Existential Threats and Slanted Arguments



There are breeds of argument that always startle me for their smug, tendentious presumption.

Here is one, frequently made, this time by Robert Wright, that rests the continued –  literally – existence of a nation on the parsing of translations and the assurances of theocratic tyrannies. (I assure you, said Mr. Hitler, after the Sudetenland – shaking hands, and with smiles all around – I’m done.)

Actually, the Iranians aren’t a nation whose leaders have set themselves that “strategic goal [of eliminating Israel].” They are a nation with a crackpot president who (a) isn’t the country’s supreme leader and doesn’t have the power to order an attack on Israel; (b) did say “the occupying regime must be wiped off the map” (or “vanish from the page of time”–the translation is disputed); but (c) later said he was referring to eliminating the Zionist form of government, not the people living under it; and (d) said the way to achieve this was to give Palestinians the vote–and that if they opted for a two-state solution rather than a single non-Zionist state, that would be fine, too; (e) also said that Iran would never initiate military hostilities with Israel.

One can just imagine any Israeli prime minister, with the missiles completing their brief trajectory, crying out at the pending annihilation of the Jewish nation, reconstituted again after two thousand years, “But he used the passive voice!”

And they promised, too.

You can read here a chronology – far lengthier than Wright’s consideration – of the anti-Semitic and genocidal pronouncements of Iran’s “crackpot president.”

This is followed by that other popular argument of presumption, the disbelieving assertion of an antagonist’s unwillingness to act in a morally and sensibly proscribed manner.

Could [Ehud] Barak really think that, even if Iranian leaders had said they would launch a first strike, they’d actually do such a thing? To believe that, you would have to believe that the Iranian regime is literally suicidal, since Israel’s nuclear retaliatory capacity is very robust (not to mention the fact that the event wouldn’t exactly go unnoticed by America). Does Barak really believe the Iranian leadership is crazy?

We know, of course, from history –  even recent history – that governments, regimes, and leaders never make cataclysmic strategic mistakes. It isn’t as if countries have in the past ever attempted to conquer half the known world, killing tens of millions along the way, including their own citizens, setting out to wipe off the map entire groups of people, only to have their efforts backfire with disastrous consequence. Why that would be crazy!

Says Wright,

Barak isn’t as alarmist as some. He concedes in the Times Magazine piece that “Iran has other reasons for developing nuclear bombs, apart from its desire to destroy Israel.” For example: “An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West.” Got that? Two of the reasons the Iranian regime wants the bomb are (1) to launch an attack that would be literally suicidal; and (2) to ensure its survival. (No wonder Israelis think the Iranians are crazy!)

It is not as if- or maybe it is  – Wright himself is among those people who have argued that while the U.S. set out to diminish the presence of Islamist terrorists in the world by going to war in Afghanistan, it actually increased their numbers. Nations may, according to Wright himself, follow courses of action that are contradictory to their aims and seeming best interests.

But in the case of Israel, Wright simplifies what the nature of the Iranian threat is to Israel.

Here is a less extreme and simplistic scenario, from Jeffrey Goldberg.

Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, launches a cross-border attack into Israel, or kills a sizable number of Israeli civilians with conventional rockets. Israel responds by invading southern Lebanon, and promises, as it has in the past, to destroy Hezbollah. Iran, coming to the defense of its proxy, warns Israel to cease hostilities, and leaves open the question of what it will do if Israel refuses to heed its demand.

Dennis Ross, who until recently served as President Barack Obama’s Iran point man on the National Security Council, notes Hezbollah’s political importance to Tehran. “The only place to which the Iranian government successfully exported the revolution is to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ross told me. “If it looks as if the Israelis are going to destroy Hezbollah, you can see Iran threatening Israel, and they begin to change the readiness of their forces. This could set in motion a chain of events that would be like ‘Guns of August’ on steroids.” Imagine that Israel detects a mobilization of Iran’s rocket force or the sudden movement of mobile missile launchers. Does Israel assume the Iranians are bluffing, or that they are not? And would Israel have time to figure this out? Or imagine the opposite: Might Iran, which will have no second-strike capability for many years — that is, no reserve of nuclear weapons to respond with in an exchange — feel compelled to attack Israel first, knowing that it has no second chance?

