Jane VaynmanTruthiness comes to nonproliferation

Truthiness is so popular that calling attention to it is almost trite. Soooo 2006. But I’ll indulge just this once.

A recent LA Times op-ed comments on the Times of London article about secret Israeli plans to strike Iran if diplomacy fails. Note the word choice:

LAST WEEKEND, the Sunday Times of London reported that Israel is preparing a strike on the Iranian nuclear program at several bases scattered throughout the country. The paper claimed that the attack would be carried out with tactical nuclear “bunker busters” supplied by the United States.

Israel quickly denied the Times’ report. But the story, which may be wrong in its details, has a certain truthiness. Israel is certainly thinking about how to stop Tehran from getting its hands on nukes.

The op-ed then argues that given the possible consequences of an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, i.e. massive and disproportionate Israeli retaliation, the idea of an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran is not such a bad alternative. Don’t read it – it’s really a bad piece for many reasons and gets screechy at the end. Or if you do read, feel free to shred in comments below.

More importantly, I was confused on whether this is or is not a proper use of the word truthiness.

Definition of truthiness:

The quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.

There is much stuff on the web discussing truthiness meanings, uses, cultish spread of, etc, but my understanding is that there is essentially a sense of mocking to the term. Colbert’s character uses, defends and explains truthiness, and it’s satire… we laugh at him and all whom his character represents.

The LA Times op-ed misses the truthiness concept in an attempt to be one of the cool kids with the cool slang. If you say the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran has some truthiness to it, you would be poking at its lack of foundation in real facts, rather than arguing that it’s a good alternative after all.


  1. SQ

    Chafets’ use of “truthiness” seems to signify something that isn’t true, but (in his view) ought to be. That’s not so far distant from the original meaning of the term.

    Isn’t the real problem with this column that the writer is calling for a pre-emptive nuclear strike? For crying out loud!

  2. Jonathan P. Brasher (History)

    By the way, the link to the original Times of London article points to the wrong piece—a very similar one that is almost two years old, from when Sharon was still in charge (and which, interestingly, never calls the bunker busters nuclear). The article from last weekend that the op-ed refers to can be found here:www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2089-2535177.html

  3. jane (History)

    Thanks, I just updated that link.

  4. Andy (History)

    The concept of such a nuclear attack strikes me as absurd. The very significant chance that one of Israel’s nuclear-armed F-15I’s would go down over Iran or another Muslim country is this plan’s fatal flaw. The leak of this “plan” is so obviously a political ploy that they only ones who seemed fooled are in the press, as is typical. It’s obviously meant as some sort of threat to Iran, but I doubt they’re buying it.

  5. Max Postman (History)

    Andy- Israeli took exactly that risk in 1981, flying covertly over the airspace of several hostile countries to destroy the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor. Osiraq-Iran parallels are not as extensive as a lot of people on the right will have you believe, but I think Osiraq and Entebbe both have a huge amount of resonance in Israeli military culture. Impact: the nation, particularly the military, may very well be prepared to run the risk you’re describing.

  6. dan (History)

    The curious thing about the Osirak operation, which incidentally came after the Iranian air force had failed to hit the target a few months earlier, is that various Israeli sources had been giving off-the-record, detailed briefings about their operational plans for years before they finally flew the mission. Oh, sorry, that’s not quite accurate – they never leaked anything to the press beforehand, as it’s a breach of standard operational security and a gross violation of Israeli national security law and principles.

  7. Andy (History)


    If it were a conventional strike then I would definitely agree with you, but the risk of losing a warhead (through a shootdown or mechanical problem) and handing it to your enemies is very great in this scenario.

    Purely from a planning perspective, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is several orders of magnitude more complex than the Osiraq strike, for example. Multiple aerial refuellings would be required and, depending on the route, refuelling would have to take place over “hostile” territory or with the approval of the US over Iraq. Israel is particularly limited by it’s aerial refueling capability because it only has about 6 KC-707 aircraft.

    The air defense and especially electronic intelligence capability of regional countries has improved significantly since 1981. The long range and complexity of such a strike would give Iran ample opportunities for tactical warning which would be disastrous for the Israeli strike aircraft.

    Finally, as Dan indicated, would Israel really execute such a “plan” after it was leaked to the press? No, strategic and operational surprise is lost and in any event, the Iranians have been preparing for airstrikes against these facilities for years.

  8. Hass (History)

    Nevermind the fact that the Osirak attack was actually a failure and counter-productive:

    “Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel’s destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.”

    From:“The Osirak Fallacy.” by Richard Bettes, The National Interest, no. 79 (Spring 2006).http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2751/is_83/ai_n16129963

  9. mark gubrud (History)

    The Sunday Times story may have been ridiculous, but Bush’s current war threat against Iran is very real. Since everybody knows, I’ll only run down the bullets:

    * Replacement of Gen. Abizaid with Adm. Fallon, in the middle of an ostensible land war.

