Leadership and War

10.31.12

Jeffrey Goldberg's Iran Advice Is Wrong

On Monday, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that one of Mitt Romney's critiques of Obama's Iran policy held water: that by having top administration officials publicly discussing potential consequences of war with Iran, Obama undermines his negotiating position. I responded in these pages that this notion—administration officials not discussing with the public they serve the realistic risks of attacking Iran—would run counter the way democracies are meant to wage war. Goldberg took gumption with my critique of his point. After an exchange on twitter, he wrote, "You're simply not following what I'm saying. I'm talking about negotiating tactics designed to avert war." Diplomacy is indeed the only way to end this crisis peacefully, but I'm afraid it is Goldberg who has missed my point completely. After all, my headline was "When Hurting Your Negotiating Position Doesn't Matter." Clearly, the fish I'm frying are bigger than bargaining chips with the Iranians.

Here's the problem with Goldberg's take: setting aside negotiations for a moment, the facts of the matter are that the President of the United States has already committed the U.S. to war should Iran cross the threshold of nuclear weapons production. Whether or not there are negotiations and whether or not they succeed or fail, if Iran begins making bombs, we bomb them. Goldberg, for one, does not think Obama is bluffing. That is, if a memo passes Obama's desk tomorrow saying that the Iranians have begun making weapons-grade uranium, United States commanders would be ordered to launch strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. Then we would be at war, tomorrow. And if Goldberg—or Romney—had his way, the President and his deputies would make this decision and implement it, all the while having told the American people squat about what the potential consequences of such a war would be.

In one of his twitter replies, Goldberg wrote, "The reason [Iran's government] may not believe Obama is that some of Obama's subordinates publicly doubt efficacy of military threat." But since we are committed to war at any moment, the administration must elucidate these doubts now (neither Goldberg nor the Romney campaign disputes their validity), no matter what the Iranians think about them. It's an unfortunate sacrifice, but a vital one, in line with democratic principles. It is far more important that the American people believe Obama that this would be a necessary war, despite the risks, than it is for the Iranians to believe him about anything else. (Goldberg strangely ignores that Romney's "zero enrichment" policy—a non-starter for Iran—undermines negotiations.)

Goldberg said on Twitter that the Congress and press—which includes me and him—should openly discuss and debate a possible strike on Iran and what it would mean. Forget that Goldberg has not, so far as I can tell, covered an otherwise well-publicized recent report by a group of bi-partisan foreign policy heavyweights about the consequences of attacking Iran—what he really misses is this: the Congress will not order a war with Iran, and neither will the press. What Goldberg contends, rather incredibly, is that it's not the place of President Obama, who would, by statute, actually need to hand down this order, to tell the American people about what he is going to get the country into. Maybe Goldberg thinks that reckoning, between our leader and the public who voted him in, will come after the fact. To my mind, that's the haste and later regret of the Iraq war all over again.