After studying with the Dalai Lama and his chief rabbis (they actually called themselves "rimpoches" but I assume that is Tibetan for "rabbi") here in Aspen a few years ago, I realized I needed a mantra.
So I came up with the observation that "the more I know, the less I know for sure" which isn't all that different from the mantra of CLAL that we should always be looking for the partial truth in the opinion of others or the statement in the Talmud that a truly wise person is "one who learns from all people."
It has actually been a very useful mantra during these times when we are confronted by so many people who believe they have 100 percent of the truth on a variety of complex issues and instead of engaging with people who have different opinions and trying to learn from them the response too often is to demonize and delegitimize others and simply turn up the anger and the volume on their own positions.
With that as background, let's look at the situation in Iran and the conversation regarding what, if anything, the U.S. and Israel should be doing in response to that country's presumed march toward a nuclear weapon.
In the media and blogosphere, the conversation is relatively simple. On one side are those who believe that Iran is on the verge of manufacturing a nuclear weapon that would pose and existential threat to Israel and other countries in the region and that the only responsible action for Israel and/or the U.S. to take would be to launch a preemptive military strike against Iran to destroy that country's nuclear capability.
On the other side are those (including most military experts in both Israel and the U.S.) who believe that Iran is not that close to developing nuclear capability and/or who doubt that a military strike would accomplish its goal in any event.
It seems pretty straight-forward. But the more one knows, the less one knows for sure.
President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and has imposed harsh economic sanctions against Iran which by all accounts are causing great economic hardship to Iranian citizens and which are therefore considered to be successful by many people who are hopeful that the people there will pressure their government into abandoning their nuclear aspirations.
Here in Aspen I met with Clifford May and Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) who acknowledge that the sanctions are indeed making life miserable for average Iranians. They reported that the price of chicken--the staple of the Iranian diet--has quadrupled in recent months and there are other hardships. But they claim that the hatred of Israel, Judaism, and western values is so hard-wired into the soul of the radical Muslims who run the country that it won't have any impact on their quest for a nuclear bomb.
Despite their reservations, FDD is reportedly pushing for even tougher sanctions and its leaders are actually helping to draft them.
Then I had lunch in Washington with Dr. Trita Parsi, the head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) this week who told me that Obama and the FDD are both correct that sanctions are indeed making life miserable for Iranian citizens but they are hurting--not helping--the Israeli and American cause.
Parsi claims that most Iranians actually love--not hate--America and western values. Their real hatred is reserved for their own corrupt, fundamentalist government leaders who have no qualms about making their own people suffer. But now that the American-led boycott is creating a shortage of medicine that is causing many Iranians to die needlessly, he says a lot of that anger is being redirected toward the U.S. and Israel and away from the very government leaders that we are trying to hurt.
Later the same day, I talked with former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Dan Haloutz who believes that Iran has no intention of developing a nuclear weapon at all and that even if they did, Israel is the last country in the region they would ever attack. Israel, he pointed out, is the one country in the neighborhood that is already a major economic and military power that could wipe Iran off the face of the earth in a retaliatory attack so, he asks, why would Iranian leaders (who may be evil but who are not stupid) pick a fight with the toughest kid on the block.
Haloutz, like virtually all current and former Israeli military and IDF experts, doubts that a preemptive Israeli strike would succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear capability and that the inevitable Iranian response would result in massive casualties among Israeli citizens--most of whom are opposed to an attack in the first place.
And because this is the silly season in the U.S., everything has a political component. The Right wing has used Obama's unwillingness to endorse an attack (which polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans and virtually all of our military leaders oppose) as a sign of his weakness and lack of true support for Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has shockingly decided to once again publicly criticize the leader of Israel's only major ally and benefactor in a very public and direct way, leading to speculation that he is trying to help his friends Mitt Romney and Sheldon Adelson accompish their goal of defeating Obama in November.
I have some thoughts on who is more right than wrong on each of the above issues, but there is certainly a lot of truth in each of these positions and points of view. And I have no doubt that all of the people I refer to above are sincere in their belief that their position on Iran is correct and will lead to the best result.
And, because our media has become more focused on advocacy and quick and simple answers than on providing real insights and education, there is a lot more heat than light being produced by all the ranting and raving on this issue.
And the energy and passion are coming from those who are convinced the situation is simple--not complicated--and that their side has 100 percent of the truth. Their response to troublesome facts or different opinions is to either ignore them or demonize those who voice them.
But for those of us who dig even a little bit deeper, it is clear that nothing is clear.
The more I know, the less I know for sure.