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The Ombudsman Column

What If Having 'Israel's Back' Means Another War for the U.S.?

In the televised portion of his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5, among the things that President Obama said was that "the United States will always have Israel's back when it comes to Israel's security."

Really? Suppose Israel decides on its own to launch an attack against Iran's underground nuclear facilities in coming months despite Obama's view, expressed at that same meeting, that "we do believe that there is still a window that allows for a diplomatic resolution to this issue."

No one can forecast what would happen next as a result. What might or could Iran do in response? Would a wider war break out? Would the United States, which has been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last decade, be drawn into another one against another Islamic nation? And how would Americans be sure about the intelligence that Israel used as the basis for a military strike that might precipitate a wider war?

Here are some other questions. What are the best intelligence estimates from independent, non-partisan sources about whether Iran is intent on building a nuclear weapon and, if so, where it stands? What are the chances that a military strike will knock that program out, or just set it back? Should we believe intelligence assessments, which were off base twice in Iraq, in the 1990s and again in 2003, and have a history of being surprised by Soviet, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean nuclear developments?

And Some More

Would the results of a strike be beneficial or possibly catastrophic? Iran is an Islamic country of 80 million people. It fought for eight years, at a cost of up to a million men, after then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Would they be likely to respond over a long period and in unpredictable ways to a so-called "surgical" strike on their nuclear program, which is popular within the country?

If Iran did develop a nuclear weapon, would Tehran be able to move it or test it or deploy it in a way that would not be detectable? If not, it would be vulnerable to a more explainable pre-emptive strike by Israel or the U.S. before it could actually be used.

Would Iran with a weapon be more of a threat than an Iran that had been attacked by Israel — which has, it is widely believed, between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons — with or without U.S. participation? Can Iran be neutralized and diverted with air power alone?

I raise these questions not because I doubt that Iran, under its present leadership, is a threat on several levels, or that Israel is a strong and important ally and has every right to do what its self-preservation requires.

Rather, I ask these specific questions because I don't see them being raised or discussed much if at all on American television and they are certain to be asked, it seems to me, by a fair number of American citizens in the aftermath of an attack if it draws in the United States.

Better Late Than Never?

There is, of course, a lot of war talk and strong rhetoric being thrown around and reported these days about Iran, about would-be U.S. military moves to back-up threats, and plenty of political charges and counter-charges about the sufficiency, or insufficiency, of American devotion to the U.S.-Israel connection. But the fact, it seems to me, is that the detailed questions, the ones that are sure to arise after the fact, do not get reported on much on the tube. Newspapers and magazines do a better job, but television is where most people get their news.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on what turned out to be false premises of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, an article was published in the New York Review of Books by Michael Massing, headlined "Now They Tell Us." It was about how the American press essentially failed to do its job before the war when it turned out that, in fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction. The subject is complicated and the article was controversial and it drew criticism from some journalists.

And there are, of course, differences now from 2003, including the fact that the president is urging patience and some top U.S. military and civilian defense and intelligence officials have also urged caution and stated that Iran has not yet developed a nuclear weapon and questioned whether they have even decided to do so.

But the theme of that article eight years ago was, and remains, very important and the headline has always struck me as perfect: Now They Tell Us. In other words, it is the job of journalists to lay out as much as possible before a war starts so that citizens have a chance to know what their country is about to do and why. Whether one concludes that military action is called for or would be a mistake, it is crucial that citizens have the best possible information to form a judgment.

A Natural for PBS

It also strikes me that public broadcasting has the time, the unique charter and the range of public affairs programs to do this better than others, certainly better than the commercial networks. But to do so it needs to get away from the standard, conventional, surface issues that pass for debate about this subject.

The issue is not just the tensions between Obama and Netanyahu and the charges by Republican presidential hopefuls, or the speeches at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) gathering, but rather the need for at least raising in as much depth as possible all the factors and possible outcomes that are at stake in this matter. And the emphasis here, in my view, should be more on reporting rather than the he said/she said partisan back and forth that can often leave viewers not knowing what to think.

I thought that a segment earlier this week on the PBS NewsHour's March 5 broadcast conducted by senior correspondent Gwen Ifill was a good example of what is needed, especially the consciousness-raising contributions from The Atlantic magazine writer Jeffrey Goldberg, former Ambassador James Dobbins and former White House official Jamie Fly. Still, a great deal more of this, it seems to me — and to some viewers who have begun to write in about it — is essential.

Indeed, as a viewer in San Francisco put it to me this week about that same segment: "I had déjà vu watching the NewsHour address the issue of attacking Iran. I remember how you were banging the war drums prior to the Iraq invasion and here you go again. There was no one on your panel addressing how we could NOT support Israel's attacking Iran."

Watch As U.S., Israel, Talk Iran, Are 'All Options on the Table?' on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.