When they want to find the best in contemporary fiction writing, people often think of The New Yorker, Granta, or any number of small circulation literary magazines. When the subject is foreign policy, however, I'll take the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Apart from maybe running a spell-check program on submissions, it's hard to see any sign that the editors there care about factual accuracy, provided that the piece in question satisfies their hawkish proclivities and other litmus tests.
So here's a little game you can play with one of their recent entries: Andrew Roberts' May 1 piece that invokes various historical examples to justify a preemptive strike by Israel on Iran. Your challenge: How many bald-faced errors can you spot in a single short piece?
First, let's start with the title: "The Case for Preemptive War." In fact, what Roberts is advocating in this piece is not pre-emptive but preventive war, and there is a big difference. A preemptive war is a military campaign launched in anticipation of an imminent enemy attack: You strike first because you know the opponent is getting ready to attack and you want to seize the advantage of striking first. Preventive war, by contrast, is a war launched to take advantage of favorable conditions (such as a favorable balance of power), even though the intended target is not in fact preparing an attack of its own. Preemptive war is sometimes permissible in international law; preventive war is not.
There is of course no serious evidence that Iran is about to attack Israel, and experts even disagree over whether Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community still believes there is no active nuclear weapons program underway. So Roberts' entire piece is based on a category mistake, which is not an auspicious way to begin.
Second, Roberts refers to Israel's "successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981." These attacks were a tactical success (i.e., the reactor was destroyed) but a strategic failure, as they convinced Saddam Hussein to get serious about developing WMD and to accelerate a covert nuclear weapons program whose full extent we didn't discover until after the 1991 Gulf War. The real lesson for today is that an Israeli preventive attack on Iran might be just the thing to convince the clerical regime that it really does need a genuine nuclear deterrent. That's the policy that Israel adopted back in the late 1950s, when it began its own nuclear program, and that's the lesson Saddam drew in 1981. Why wouldn't the mullahs see it the same way?
Third, Roberts declares that Israel's "preemptive strike" on Egypt in 1967 "saved the Jewish state." This is nonsense. Although Nasser's decision to order the U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai and to send part of his army back in was both provocative and foolish, he was not preparing to attack Israel and Egypt's forces in the Sinai were not deployed for offensive action. Strictly speaking, the Six Day War wasn't preemption, though some Israeli leaders may have seen it that way. Israel had more troops arrayed against the Egyptian forces, and U.S. military intelligence correctly predicted that Israel would win easily even if the Egyptians attacked first. No less an Israeli patriot than Menachem Begin described it accurately when he said: "The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." That attack might have been justified on other grounds -- such as not allowing Nasser to alter the status quo in the Sinai -- but it was not a case of preemption and thus does not support Roberts' case.
(By the way, readers interested in understanding the origins of 1967 war would do well to avoid Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's highly imaginative reconstruction, and rely on more serious scholarly accounts, such as Tom Segev's 1967 or Roland Popp's 2006 article "Stumbling Decidedly into the Six Day War.")
Fourth, most of Roberts' other examples are misleading or inapt, because they are not the "bolt-from-the-blue" acts of preventive war that he is advocating. Instead, the actions he describes -- such as the "Copenhagening" of the Danish fleet by the British in 1807 or the scuttling of the French fleet in Oran in 1940 -- were simply acts of strategic initiative undertaken in the midst of active and open hostilities. As such, they tell us nothing about the wisdom of launching an unprovoked preventive war with Iran today.
Finally, Roberts' entire case rests on the dubious belief that Israel has the military capability to inflict a decisive blow against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. There's little doubt that Israel could damage Iran's enrichment and reprocessing capability. But it cannot destroy the underground facility at Fordow, and it can at best delay Iran's nuclear potential by a few months or years. The fact of the matter is that Iran already knows how to get a nuclear bomb if it ever decides it really wants one, and repeatedly threatening it with regime change and possibly conducting a preventive (not preemptive) strike would be the single best way to convince them to go all-out for a full-fledged nuclear capacity. The only way to prevent an Iranian bomb is to convince the regime that it doesn't need one, but the strategy Roberts recommends would have the opposite effect.
The Wall Street Journal is a distinguished newspaper with an enormous and influential readership, and its reportage is often impressive and fair. But its op-ed page has been off the deep end for as long as I can remember. It should not be forgotten that the Journal's editors and commentators were among the most fervent advocates of invading Iraq, a modest little adventure that didn't turn out so well. All of which suggests that the paper really ought to come with a warning label, or perhaps a color-coding scheme that tells readers when they've left the world of facts and logic and entered into the realm of fiction. Or if that is asking too much, how about a bit of fact-checking?
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.