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This Week in Journamalism: Slate Crashed-and-Burned-and-Smoking

UPDATE: As so often these days, Matthew Yglesias nails it:

David Samuels Says Bombing Iran Will Lead to a Palestinian State: [Samuels] illustrates how pathological the practice of journalism can get when editors [like Slate's Jacob Weisberg] decide to privilege the idea of running “interesting,” “provocative,” or “counterintuitive” pieces over accurate ones that make a contribution to people’s understanding of the world.... Samuels... [claims] it is an unprovoked unilateral Israeli military assault on Iran that—through magic—leads to the creation of a Palestinian state.... [T]he reality Samuels describes... is a world in which an Israeli attack on Iran is likely to be highly effective at curbing Iran’s nuclear program... in which such an attack would be secretly welcomed by the leaders of all the regimes in the region... in which Bibi Netanyahu is secretly harboring a desire to strike a major deal with the Palestinian leadership and is just waiting for a moment of strength--such as would result from a successful bombing raid on Iran—to launch it. In the real world, though, just about none of this is true.

While the gates of heaven are still shut, I will add that there is a special place for people who publish falsehoods constructed to increase the likelihood of war. It is not a happy place.


After David Samuels's truly bizarre love-letter to Condi Rice[1] in the June 2007 Atlantic (and Katha Pollitt reminds me of his equally bizarre take on Michelle Obama[2]), all editors who wanted to avoid shredding their organization's integrity knew that Samuels was someone to avoid.

But apparently, not Jacob Weisberg David Plotz of Slate:

The rational argument for an Israeli attack on Iran. - By David Samuels - Slate Magazine: [A]n attack on Iran lines up quite well with Israel's rational interests as a superpower client.... [T]he more you consider the rationality of an Israeli attack on Iran in the context of Israel's relationship with its superpower patron, the more likely an attack appears.... The key fact of the American-Israeli alliance that most commentators seem eager to elide is that Israel is America's leading ally in the Middle East because it is the most powerful country in the Middle East.... Israel earned its role as an American client with a series of daring military victories.... Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.

With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world.... Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America's ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions. The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates....

An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel's capacity for game-changing military action. The idea that Iran can meaningfully retaliate against Israel through conventional means is more myth than fact.... [A]ny Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building.... [A]n Israeli bombing raid would... puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran's rise as a regional hegemon. The idea of a mass public outcry against Israel in the Muslim world is probably also a fiction—given the public backing of the Gulf states and Egypt for Israel's wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. As the only army in the region able to take on Iran and its clients, Israel has effectively become the hired army of the Sunni Arab states tasked by Washington with the job of protecting America's favorite Middle Eastern tipple—oil....

Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America's favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won't work.... Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger—to the not-so-secret delight of America's Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf. Iran's local clients like Syria and Hamas would be likely to distance themselves from an over-leveraged Persian would-be hegemon whose ruined nuclear facilities would be visible on Google Earth.

The only real downside for Israel of an attack on Iran is Washington's likely response to the anger of the Arab street and the European street.... The price of an Israeli attack on Iran is therefore clear to anyone who reads Al Ahram or the Guardian: a Palestinian state.... Desperate to rid themselves of the bad PR and the demographic threat posed by maintaining Israel's hold over the West Bank, Sharon's successors have been unable to find a victory big enough to allow them to retreat.... Destroying a respectable number of Iranian centrifuges will end Iran's march to regional hegemony and eliminate Israel's chief rival for America's affections while also allowing Israel to gain the legal and demographic benefits of a Palestinian state with a minimum of long-term risk.

Israel's version of a nuclear grand bargain that brings peace to the Middle East may be messier and more violent than what the Obama administration imagines can be accomplished through sanctions, blandishments, and the invocation of Barack Obama's magic middle name. But who can really argue with the idea of trading the Iranian nuclear bomb for a Palestinian state? Saudi Arabia would be happy. Egypt would be happy. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates would be happy. Jordan would be happy. Iraq would be happy. Two-thirds of the Lebanese would be happy. The Palestinians would go about building their state, and Israel would buy itself another 40 years as the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Iran would not be happy.


[1] David Samuels (2007), "Grand Illusions," The Atlantic:

The Atlantic Online | June 2007 | Grand Illusions | David Samuels: Rice’s obsession with sports makes it easier for her to function in a world of men who may not be immediately comfortable taking direction from a younger black woman, but who will respect anyone who can name the winning quarterback for every Super Bowl off the top of her head. Rice works out regularly with a trainer, has dated NFL All-Pro receivers Rick Upchurch and Gene Washington, is a talented classical pianist, and wears sophisticated clothes that show off her long, athletic legs, facts that may seem trivial, but actually provide valuable clues to an underlying truth about the secretary of state: She is an extreme personality who dresses with a degree of flamboyance that hasn’t been seen in the State Department since the high-collar days of John Hay.

