Method to Netanyahu’s Wackiness?

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s gimmick of hoisting a crude drawing of a bomb to illustrate the alleged Iranian nuclear threat has prompted derision and has distracted from his claims about existential threats. But perhaps he was more interested in another kind of distraction, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

One naturally wonders what was going through the mind of the Israeli prime minister, or of his staff or speechwriters, when deciding to include in his address to the United Nations General Assembly such an obvious invitation for satire and ridicule. And on a deadly serious topic, which Mr. Netanyahu more than anyone has repeatedly proclaimed we ought to view in deadly serious terms.

I am referring, of course, to the drawing of a cartoon bomb that he used as a prop and on which he drew a red line with a marker while talking about imposing red lines on Iran’s nuclear program. A major topic of post-speech analysis has concerned which cartoons were possible sources of the bomb design.

Boris Badenov, the villain in the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoon show, brandishing a bomb similar to the drawing displayed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly.

Was it something Wile E. Coyote had used against Road Runner, or did it, and more evidence leans in this direction, come from Boris and Natasha on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show? There are many satiric directions one could go with Netanyahu’s prop, and Photoshop-adept wags in Israel wasted no time in having fun with some of them.

Sometimes dumbing a topic down, even to the level of cartoons, has the advantage of getting a single point across clearly even at the expense of distorting or oversimplifying the rest of the topic. But if the point concerned where Netanyahu wanted to establish a red line for Iran’s nuclear program, he failed to clarify this and instead only confused.

The line he drew on his cartoon bomb indicated that what would be unacceptable would be any enrichment of uranium to the 90 percent (i.e., weapons-grade) level. If that is the line, there is no problem and no issue. Iran is doing no enrichment to that level and has given no indication of moving to that level. If it were to begin to make such a move, this would immediately be observed by the on-site inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In his remarks, however, Netanyahu said Iran should not be permitted to “complete” medium-level (20 percent) enrichment. That is not only at odds with his graphic but also intrinsically unclear. What does “complete” mean, especially given that, this is something the prime minister never mentioned, more than half of the 20 percent-enriched uranium Iran has produced is being made into fuel plates for nuclear reactors and as such is no longer available for possible further enrichment to weapons grade?

All of this is, however, beside the point. We collectively give Netanyahu far too much credit for believing what he is saying and for being focused on technical details that he claims to be focused on.

His case for the Iranian nuclear program being some kind of grave, imminent threat does not stand up, and he is smart enough to realize it does not stand up. Thus he loses nothing through confusion, contradiction and silly graphics.

The idea that Iran is only a few months away from having a nuclear weapon simply does not conform with the facts regarding the status of its enrichment program and everything else that would be required to build a usable weapon. It does not conform with the weight of the evidence that Tehran hasn’t even decided to build a bomb.

What Netanyahu claimed about red lines and a threat of military attack being able to deter Iran from continuing its current nuclear program contradicts, as Tony Karon points out, the assertions about the supposed inability to deter Iran if it had a nuclear weapon, which is the main basis for all the alarmism in the first place about a nuclear-armed Iran.

This parallels the similar contradiction involved when those promoting the use of military force against Iran argue, as they often do, that Iran would be deterred from striking back forcefully.

As for the supposed horrors that would ensue if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, what Netanyahu had to say about that in his U.N. speech, such as suggesting that continued Iranian enrichment of uranium would somehow mean Al Qaeda having a nuclear weapon, was just as cartoonish as what he said about red lines, even if he did not have a graphic to go with it.

The use of even a satire-inducing prop becomes a little less puzzling if we do not take what Netanyahu is saying at face value but instead realize what he is trying to do, which is not to establish some technical case about timelines of the Iranian nuclear program. He is, for one thing, succeeding in getting our attention.

The above-the-fold portions of the front pages of Friday’s New York Times and Washington Post were dominated by a picture of Netanyahu holding up his cartoon bomb drawing.

If the Israeli prime minister looks somewhat looney by using something that could have come out of Looney Tunes, that only adds to building the image of himself as someone who might actually be crazy enough to start a war with Iran. His principal audience in this regard is not in Iran but instead in the United States.

The threat of dragging the United States into such a folly of a war serves in the first instance to increase the pressure for sanctions, subversion, and other dimensions of conflict with Iran short of overt military force. It also serves to box the U.S. president into a position in which if overt war comes, it is more likely to involve the United States and not just Israel.

Netanyahu’s agitation and saber-rattling, and the effects they have on U.S. policies, also help to subvert prospects for success in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue. They help, moreover, to prevent any broader U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, thus supporting the Israeli line that Israel is the only partner the United States can hope to have within a region full of threats and enemies.

