BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. And this is the sound of distant drums.
FEMALE JOURNALIST: The crisis in the Mideast, fueled by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, continues to escalate tonight.
FEMALE JOURNALIST: There’s a growing possibility of an attack by Iran on American soil, hence, the circling of the wagons, essentially.
MALE JOURNALIST: So what will ultimately work in stopping Iran’s nuclear program – sanctions or bombs, or something else?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The prospect of attacking Iran has become a point of honor on the presidential campaign trail for nearly every GOP candidate.
MITT ROMNEY: This is a president who should have instead communicated to Iran that we are prepared, that we are considering military options. They’re not just on the table. That are in - they are in our hand.
NEWT GINGRICH: Two or three nuclear weapons wipes out most of the Jews who live in Israel. I believe Ahmadinejad would do it in a heartbeat.
RICK SANTORUM: …and I would be saying to the Iranians, you either open up those facilities, you begin to dismantle them and, and make them available to inspectors or we will degrade those facilities through air strikes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I said “nearly” every candidate. There’s always Ron Paul.
RON PAUL: Yeah, I think that’d be the most foolish thing in the world to do right now, is take on Iran.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week Iran reacted to the sound of American drums by warning it could launch preemptive action against its enemies to ensure its own security. Meanwhile, a recent Pew Research Center poll finds that 58 percent of Americans say it’s important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action, versus just 30 percent who say it’s more important to avoid military conflict with Iran.
The majority sentiment, however, is not shared by national security experts. Here’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, on CNN earlier this week.
GEN. MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor…and it’s for that reason, I think, that we think the current path we’re on is – is the most prudent path at this point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times. He wrote this week that it’s a little puzzling that Americans should talk about another war, especially after the recent dispiriting experience of protracted war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SCOTT SHANE: Micah Zenko, who studies conflict at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the next war always looks a lot more promising than the last war –
-that when you’re faced with a complex foreign policy challenge that goes on for a while, there is an urge to do something and nothing does something like military action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which I guess explains why, with the exception of Ron Paul, the Republican presidential candidates are competing to show how tough they would be on Iran.
SCOTT SHANE: That’s right. I remember in one debate Rick Perry actually upped the ante by saying he would actually favor reinvading Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, the national security experts say that an attack on Iran is not only irrational, it actually would endanger our security.
SCOTT SHANE: There is a theory that holds a lot of sway in – in the US government and I think with some Israelis that ironically a strike against the Iranian nuclear program might be the quickest route to Iran having a nuclear weapon because that would convince the regime that it – needed a weapon to survive and that it would hunker down and build a nuclear weapon as soon as it possibly could.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, why this disconnect between the politicians and the national security experts who have all the inside dope?
SCOTT SHANE: There does seem to me to be quite a striking gap. In fact, that was on display at a couple of recent hearings in which members of Congress were pressing intelligence officials. The members of Congress were mostly saying, come on, come on, you – you know Iran has decided to go for a nuclear weapon. And the officials, notably Jim Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, were pushing back and saying no, that intelligence agencies do not believe Iran has made a decision yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your article, you said that echoes of the period leading up to the Iraq War in 2003 are unmistakable.
SCOTT SHANE: We in the media report a lot of somewhat loose statements that imply that Iran is close to a weapon, that Iran wants to make a weapon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What loose statements? Who’s making them?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, we are. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Ah-ha. How are they attributed, to senior administration officials?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, I think sometimes it’s actually just our summaries of what’s going on. Do you say that Iran is believed to be working toward making a weapon? Sometimes we use these wiggle words which no one really knows what they mean – “working towards a nuclear capability.”
It is difficult to describe because, on the one hand, you have Iran pouring huge resources into a secret [LAUGHS] program to enrich uranium. On the other hand, you have fairly clear statements from American intelligence officials saying they have not yet decided to make a weapon.
So how do you characterize that? And I think the analogy with 2002-2003 is that there were varying descriptions of what weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein might have, what he might be buying and what it would mean; aluminum tubes come to mind.
Our newspaper, The New York Times, among others, got into some trouble by overstating the evidence for Saddam’s weapons which, of course, famously turned out not to exist. And so, here at The New York Times we’ve hada number of discussions about how do we phrase this stuff. Our public editor wrote a blog item sort of slapping us on the wrist for one story that he thought had gone a little bit too far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Ombudsman of The Washington Post did much the same at that paper, slaps on the wrist. But, of course, there are big differences between now and 2003. As you note in your article, you don’t have an administration hell bent for war, as you did in the Bush administration. Are the same people fueling the pundits and the debates right now?
SCOTT SHANE: Probably the group who then were very much in favor of taking on Saddam Hussein would tend to be hawkish on Iran. But I don’t think the impetus is really coming from there. I think part of it is coming from Israel, in the form of predictions or threats that Israel will mount a strike.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Israel, certainly, but no less, surely, this political season and the endless series of debates where Iran is the looming issue that Republicans have turned into a point of distinction between themselves and the administration.
SCOTT SHANE: Absolutely. I mean, Iran has an election coming up very soon, and then we are obviously in the middle of a long election season. Historians of war say that this is a dangerous period, where you have a lot of rhetoric being thrown around for domestic consumption, as much as for international consumption. And there’s always the possibility of a series of missteps that leads to a war that no one particularly wants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the responsibility of the news media when confronting a season as dangerous as this?
SCOTT SHANE: Our obligation is to be precise and careful, try to represent a range of points of view. We do have a policy here to say in every story that Iran claims it is not trying to build a weapon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there is a way to say that which just-
SCOTT SHANE: Is dismissive.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
SCOTT SHANE: Yeah. And it’s probably more credible to say US intelligence officials say that they do not believe Iran has made a decision to build a weapon and to do our own reporting.
A colleague of mine, Elisabeth Bumiller, wrote a very interesting story talking about how many American military experts, including a lot of Pentagon, do not actually believe Israel has the capacity to mount a strike that can set back Iran’s nuclear program. Most of us had been writing, you know, will Israel strike or will they not strike. And the assumption was that Israel certainly had a capability of striking. This raised serious questions about that.
But I think another assumption that gets buried into the reporting is the idea that there’s a sort of binary choice here. You don’t do anything and Iran gets a weapon or you strike against them and keep Iran from getting a weapon. It is much more complicated than the sort of black and white way that we tend to portray it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there was a really interesting study that was done after the first Iraq war. The question asked was how much do you understand the background of the war, the context, what’s the argument about. The more people watched television, the less they understood about Iraq. And I just wonder if the same goes for the political debates – [SCOTT LAUGHS] -and Iran?
SCOTT SHANE: Well, I do think that the political process tends to boil everything down to very simple choices. Mitt Romney has said on the campaign trail, “Elect me and Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. Reelect President Obama and Iran will get a nuclear weapon.”
So that’s just the nature of politics. Unfortunately, that does not always fit the subtleties and contradictions that are inherent in a problem as complex as the question of Iran’s nuclear program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not always, huh Scott?
SCOTT SHANE: Not always.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not ever!
SCOTT SHANE: [LAUGHING] Not ever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott, thank you very much.
SCOTT SHANE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.