"If the Israeli military attacks Iran unilaterally, it will be the stupidest thing that Israel has done since the 1982 incursion into Lebanon, stupid and even more disastrous."
Joe Klein, the seasoned political writer of Time magazine, does not mince words when it comes to Iran. We are sitting in his Rockefeller Center office, overlooking midtown Manhattan, a place where the 40-year veteran of journalism spends very little time these days. He is usually on campaign buses or planes. "This is the 10th U.S. election I am covering. The 10th! It's like a disease with me."
But it's a disease that spawned a distinguished career, which peaked in 1996 when Klein, today 65, published "Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics," under the pseudonym "Anonymous," to great success. The novel, a thinly disguised, detailed behind-the-scenes account of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, revealed the mechanism fueling the machine of the Democratic then-candidate, and although the characters' names were made-up, it was easy to figure out what the real-life analog of most of them was, as well as that of the author.
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All of that did not stop President Clinton from giving Klein continued coverage access throughout his second term in office. In fact, Democrats in general seem to like Joe Klein. Republicans maybe not so much.
"Look, there is a real price to be paid for saying certain kinds of things. I was accused of being an anti-Semite many times ...," Klein reminisces with a sad smile, recalling his coverage of McCain's 2008 presidential campaign.
Why was that?
"The trouble I have gotten into usually has been because of Iran ... I mean I got kicked off John McCain's campaign because of Iran. There was a press conference in South Carolina and I asked him a simple question. I said 'Why do you keep on talking about [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad since Ahmadinejad has absolutely no power over Iran's military or nuclear program.' At the time, I suggested there was a small group of Jewish neoconservatives surrounding McCain who were pushing us toward war with Iran, and I said it may or may not be in Israel's best interest to attack Iran - although I kind of think it isn't - but it is certainly not in America's best interest to do so!"
Not only John McCain was angry at Klein for his comments. The Anti-Defamation League came out strongly against him as well. Klein, however, who is openly Jewish, remained unapologetic.
The prominence of the Iran issue in the current Republican primary race also incenses Klein, who is quick to elaborate that the force behind the rhetoric is not just a "small group of Jewish neoconservatives."
"There is this whole bunch of meshugenner Evangelicals who love their little Jewish 'sisters and brothers,' who they believe are going to incinerate themselves once the Rapture comes ... The Evangelicals are a major force in American politics and the Republican politicians listen to what they are is saying. When you have a politician like [Newt] Gingrich or [Rick] Santorum say that Iran's government is completely irrational, that it is a death cult - using words like 'satanic cult that will use the bomb as soon as it gets it' - they are following a Rapturian line, No. 1, and No. 2, there are people in the Israeli government - and I know this for a fact - who are selling that to them."
Isn't that more or less the line of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?
"Yes, well, Bibi inserted himself into the American election like no other foreign prime minister has ever done. He already did it last spring. When he came here and purposely misquoted the president, saying that he favored a two-state solution [of the Israel-Palestine conflict] on the 1967 lines, without mentioning he also supports the [idea of] mutually agreed-upon land swaps as part of the process. That happens to be the position of the Netanyahu administration as well, by the way - the land swaps - yet Netanyahu sold it here as something other than that, after meeting with Obama then, and by doing so he placed a bet on the Republican Party in this presidential election. The Obama staff was furious about that. And you know, as an American Jew, I found that behavior disgraceful and disrespectful."
It can be argued that the Netanyahu hard line on Iran is selling quite well in the States. And what if Iran is indeed that dangerous?
"Look, the Iranians are no bargain either ... the Iranian administration does its best to make itself [appear] as obnoxious as possible in the world - towards Israel and the U.S. But what I am saying is that it's one thing to say Iran should not have a bomb because that is going to escalate things in the region, which is probably true. But when these guys - the Republicans - say you are dealing with a satanic death cult that is going to launch as soon as they get the bomb, that is crazy talk. And the fact is that you have an awful lot of uninformed Americans who are willing to believe it. That is what I was getting at with McCain in 2008: that the only reason McCain was using Ahmadinejad so much was to scare people like my Jewish parents, because they knew Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier.
