President Bush just can't catch a break. It seems like every time he tries to be bellicose, the facts come along and trip him up.
Five years ago, he railed against the "grave and gathering danger" of Saddam Hussein's WMDs, only to suffer irreperable domestic political damage when it turned out that he had committed American blood and treasure to the overthrow of a dictator who had no WMDs. And now he has been embarrassed again: Just six weeks after he raised the specter of the Iranians wielding a nuclear weapon, and invoked "World War III," America's 16 intelligence agencies have concluded in a new National Intelligence Estimate, with "high confidence," that the Iranians actually halted their nuclear weapons program...
Worse yet, news reports indicate that, at the time Bush voiced his dire warnings on Oct. 17, he had already been informed that the spy agencies were in the midst of reassessing the purported grave and gathering Iranian threat. Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, indicated yesterday that the Decider had been briefed some time "in the last few months," perhaps as early as August or September. And other Bush officials were first told in July about the likely NIE conclusion, that the nuke program had been halted in 2003.
Not for the first time in his tenure, however, Bush went ahead anyway and talked darkly about a WMD threat that his own intelligence people were increasingly skeptical about. (Bush, Oct. 17: "I think so long - until they suspend and/or make it clear that they - that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon...if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.")
The NIE report, released yesterday, depicts the Iranians as far more rational than the Bush administration - and certain '08 presidential hopefuls - have painted them to be. The spy agencies have concluded that the Iranians are not maniacs hell bent on crashing the nuclear club; according to the report, their decisions "are guided by a cost-benefit approach, rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."
This report probably foils some of the Bush administration's grand plans for its final year, such as the possible option of a new preemptive war, although I assume that the president and his surrogates will simply find a way to spin the NIE report for their own purposes. Indeed, Bush took that route this morning, telling reporters that even a nuclear program stoppage justifies hawkish vigilance in the future:
"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it...I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger.I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."
Bush also said today that he didn't learn of the new intelligence assessment until last week - which appears to undercut the remarks yesterday, by his own national security advisor, that he knew months ago about the gist of the impending report. But wait, Bush also said today that he does recall being told in August, by intelligence overseer Mike McConnell, that a fresh assessment of Iran was in the works; however, "He didn’t tell me what the information was." (But are we supposed to believe that the Decider didn't demand to know what the information was?)
Also today, a reporter asked Bush: "Are you saying at no point while the rhetoric was escalating, as 'World War III' was making it into conversation — at no point, nobody from your intelligence team or your administration was saying, 'Maybe you want to back it down a little bit?'" To which Bush responded: "No — I’ve never — nobody ever told me that." (But wasn't he capable of Deciding, all on his own, that it would be wise, at minimum, to dial down his rhetoric, given the signals he was getting about the impending NIE report?)
Whatever. It's old news that this administration is woefully short on credibility, and this is just the umpteenth example.
More interesting, perhaps, is the report's potential impact on the '08 presidential race, because the findings undercut the rhetoric of those candidates who appeared to be sharpening their sabers with respect to Iran.
For instance, Mitt Romney: "I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany."
Rudy Giuliani: "As we all know, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and they're threatening to use them. If I'm president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons." (italics are mine)
John McCain: "There's no doubt that (Iran is) moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon."
Hillary Clinton: "The (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in Iran's nuclear program," and "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons."
None of these candidates appear to be backing off their statements, although yesterday Giuliani dialed down his previous rhetoric by observing that "sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way." Romney said simply that, even in the wake of the NIE report, "I have not said anything in that regard that I regret." And I doubt that any Republican candidate will pay a political price for making needlessly bellicose remarks; the GOP base is already accustomed to supporting a president who lashes out even in the face of flawed intelligence.
But the story may be different on the Democratic side. The liberal base is less tolerant of bellicosity. And her chief rivals, mindful of the base, has been giving Hillary a lot of grief for her Yes vote on the Senate resolution designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Barack Obama and John Edwards have assailed her vote as a gesture that aids and abets the Bush administration hawks. Now, in the wake of the NIE report, they can jump on her again.
We already have Edwards saying this: "The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war. This is exactly the reason that we must avoid radical steps like the (Iran resolution) declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which needlessly took us closer to war."
And we already have Obama tying Hillary's '02 war vote to the '07 Iran resolution: "The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force." (Hillary reportedly didn't read the '02 NIE report.)
Hillary's people have released a statement saying that the new NIE report "vindicates" what the Hillary camp has been right along in its insistence that Iran requires tough diplomacy, but they've said nothing about how the report squares with her statement, at the recent Philadelphia debate, that "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons." We'll see how all this plays out in Iowa, where the liberal base is famously skeptical about rhetorical bellicosity - and, by most accounts, increasingly skeptical about Hillary.