    * Second carrier strike group and Patriot missiles loudly advertised alongside blunt threats against Iran and Syria in Bush’s bookside chat.

    * Kidnapping of Iranian consular officers over Iraqi (incl. Kurdish) protests.

    * Coincidence with Security Council sanctions resolution and troop boost/offensive in Iraq.

    These and other recent elements have ratcheted up the war threat to a new level, which is one reason the Sunday Times nonsense got so much attention.

    It is no longer a matter of speculating whether Bush secretly plans to attack Iran. All of this is out in the open and constitutes a defacto threat of imminent war, an objectively observable reality which is independent of anybody’s secret intentions.

    Also: Hass, I would disagree that the Osirak attack was a failure. It achieved its purely political objective, renewing the image of brave little Israel, facing vicious threats to its survival and besting them with bold, smart moves. Whether Osirak actually had anything to do with an Iraqi bomb project is secondary at best.

  10. Andy (History)

    “It is no longer a matter of speculating whether Bush secretly plans to attack Iran. All of this is out in the open and constitutes a defacto threat of imminent war, an objectively observable reality which is independent of anybody’s secret intentions.”

    I don’t think so. I’m confident enough, in fact, to bet a case of good German beer that war is not imminent and I’d go so far to say that Bush won’t attack Iran before leaving office. Send me an email if you’d like to take the bet.

    Some of your points are not as distressing as they might appear.

    To begin with, this second CSG “ordered” to the region is hardly uncommon – the US always has two CSG’s deployed and there were two in the Gulf region as recently as late October 2006. In fact, those caused quite a titter among many as well. Additionally, 2 CSG’s are not nearly the kind of firepower needed if war were imminent. If you see other CSG’s deploying early, then you can start to worry.

    Also, there doesn’t seem to be any massive movement of Air Force assets into theater which would presage any attack. Unfortunately, the US military is terrible at hiding such movements.

    Secondly, the Adm Fallon appointment has been grossly overplayed in the press and by talking heads. A Naval unified Commander is unnecessary prosecute a largely naval war because the planning and execution takes place at lower echelons.

    The Pentagon has been putting non-traditional personnel in some of these high-level positions lately and Adm. Fallon is part of that in my view. For example, there is another Admiral (the first) put in charge of SOUTHCOM (responsible for central and south America) a few months ago. He is a surface warfare officer and has little experience with the special and counter-narcotic operations that predominate that region. Additionally, a Marine Corp General (a tactical aircraft aviator like Adm Fallon) is in charge of Strategic Command. He has no experience with strategic weapon systems, yet he’s in charge as the first Marine in history to do so. Curtis LeMay must be rolling in his grave.

    The other factors you cite certainly do raise tensions but they in no way make war imminent. The danger, as I see it, particularly given the lack of direct communication with Iran, is some sort of misunderstanding or accident that explodes into a crisis.

  11. mark gubrud (History)

    Andy, I’m afraid you missed the point. I’m not betting for or against an attack on Iran. That’s the question of secret intentions. I’m saying Bush has objectively made a very serious threat, comprising the elements I listed, and others. This isn’t just gamesmanship, because the game becomes the reality. The danger of war is thus particularly acute and grave now, independent of whether the threat ripens into an actual attack. I guess this might be hard to understand in beer betting terms.

  12. epaminondas (History)

    The USA probably was responsible for the story, thus stopping that path for the IAF.

    I don’t think we have the forces for this unless we have a real war.

    We can’t have a real war unless THEY strike first, and I would look for a situation like compelling firing on Sumter, or what preceded 12/7/41, as we ratchet up the other pressures economically and within Iraq on the Iranians until they make the move, at which point…

  13. Andy (History)


    I suppose one could say the danger of war with Iran has been “acute” or “grave” or even “imminent” since 1979. I wonder, for example, how you would compare this current period of tension to 1988 when there was actual fighting between US and Iranian military forces.

    Perhaps Bush has “objectively made a very serious threat” though I wonder how one differentiates a “very serious” threat from merely “serious.” In any event, the question becomes, will Bush carry through with these secret plans everyone seems to know so much about and attack Iran – in other words, what is Bush’s intent? Since we can’t read the man’s mind, we must look elsewhere to find an answer. Given the lack of substantive military indicators that an attack is coming I conclude that one is not.

    And let’s discuss “secret plans” for a minute. Of course the US has “secret” plans to attack Iran – it’s called contingency planning and every military force on the planet does it. Likewise, I’m sure the Iranians have contingency plans for attacking the US and their neighbors – they would be irresponsible not to. Such secret plans do not, and should not, in any way signify an intent to engage in military action.

    For some fun history and a little perspective on contingency planning, google “war plan red” and read about America’s plan to invade Canada in the 1920’s.

    As for the beer bet, it was only intended as a little bit of levity and to underscore the confidence I give my assessment that war is not imminent. It was not meant to demean the seriousness of the current crisis.

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