"I have been to Iran a couple of times. Ahmadinejad sounds crazy, but he is a puppet. And the Iranians are really really feeling the pressure right now. Not just from the sanctions. The sabotage. The universal approach of the world. They are very proud people. I have many great Iranian friends, some of whom have been jailed by the creeps in the regime. I have no love lost for the Iranian regime. I also think the mismatch between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people is the greatest of any country in the world."
But what if Israel's hard line continues to the extent that it decided to attack Iran unilaterally. What do you think the Obama administration would do then?
"I don't know what it would do, but I know what it should do if that happens: They should shut down all military assistance to Israel. I mean, look at the settlements, look at the crap that Obama got about the settlements and he did not even withhold funds like Bush, Sr. did when he was president in the 80s, a Republican president. I thought it was entirely appropriate when Israel refused to stop building settlements to withhold funds from them, but Obama did not.
"All that being said, I would be shocked if there were an Israeli attack on Iran. Think about it: The Israeli military does not go around bragging of what they can do before an attack. It may not be out of character for Likud, because I think that the last 30 years of Israel foreign policy, when Likud has been in charge, has been an unmitigated disaster, but the Israeli army does not behave this way usually before a war. It's not the Israel Defense Forces' strategy, no?"
'Like watching Jonestown'
Klein speaks out of genuine concern. He has been covering the Middle East for years, in between U.S. presidential campaigns. Israel is clearly very dear to him. Over the last couple of months, however, Klein has been concerned only from afar. His time is consumed by the ongoing election year coverage, most recently by the Republican primaries - when he is not getting kicked off GOP buses or planes. He calls the nomination race to date a "spectacle" that is "like watching Jonestown unfold: There is no cohesive party line and they look like a cult."
What is the feeling within the Obama administration about the Republican candidates? Given the chaotic nature of the Republican primaries, it seems like they are not sweating.
"Not really the case - they are concerned to a certain degree. Obama is going to have a tough re-election campaign and they know that. It's not going to be like last time. You cannot run as the Messiah again if you have been in office for four years and have proven to be all-too human."
Klein proceeds to critique the Obama term to date. Though he acknowledges that the administration inherited a troubled country to begin with, he also claims that it did not succeed in some major areas, which can be exploited by the Republicans.
Klein: "There is a very sane, rational case to be made that Obama tried to do too much too soon. Going after universal health care may not have been wise; the Republicans can say that he should have focused more on the economy. There is also a larger case to be made that the American economy needs some major revision. There is no creative destruction in government here and there needs to be. The Democrats who should have been very much about managing the government because they were the party of government this term ... never manage it very well."
The journalist recalls talking with Bill Clinton toward the end of his second term: "He recognized too late - he admitted it to me - that job one for an American president is to prove that you can manage the government and manage the economy. Which Clinton managed to do partly in 1993 with a budget that brought in surpluses. But Obama has not done that. He went with a lot of crap in his stimulus package. If you look at this financial reform - we had an outrageous breach of confidence with the banks here, which caused the collapse in 2007-2008. His response to that was entirely insufficient and the bill that he eventually came up with is a disaster."
Some argue that Obama's foreign policy has not been a huge success either.
"He admitted to me in an on-the-record interview that he blew the Middle East in his first year. But you have to look at the bigger picture of his policy, and it is three-dimensional. The bigger picture is that colonialism is so over. Colonialism is so 50 years ago, and when we try to impose our will, even with the best intentions, in the Middle East, we are starting with a negative and we are moving into a bigger negative because of the history of Western imperialism in the region. It is something that I think Barack Obama understands, and that George W. Bush did not understand."
Are you willing to predict whom Obama will eventually run against in November?
"I am not going to guess for you ... I stopped making predictions a long time ago. There are just too many moving parts for a mere mortal to predict ... We journalists are very good at doing 'right now,' and we are excellent at doing the past, but God forbid we try to predict the future - it's like trying to predict the Middle East. Never, ever try to predict what will happen in the Middle East: You will never get it right."