Belmont Club

Up, up and play the game

Barry Rubin at the GLORIA Center notes a Wall Street Journal article arguing Barack Obama’s engagement policy with Iran has been encountering difficulties because Iran has been torn apart by upheaval. Gerald Seib laments, “America’s most vexing enemy is plagued by growing internal dissension, a vocal opposition movement that won’t die and a crisis of legitimacy. All good news for U.S. policy makers, right? Not necessarily. The country in question is, of course, Iran, and the upheaval there actually is making the job of crafting an American strategy more difficult.” That’s true of course, but Rubin believes Seib is missing the point. Rubin relates the story of a reporter who decides not to file a story on a game he was instructed to cover because the gym burned down. So why didn’t he call anything in?


A reporter is dispatched to cover a high school basketball game but doesn’t file a story. As deadline approaches the editor irritably calls the journalist into his office and asks where is the story?

“There isn’t any story,” says the reporter.

“Why not?” asks the editor.

“There wasn’t any game,” the journalist replies.

“Why not?” asks the editor.

“The gym burned down.”

For those of you who are journalists with certain mass media outlets, I should explain the point of the anecdote: The gym burning down was the story.

Rubin argues that the gym that burned down in this case is Iran and Western diplomats are anxiously awaiting its reconstruction so they can play the scheduled match. It makes sense for a certain point of view and for those they’ll be glad to hear from FOXNews that the scheduled game can now go forward. It writes:

TEHRAN, Iran  —  Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said his country is ready to hold talks with world powers to ease fears over its nuclear activities and has prepared a revised package of proposals for Western countries, state TV reported Tuesday.
The U.S. has given Iran a deadline of the end of September to take up an offer of nuclear talks with six world powers and enjoy trade incentives should it suspend uranium enrichment activities. If not, Iran could face harsher sanctions.
The U.S. and its European allies want to draw Iran back into negotiations over its nuclear program. At the G-8 summit in Italy in July, President Barack Obama said there was a September “time frame” for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program.

Never underestimate the power of a roadmap. The inertia of the status quo, the need not to degrade the accumulated investment in diplomatic contacts, arrangements and understandings — all of these conspire to keep things going long after everyone has forgotten the point. SLA Marshall described how the Kaiser, realizing that things had gone too far, actually tried to stop World War I. His staff balked because too much had already been invested in the plan to change arrangements simply because they had become pointless. Marshall writes:

When Wilhelm was convinced of some rather elementary truths known to an average staff major, the group drafted a message to England explaining that the advance on France could not be recalled but promising that the border would not be violated before the evening of August 3 … With Moltke in despair, the Kaiser next ordered that the troops at Trier, mounted for an invasion of Luxembourgh, be halted in place … When an aide put the stop message before Moltke, he cried: “Do what you like with this telegram, I won’t sign it.” … The momentum of a great army in mobilization is like any machine at its highest velocity; it cannot be stopped on call without incalculable damage.


The game of the Great War had to be played even if it meant tearing down a cathedral so that a gym could be built. There sure was a story to file.

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