Wright closes with video of Trita Parsi, in which Parsi,

who just published a book called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran

reshapes Israeli existential concerns, as focused on a loss of “maneuverability,” –  power, essentially; the power of Israel to protect itself, existentially – as a result of which it would be unable to “invade Lebanon or bomb Syria.” So as Wright selectively and presumptuously presents the case, not only are Israeli concerns about the Iranian nuclear threat outlandish on their face, but they are false and manipulative. Nothing manipulative at all on Wright’s part in citing as his authority the president of the National Iranian American Council, who has long made the case, against all evidence, of Iran’s willingness to engage.

Wright is developing a habit of these less than straightforward appeals, in closing, to authority. In a recent post on the “Israel-Firster” slanders, in which he took what is by this point a predictable position attacking those who rightfully object to the term, Wright in all pretense of ingenuousness offered this:

Is it anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israel, to call the Israeli occupation a moral abomination? I’m not Jewish, so I always feel awkward weighing in on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Instead I turned to someone who is not only Jewish, but is also an Israeli who served in the occupied territory as a lieutenant and is still in the Israeli army reserve.

Now, of course, the issue is not whether one is anti-Semitic because of how one feels about the Israeli presence on the West Bank; it is whether the expression “Israel-Firster” is anti-Semitic in pedigree and aspersion. So Wright has distorted the issue. He also offered not the testimony of, at least, some wise man of Israeli or Jewish culture, but of the co-director of Breaking the Silence, a group guaranteed, in the honest gentile’s search – he only wants to know – to return to him the opinion he already holds. And so it does.

In the case of Parsi, here is what Sohrab Ahmari has to say:

Predictably, Israel and American Jews with an interest in U.S. policy are subjected to the harshest criticism. Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat, Mr. Parsi says, has long “resembled prophesy more than reality,” impelling the Jewish state to frame its conflict with Iran’s clerical regime “as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and a theocracy that hated everything the West stood for.” Mr. Parsi rejects that perception.


Quick to ascribe irrationality and bad faith to opponents of engagement, Mr. Parsi is charitable when it comes to examining the motivations of the Iranian side. But he must frequently sift the obviously belligerent content of the theocrats’ statements to find signs of goodwill—signs invisible to unsophisticated “hawks” and “elements on the right” in the U.S.

Ahmari closes,

Mr. Obama’s engagement policy failed not because of Israeli connivance or because the administration did not try hard enough. The policy failed because the Iranian regime, when confronted by its own people or by outsiders, has only one way of responding: with a truncheon.

In the contention between the United States and Iran, Parsi is not a champion of U.S. interests or intentions. And he is the person Robert Wright offers as support for his own unsympathetic view of Israel’s much more dire concerns.

All just for the record.


I’m blogging on the fly while we travel and neglected to make the following point. Wright has just begun accepting comments on his Atlantic blog, as has Jeffrey Goldberg. As is the case with any blog that is antagonistic to Israel’s position vis a vis the Palestinians, Wright’s is drawing the comments of anti-Semites. It will ever be so. Blog hosts may rightly disavow responsibility for the opinions of their commenters, and even adopt the broadest view of moderating (deleting) controversial expressions. However, I would never permit a clearly racist or hateful comment to go unchallenged on this blog. Wright is engaging his commenters. Why has he not rebuked the commenters below, who have gained many more likes since I made these captures?


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6 thoughts on “Existential Threats and Slanted Arguments

  1. I’ve read some of the comments on Goldberg’s blog, and at this point they seem to be quite rational – not sliding into the irrational displays of antisemitism seen on Wright’s blog. I will never understand why people don’t delete racist or antisemitic comments on their blogs – unless they leave them on specifically to engage with specific commenters. I think it’s an abdication of responsibility for bloggers at sites like the Atlantic, which has a great many readers, not to moderate comments like that. Ta-Nehisi Coates, on the same site, is a model for this. He has built a solid group of very good commenters who themselves police the site to keep away racist idiots.

    I was also very disheartened to see Wright’s post simply repeat points that have already been disproved about Iran’s intentions towards Israel. The Iranian threat to Israel doesn’t stand or fall on the translation of one sentence.

    1. Rebecca, I agree with you about Coates. It is hard to imagine a more intellectually engaged and committed commenting community than he has developed. It’s great kudos to him. I think the failure of bloggers critical of Israel to police anti-Semitic and hateful commenting by at least offering direct response and condemning it is simply inexcusable. And when that failure might cause suspicions to arise, such bloggers and writers feel put upon and claim to be victimized. But this is all part of an active effort well analyzed by Ben Cohen in this month’s Commentary: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-big-lie-returns/

      By the way, I’ve been meaning to add you to my blog list forever. Blog administration always ends up at the bottom of my list. I will get to it.

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