Which is not to say that she doesn’t have a bureaucratic, boring side. Ten years before she became the president’s chief foreign-policy adviser, she was a junior Sovietologist on his father’s National Security Council, and she retains the ability to master briefing books and speak in bullet points that makes a good staff person invaluable. When she talks about big ideas and important moments in history, her expression becomes solemn and fixed, and she leans forward, holding her shoulders back a little as she speaks.

“I think we are just at the beginning of great historical flux, and I think it’s even much more dramatic and much more profound than I thought in 2000,” Rice says, when I mention an article she published that year in Foreign Affairs, laying out her vision of a global democratic future guaranteed by the United States. Most articles about foreign policy are op-ed pieces masquerading as political philosophy, and Rice’s is no exception. But it does describe a coherent view of the world that places a great deal of emphasis on the determined exercise of military and diplomatic power and has little in common with the humble, neo-isolationist platform on which George W. Bush ran for president. The world as Rice understands it is both a welcoming and a dangerous place, in which America plays a special role. The sunny and scary parts of her worldview are woven tightly together.

“There has been a triumph of the broad institutional consensus about what it takes to be effective and prosperous or successful,” Rice says, pointing to the interest that all states share in obtaining access to markets and ensuring domestic stability. Unlike Donald Rumsfeld’s finger- wagging, Rat Pack–era version of realpolitik, or Dick Cheney’s paranoia about mushroom clouds and sleeper cells, Rice’s views are the kind of optimistic stuff that mothers might wish their children were being taught in school. Threats to the emerging global order of liberal states come from what Rice calls “transnational forces,” “violent extremists,” or sometimes “terrorists,” locutions that share in common a studied avoidance of the word “Islam.”

“When we liberated Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan, we found Nigerians and Chinese and Malay and American people who essentially deny nationality in favor of a philosophy—a violent extremist philosophy to which they are committed,” she says. “It reminds me in some ways of the way that ‘Workers of the world, unite!’—Karl Marx,” she adds helpfully “—was a slogan that meant that an American worker had more in common with a German worker than an American worker would have with the American leadership.” When she is thinking hard about something, she furrows her wide brow and scrunches up her mouth in an unselfconscious way that suggests a schoolgirl determined to ace a test.

Questions about Rice from policy types usually begin with the all-important matter of whether she is an “idealist” or a “realist,” a distinction that she herself regards as academic and meaningless. As she wrote in her Foreign Affairs article, “There are those who would draw a sharp line between power politics and a principled foreign policy based on values. This polarized view—you are either a realist or devoted to norms and values—may be just fine in academic debate, but it is a disaster for American foreign policy. American values are universal.”

A related question is whether Rice is a “neocon,” a term originally coined to describe a tight-knit group of mostly Jewish intellectuals in New York City who split from the doctrinaire left in the 1960s on a series of issues, beginning with whether or not the Soviet Union was a totalitarian state. The current usage of the term, while popular, is quite misleading, because it flattens the distinction between those who believe in the aggressive use of American military force and those who believe that the United States should champion democracy. In doing so, it imposes a retroactive coherence on administration policies that evolved on the fly, as the outcome of battles between opposing bureaucrats, none of whom got exactly what they wanted. In Iraq, some, like Vice President Cheney, appear to have been eager to depose Saddam Hussein without caring much about what system of government might replace him. Others, like former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, cared passionately about bringing democracy to the Middle East. A third group, which includes Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a menace, and then, only after that decision was made, supported the idea of building a democracy instead of installing a new dictator and going home.

Rice’s role as national-security adviser during Bush’s first term was ostensibly to referee the clash of opinions among what some White House staff called the “bull elephants”—Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Colin Powell. “I didn’t know that she had any strong views,” says Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy, who did not think highly of her performance. “I mean, she was an expert in one country that no longer exists.”

And yet, when the dust settled late last year, those who had dismissed Rice as a glorified appointments secretary were in for a surprise. With Powell and Rumsfeld gone, and Cheney’s influence constrained by aggressive legal proceedings against his chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the secretary of state has emerged as the foreign-policy linchpin of an administration that is largely staffed and run by colleagues from her days in Brent Scowcroft’s NSC...

[2] Katha Pollitt:

Mad About Michelle: David Samuels writes in New York magazine:

There are clear limits to Michelle's ambition. She went to excellent schools, got decent grades, stayed away from too much intellectual heavy lifting, and held a series of practical, modestly salaried jobs while accommodating her husband's wilder dreams and raising two lovely daughters. In this, she is a more practical role model for young women than Hillary Clinton, blending her calculations about family and career with an expectation of normal personal happiness.

Would you like some manly condescension with that factual misinformation, ladies? By all means, avoid "too much intellectual heavy lifting"! If Samuels regards $273,618--Michelle Obama's salary in her last year as head of community affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals--as modest, he must be the richest magazine journalist in the world. Michelle Obama, who made almost twice as much as her husband the senator, earned more than 99 percent of the population, and 98 percent of men. Moreover, she did so while raising two small children, often without her husband, who was off legislating in Springfield and Washington...

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