09.28.12 8:15 PM ET
Bibi's Illusion Of Alarm
Mea culpa. Only a few minutes after Benjamin Netanyahu completed his address to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, I sat in the balcony of the hall, even as it emptied out, and banged out a post about an error in Netanyahu's use of his visual aid, the now-infamous Wile E. Coyote bomb chart (which might actually be a Rocky And Bullwinkle bomb chart). I thought Netanyahu was being serious. I thought he was explaining a wonky nuclear non-proliferation issue with an over-simplified chart. I though he was making his red line, as he put it, "clear." I was wrong.
Several friends raised with me the misreading I'd made about Netanyahu's chart. I was to discover that I'd conflated the metrics in the diagram—the listed percentages—with what I thought were levels of uranium enrichment. Uranium spun in centrifuges to a purity of 90 percent makes for weapons-grade stuff. Since Netanyahu was discussing Iranian uranium enrichment, I mistook his chart for referencing these levels. In fact, Netanyahu's chart wasn't about anything technical, anything clear.
Instead, Netanyahu's chart used an invented metric: the degree to which Iran had moved along the continuum to producing a nuclear weapon, where things go bang at 100 percent. So the diagram had a Seinfeldian twist: it was about nothing. It's as if he just needed to make up his 90 percent metric because, well, above 90 percent sounds very dire—it's almost there!—and he wanted to give the sense of desperation and exacerbation that things had gone so far without any action.
There are other issues with Bibi's presentation—includingl that his message was misleading in terms of the actual technical nuclear work he did describe. Among these, the lack of clarity reigned supreme—the New York Times even wrote up the confusion among prominent Israeli analysts. But perhaps the lack of clarity was the point: sanctions against Iran are biting, the world seems to have little appetite for another war, and Iran is still technically not to the point of being able to build a weapon—a course of action they have not even yet decided on. Iran is playing it safe. Thus Netanyahu created the illusion of alarm, of urgency to act, and I fell for it. I regret the error.