All the agitation on Iran has diverted attention from topics that Netanyahu does not want to receive attention, which include above all the festering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A measure of how well this diversion of attention has succeeded is how little notice the Palestinian situation has received in reporting in the United States of the speeches at the General Assembly.

That includes coverage of the speech by Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who devoted much of his address to that topic and reminded his listeners that the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement was only one-half of the Camp David accords, with promised progress on the Palestinian issue being the other.

Speaking of diversion of attention, note also how, in contrast to Netanyahu’s cartoon-aided presentation, relatively little comment has been given to the speech at the same podium the previous day by Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad.

Most comments just noted how rambling and ultimately boring Ahmadinejad’s speech was. The only things he said about Israel were to complain (and what Iranian president couldn’t or wouldn’t complain about this?) about all the Israeli threats and hostility directed against Iran.

There was no reference to map-wiping or any of the other rhetoric that has repeatedly been seized upon by those talking up an Iranian nuclear threat. It is interesting how when such snippets of rhetoric appear they are vigorously extrapolated into conclusions about future Iranian policy, but when they do not appear the absence is simply ignored.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


16 comments for “Method to Netanyahu’s Wackiness?

  1. Ahem
    September 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    You know, the saber-rattling by Netanyahu against Iran has been going on for longer than I care to remember. True, his maniacal performance has gotten our attention and illustrates just how low he is willing to stoop to get it. What if his cartoon isn’t a cartoon? What if, while addressing us as though we are idiots, he is actually providing a barometric reading of just how far is left to go to achieve The New World Order? He and the rest of the manipulators use the threat of, or actual war to divert our attention every time. (I have long felt that Bush II’s “Mission Accomplished” signified the completion of a not-so-covert operation directed at control of Iraq’s oil fields (an operation which began with Bush I and Desert Storm)–the toppling of Saddam was the window dressing.) And how effective is the creation of animosity between religious sects………?

    • bobzz
      October 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm

      Rehmat, I tried the link you posted but could only stay with it for about 30 seconds. If I were president, I would apprise Muslim nations of my determination to pursue peace in the middle east by taking an even handed approach. You can read what I wrote to Borat. But here is the thing for you. Israel is there to stay within the 1967 borders. The United Nations gave Israel a place in the sun, so they have a legal right to be there. They are not going anywhere. The idea that they would go back to Europe is as ludicrous as America giving the Southwest back to Mexico or Florida to Spain. When Bill Bradley ran for president he proposed giving the South Dakota badlands back to the Lakota Sioux. South Dakota was none too pleased. (As pretend president) I shall be talking to Hamas and Hezbolla; no more rockets. I am placing my troops in Israel to ensure her safety; any attack on Israel under the conditions I laid out below will be considered an attack on the US. If Islam is a religion of peace, and if you are treated with respect and fairness, I expect that the majority of Muslims on the street will calm down. If you read below what I (as pretend president) required of Israel, things will calm down considerably. (But I would have to address the leaders that run rough shod over their people; America will no longer support them if they continue to do so.) Muslim countries and Israel could develop a vigorous trade with each other.

      In real life now, moving out of pretend, America is the problem, not Israel; we have the power to make peace, and we are not using it at all. I would love to see a presidential candidate run on the slogan: “restoring sanity,” if he or she knew what a sane foreign policy was. Get foreign policy right and we can turn to our domestic troubles, but as long as we are pursuing a costly military, domestic troubles will only worsen.

  2. Frances in California
    September 30, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    I still think someone in Netanyahu’s staff went rummaging thru Colin Powell’s atic!

  3. F. G. Sanford
    September 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    As I mentioned the other day:

    Once again, Bibi has successfully deflected the world’s attention away from the real issue, and he has done it with something as childish as a Yosemite Sam cartoon motif. You gotta hand it to him…he correctly identified the level of intellectual prowess required to bamboozle the American public…

    The real issue has ALWAYS been finding some ruse to quell criticism of ongoing crimes against humanity. This is like little Bobby breaks a window, but he’s quick to point out that little Johnny said a bad word. So far, American public opinion still seems to be taking Bibi’s side, because after all, Ahmedinejad said all those BAD, BAD words. Cartoons, indeed…

  4. Bill Jones
    September 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Netanyahu’s clowning was aimed at the American public, for whom nothing is too dumbed down or cartoonish.

    • nora
      October 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      Tragic if true, and when applied to most instances it seems to be an accurate understanding.

