Jeffrey Goldberg admits what Obama and Kerry still don't getObama and Kerry are naive fools.
A few days ago, I spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the politics of the Iran deal (you can find the full interview here), and at one point in our conversation I put to Kerry what I thought was—to be honest—something of a gimme question: “Do you believe that Iranian leaders sincerely seek the elimination of the Jewish state?”
Kerry responded provocatively—provocatively, that is, if you understand Iranian leaders, and in particular the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the way I understand them: as people theologically committed to the destruction of Israel. Quotes such as this one from Khamenei help lead me to this conclusion: “This barbaric, wolflike, and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime has no cure but to be annihilated.” The supreme leader does not specialize in nuance. (Here is a long list of statements made by Iranian leaders concerning their desire to bring about an end to Jewish sovereignty in any part of the ancestral Jewish homeland.)
Kerry’s stated understanding of the regime’s anti-Semitism is somewhat different from mine. He told me, “I think they have a fundamental ideological confrontation with Israel at this particular moment. Whether or not that translates into active steps, to quote, ‘Wipe it,’ you know …”
He paused, and so I filled in the blank: “Wipe it off the map.”
Kerry continued, “I don’t know the answer to that. I haven’t seen anything that says to me—they’ve got 80,000 rockets in Hezbollah pointed at Israel, and any number of choices could have been made. They didn’t make the bomb when they had enough material for 10 to 12. They’ve signed on to an agreement where they say they’ll never try and make one and we have a mechanism in place where we can prove that. So I don’t want to get locked into that debate. I think it’s a waste of time here.”
Kerry’s understanding, in shorthand: Iran is dangerous to Israel at this moment (he repeated the term “at this moment” in his next statement, in fact); Iran has had plenty of opportunity to hurt Israel but has chosen not to; and, finally, the answer to the question concerning the true intentions of Iran’s leaders when it comes to Israel is unknowable, and also irrelevant to the current discussion.And Kerry almost looks clairvoyant compared with what Obama told Goldberg.
“Well, we’ve discussed this before, Jeffrey,” the president said. “I take what the supreme leader says seriously. I think his ideology is steeped with anti-Semitism, and if he could, without catastrophic costs, inflict great harm on Israel, I’m confident that he would. But as I said, I think, the last time we spoke, it is possible for leaders or regimes to be cruel, bigoted, twisted in their worldviews and still make rational calculations with respect to their limits and their self-preservation.”
In the May interview, I asked him to help me understand a seemingly contradictory set of ideas he has advanced relating to Iran. I noted that he himself has stated publicly that the regime is infected with an anti-Semitic worldview, and that those who are infected with such a worldview generally do not grapple well with cause-and-effect in international politics and economics, and cannot be counted on to interpret reality correctly. I then asked how he squares these two observations with a third observation he has made: that the regime in Tehran is in many ways capable of behaving according to its rational self-interest, as American politicians understand the notion of rational self-interest.
His answer: “Well, the fact that you are anti-Semitic, or racist, doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival. It doesn’t preclude you from being rational about the need to keep your economy afloat; it doesn’t preclude you from making strategic decisions about how you stay in power; and so the fact that the supreme leader is anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that this overrides all of his other considerations. You know, if you look at the history of anti-Semitism, Jeff, there were a whole lot of European leaders—and there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country—”
Here I interrupted him: “And they make irrational decisions.”
He continued: “They may make irrational decisions with respect to discrimination, with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool. At the margins, where the costs are low, they may pursue policies based on hatred as opposed to self-interest. But the costs here are not low, and what we’ve been very clear [about] to the Iranian regime over the past six years is that we will continue to ratchet up the costs, not simply for their anti-Semitism, but also for whatever expansionist ambitions they may have. That’s what the sanctions represent. That’s what the military option I’ve made clear I preserve represents. And so I think it is not at all contradictory to say that there are deep strains of anti-Semitism in the core regime, but that they also are interested in maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their own country, which requires that they get themselves out of what is a deep economic rut that we’ve put them in, and on that basis they are then willing and prepared potentially to strike an agreement on their nuclear program.”Except that there is no 'military option' (and no one ever believed Obama would be the one to employ it anyway) and if Obama gets his way there will be no sanctions. And by the way, what was Hitler - a 'community organizer'?
I made a decision on the spot—later partially regretted—not to deploy the H-bomb just then because I am a) very mindful of Godwin’s Law; b) I don’t believe the Iranian regime is the modern-day equivalent of the Nazi regime, in part because the Nazi regime is without peer; and c) the invocation of Hitler’s name in these matters tends to set teeth too much on edge. In retrospect, though, I should have raised it, because Hitler is the perfect, but not singular, example of a world leader who made decisions that seemed, to his adversaries, deeply irrational except if you understood his desire to wipe out the Jews of Europe as an actual overriding policy goal, a raison d’etre of his rule. Anti-Semitism was not simply an “organizing tool” for him. And if you’re paying attention, you will see that bringing about the end of the sovereign Jewish state in the Middle East is a paramount political and theological mission of the Iranian regime.
And so I was glad that Obama acknowledged the supreme leader’s heartfelt anti-Semitism, and I’m glad that he understands that the supreme leader seeks to do great harm to Israel. I suppose I part with the president’s analysis on the question of exactly how much pain the supreme leader believes Iran should absorb on behalf of this goal. Obama believes the Iranian leadership will check its behavior in order to avoid potentially catastrophic fallout. He may be right, but I would like to see his administration place slightly less faith in the idea of regime rationality.Of course, there's a more cynical view of this - which I have alluded to many times, but with which I believe that Goldberg himself would take issue. That view holds that Obama is an anti-Semite (you can tell a man by the company that he keeps) and that Kerry may well be one as well. It's already been stated in polite society that Obama at least has a blind spot for anti-Semitism. In that view, Obama and Kerry are lulling much of the United States into complacency when they know full well Iran's desire to destroy the Jewish state.
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