise constitutionally protected speech. The greater and more proximate the danger, the greater the right of government to allow reasonable suppositions to restrict First Amendment rights. Likewise, the greater the danger to a nation’s security, the greater is its right – and probably its obligation – to allow its fears and suppositions to determine policy.

The danger Israel faces from Iran is real and it is different from any that it has faced for more than six decades from Arab neighbors bent on causing serious harm. For all of the animus of Palestinians and other neighbors, there is a more or less balance of power in the relationship and there are tacit understandings about boundary lines. Since policies and actions are determined by mortals who are prone to miscalculate, from time to time these boundaries are transgressed. Even then, the danger is contained. Not so regarding Iran whose president constantly advocates Israel’s destruction and is the force behind his country’s nuclear ambitions.

There is plenty of room to debate how Israel should react or, for that matter, how our government should react. A strong case can be made for patience and diplomacy, for a containment policy conceived along the lines of American policy toward the Soviet Union during the more than four decades of the Cold War. A weaker case can be made for preemptive military action now because of a host of critical military, logistical, diplomatic and other impediments. Admittedly, this is a guessing game and that is not likely to change any time soon.

What isn’t guesswork is the threat from Iran. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been clear about his intentions and it is reckless and worse to dismiss his words as play acting. What Iran is doing is a clear and present danger and it would be wrong for Israel not to consider it as such.

What we are hearing from some quarters echoes the reaction of too many in the media to Hitler and Stalin. No less a journalistic worthy than Walter Lippmann wrote after Hitler came to power that Jewish complaints about him were badly misguided. At the New York Times, we now have Roger Cohen pounding away on the theme that Washington must get tough with Israel and be far more conciliatory toward Iran, claiming that Jews remaining in Iran tell him that they are happy with the regime and do not feel threatened. What would Mr. Cohen require to reverse his apologetics for a country whose leader demonizes Jews and Israel?

I expect that before long the Times will nominate Cohen for a Pulitzer Prize. The newspaper just garnered another five of these, adding to questions about how these awards are selected, and it celebrated the news this past Sunday in the “Week in Review” with a self-congratulatory page listing all of the Times staffers who have been so honored. The fourth name on the list is Walter Duranty who was the bureau chief in Moscow from 1922 to 1936. He received a Pulitzer for his 1931 “coverage of the news from Russia.” Indeed, 1931 was a particularly bad year in the workers’ paradise as through Stalin’s deliberate actions millions starved to death. In 1931 and before and after, Duranty covered up Stalin’s crimes. Several years ago, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. acknowledged this additional blot on the reputation of our most notable newspaper.

The defense of Iran also comes from sources outside of journalism. In its April 17 issue, the Forward published an ad signed by about 200 Jewish organizations and individuals sharply attacking Israel on Iran. Is it an excuse that the Forward was paid for this extreme exercise in Israel bashing by the usual suspects, including the crazies from the Neteurei Karta and Noam Chomsky? The statement makes the Durban declaration about Israeli racism seem like a love letter to the Jewish State. We are told that “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program,” Ahmadinejad has not called for Israel’s destruction, Mordechai Vanunu is lavishly praised and that in order to get “support for an Israel military strike against Iran,” Israel uses memory of the “Nazi Holocaust.”

Can the Forward use the First Amendment or the fact that the extreme Israel bashing was contained in an ad and not an article or editorial as fig leaves to cover its publication of so puerile a statement?

While most of us are still guessing about what Israel or the United States should do, there is no such hesitation among those who constantly attack Israel. Whatever the issue, Israel is wrong.