  5. David G
    October 1, 2012 at 7:30 am

    Just for the record, by now I trust Mr. Pillar knows that the “90 percent” magic-markered red line on Bibi’s bomb was NOT intended to mean uranium enrichment to the 90-percent level, but rather meant the point in time when Iran will have stockpiled enough of the low-enriched uranium they are actually making that they would, with further enrichment, have enough to fuel one fission bomb.

    According to the NY Times, a lot of the Israeli media made the exact same error, so LOL at the fail on that level.

    It’s understandable that people would misread the message in this way since, after all, if Iran were actually to enrich to 90 percent it would in fact indicate an intention to build a bomb, and thus a plausible, if still not really convincing, case for an Israeli freakout.

    The actual, intended meaning of the cute bomb picture, of course, is completely indefensible: that Israel will treat Iranian accumulation, under IAEA monitoring, of the low-enriched uranium they have a legal right to as an existential threat and casus belli.

    And naturally, being completely indefensible, this position is still all-too-likely to be adopted by the U.S. as the basis for further threats, sabotage, and economic attacks on Iran, if not another of the disastrous military adventures we are so fond of.

    As for what Netanyahu was thinking in employing the silly drawing with a literal “red line”, I assume his advisers believed this sort of childish oversimplification would be effective in influencing the American media and public opinion. Despite the chuckling of cartoon connoisseurs and the confusion over the 90-percent thing, they were probably right. 

  6. David G
    October 1, 2012 at 7:39 am

    To clarify my previous comment: where I wrote “low-enriched”, I meant the “medium-level (20 percent)” enrichment that is actually going on, as Mr. Pillar discusses.

    Also, commenter Bill Jones at 7:34 pm: Yes. Exactly.

  7. nora
    October 2, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Israel has refused to sign a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Until Israel enters the civilized world and signs this treaty, why on Earth should we listen to ANYTHING Israel/Netanyahu have to say about nuclear proliferation?

    Doesn’t Israel have unreported nuclear warheads?

    Isn’t Israel a nuclear rogue state?

    Should a nuclear rogue state that refuses to be inspected by nuclear regulators be allowed to give other nations orders about nuclear technology?

    As a non-cooperative nuclear rogue state, what right does Israel have to unilaterally declare other states unworthy of attaining medical, industrial, and (ugly as it is) even military nuclear applications of current technologies?

    Netanyahu’s use of the U.N. forum for the display of a goofy, pseudo-science cartoon is a travesty.

    Some interesting coverage of Netanyahu’s behavior–

  8. John Puma
    October 3, 2012 at 3:38 am

    Glenn Greenwald recently pointed out what should be obvious in all this.

    Israel and the US do not oppose Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons because they think Iran would use them on anyone. Rather it is clear admission that such weapons would be effective deterrent to fulfilling their attitude of entitlement to attack any country, at any time, for any reason – with expectation of minimal resistance.

    The reasons to attack Iran’s are (according to the CIA World Fact Book):
    Iran has the world’s 4th largest proven oil reserves and the 2nd largest proven natural gas reserves.

    Natural Gas:

  9. elmerfudzie
    October 4, 2012 at 12:15 am

    Boris’ bombs? no, no! spare Natasha! Flashback, actress Natalie Wood, no, yes! foxy Russian women! oh yes!…What a good chuckle and I’m amused. Thanks Mr Pillar…for the laughs…problem is, how long will they last? I’ve asked the question before and it may help unravel at least one mystery, even expedite the problem solving….who’s behind (I hate the nickname) Bibi? Is it some oil tycoon type like Borosovsky?
    With a name, we’ll have an address and perhaps a few intimate curbside neighborhood protests will follow. Unless the right Detective unearths the veiled name(s), diplomacy will go nowhere..except into a new war. There’s so little time left and so many lives hang in the balance…And now allow me to switch gears. Aside from all the political conundrums, Israel cannot use the A-bomb, for the same reasons other nuclear powers won’t…it’s the endgame, the trick pistol with a mini bore that shoots a bullet into the gunsel the moment he whacks his target. To be clear, the dispersal of radiation through out middle east would make all future history there, impossible. This is especially true for Israel given it’s limited topography and close proximity of it’s “enemies”. Our nuclear scientists had to point out the “proximity” issue to field commanders along the East-West German border when the Davy Crockett shoulder fired mini nuke became part of the Army’s arsenal. This limitation and scenario also appeared during WWI, where the intended direction of chlorine gas was reversed due to a wind change, and ended up gassing German troops instead of the Brits.

  10. paschn
    October 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Thought I’d link this article for folks to check out;

    It would seem that after all these decades of the D.C. crowd allowing the Fox access to our “henhouse”,selling what little honor we MIGHT have had, that old fox is having it’s teeth pulled…slowly and it’s evil underbelly laid bare to the world.

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