Michael Gerson is not a smart man. A former speech writer for President George W. Bush, his columns for The Washington Post reflect the unthinking acceptance of establishment conventional wisdom that typifies the paper, remarkable only for their consistent, sheer banality — qualities that make one long for the intellectual ferocity and originality of a Tom Friedman essay. But enough about his qualifications.
In his latest column, a piece that argues President Obama, by “picking public fights on issues such as settlements and adopting a tone of neutrality in other controversies,” may be inadvertently encouraging an Israeli attack on Iran. That’s right: while his administration hasn’t actually pressured Israel to stop it’s settlement building on Palestinian lands — an unambiguous violation of international law — beyond occasionally noting that the settlements aren’t helpful to the peace process (which even the Bush administration asserted from time to time), that Obama’s “tone” sometimes implies a greater neutrality on Israel-Palestine issues than his actions would suggest is apparently reason enough for the Israelis to launch a preemptive strike on . . . Iran. That this says more about the aggressiveness and irrationally of the Israeli government is an idea Gerson does not entertain.
In addition to his limited capacity for original thought, Gerson has an extremely limited — though politically convenient — knowledge of history. While indicating he believes an Israeli attack on Iran would not be desirable at this moment, he nonetheless repeats a wonderful, fantastically imaginative fairy tale about the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, claiming that Israeli “Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no idea whether the raid would stop the Iraqi nuclear program or merely slow it. But slowing it was reason enough.” And in case you didn’t get the message, later in the column he writes that “high-ranking Israeli officials have been telling American visitors that buying time may be worth it. The Osirak raid, after all, turned out to be an unexpectedly decisive blow.”
When dealing with the Post, particularly its editorial page, it’s best to assume whatever you’re reading is bullshit. Such is this case here.
Far from “slowing” the Iraqi nuclear weapons program — much less dealing it “an unexpectedly decisive blow” — the Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor precipitated that weapons program, according to Iraqi scientists. As the BBC notes, “Dr Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who witnessed the Israeli bombing, says a full weapons programme began only after the Osirak attack.” Before the attack, “he recalls, there was some ‘dabbling but nothing sophisticated and focused’.”
Further, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Betts wrote in a 2006 article titled, “The Osirak fallacy,” contrary to “prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel’s destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.” Obliterating the reactor “did not put the brakes on Saddam’s nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb”, and “the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam’s incentive to rush the [weapons] program”.
Gerson also cites the example of North Korea to claim “meticulous, multilateral cooperation [resulted] in spectacular counterproliferation failure”, a fact that may encourage an Israeli attack on Iran. Of course, the alleged failure of diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear program that Gerson bemoans was in fact brought about by his former boss; North Korea’s nukes, after all, were produced after the Bush administration withdrew from bilateral talks and declared the country a member of the “axis of evil”. Whoops.
In fairness, for all the mountain of bullshit his column is based on, Gerson does get around to getting a few things right, observing that, “On Iran, the Obama administration, while differing in some diplomatic methods, has adopted the same basic approach as the Bush administration”: dangling a few carrots while seeking to build support for crippling sanctions, all the while fearmongering about a nuclear weapons program that the White House has yet to provide evidence even exists.
Gerson also gets this (almost) right: “A virtual blockade of the Iranian economy — aggressively cutting off shipping, banking and refined petroleum — would not be a half-measure. It would be an act close to war.” Indeed, except it wouldn’t be an act “close” to war, it would be a declaration of one. Here’s hoping the Obama administration realizes that — and that it’s aware fomenting another military confrontation in the Middle East would be A Very Bad Thing for all involved, but especially for the innocent civilians who always bear the brunt of the consequences for their governments’ actions.