Thursday, August 31, 2006

The war drums are beating on the president's right flank

As President Bush ponders what to do next about the recalcitrant Iranians, he will undoubtedly pay close attention to the rumblings on his right flank.

The neoconservative thinkers who laid the groundwork for the war in Iraq have hardly been chastened by the setbacks that America has faced in that conflict, nor by the fact that the promised weapons of mass destruction never showed up. On the contrary, they are conspicuously vocal these days on the topic of Iran -- and the need, as they see it, for Bush to show some moxie and plan for a new military confrontation.

And they are likely to ratchet up their rhetoric, and prod the White House further, now that Iran has decided to ignore a United Nations deadline to suspend uranium enrichment and hence slow its suspected nuclear weapons program. For instance, the neoconservatives aren’t happy today about the news that the Bush team, in retaliation, is considering only mild sanctions, such as a travel ban. And Michael Ledeen at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday voiced what he calls his “worst fears about the administration. Talk, talk, talk, but when it is time to act, they are still talking.”

And what do they define as action? Enter neoconservative William Kristol, ex-GOP aide and editor of the movement’s bible, The Weekly Standard. His agenda for action includes “serious preparation for possible military action -- including real and urgent operational planning for bombing strikes and for the consequences of such strikes.”

What’s noteworthy is that he wrote those words last April, in the wake of the news that Iran had successfully enriched its uranium. The pressure on Bush’s right flank was intense that month, with cries de guerre in other neoconservative outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal opinion page, and the National Review (the latter called for an “air campaign” coupled with regime change).

Indeed, even though Bush this week is trying to reframe the war on terror as a war against “fascism,” that’s old hat in the neo camp. Last April, Kristol was already doing that very thing, contending that Iran’s nuclear program was akin to Adolph Hitler’s 1936 prewar march into the Rhineland.

There are plenty of foreign policy experts within the Republican camp who view the neoconservatives as too precipitous on the Iran issue; for instance, former Colin Powell deputy Richard Haass believes that anyone who thinks a conflict with Iran would be small or quick is harboring “the most dangerous delusion,” and key Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iran is questionable. James Carafano, an expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said last year that “there are no good military options,” and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sam Gardiner, a simulations expert at the U.S. Army’s National War College, after scenarioizing a war on Iran, told the Atlantic Monthly magazine nearly two years ago that “after all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.”

There are also plenty of people who think the neoconservatives have forfeited their credibility due to the mess in Iraq. Now that the Sunnis and Shiites are waging what some experts consider a civil war, it’s worth revisiting, for example, a prediction that Kristol made on National Public Radio three years ago: “I think there’s been a certain amount of...pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni.”

Nor does it appear that the neo position is widely popular nationwide. The pollsters at Fox News, querying Americans on Tuesday and Wednesday, asked whether the Bush team should do “whatever it takes to stop Iran -- including military action.” Only 37 percent said yes. Among swing-voting independents, only 32 percent said yes. Even 45 percent of Republicans said no. Those numbers suggest that most people prefer strong sanctions and aggressive diplomatic efforts.

But the neos have multiple media megaphones, and it would be wrong to assume that their influence has diminished, particularly since a key ally and patron remains one heartbeat away from the presidency. And this administration has long demonstrated that it closely monitors the sentiments of its conservative base. With Democrats and independents no longer in the Bush camp, that base is more important than ever.