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Politics By Other Means

It all sounds so depressingly familiar: We are giving diplomacy a chance, any suggestion that we are preparing for military action is “wild speculation” — but, at the same time, Iran represents a grave threat to world peace and is a haven for terrorism. Wait too long, and it will have nuclear weapons, international inspection or not. So armed intervention must be considered an option.

We have seen this movie before, quite recently. But of course, Iran is not Iraq. It is a nation with far greater resources in people and materiel. It makes no secret of its nuclear ambitions (the peaceful ones, anyway), and its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a vile human being. It is not Washington’s spin but his own words that condemn him.

There is, it would seem, no doubt that an Iran with nuclear weapons and an Ahmadinejad at its helm would constitute an unacceptable danger to the Middle East, to the world. That would appear to settle the case in favor of the hawks, of the armchair bombardiers whom Seymour Hersh so ominously describes in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Except that there is no particular urgency to the matter. An unacceptable danger is not necessarily a present danger, and most experts say it will be eight to 10 years before Iran has the bomb and can deliver it. Even the Israeli experts say it will be at least two more years before Iran has adequate enriched uranium to construct a nuclear weapon.

So why, suddenly, the hurry? Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush himself have all weighed in on the matter within the last month, and in the starkest terms. Yet they (presumably) read the same intelligence reports by the same experts as the rest of us do. So, how come the deluge of warnings?

One depressing possibility: We’re bluffing, hoping the bluff will get Iran to soften its position in its negotiations with the Europeans. We bluff them — and they bluff back, so we bluff some more, and what do you know? Before long, we have bluffed each other right over the brink, into war.

Another possibility, suggested by Hersh, who says he heard this from “several officials”: “[T]he White House’s interest in preventing an Israeli attack on a Muslim country, which would provoke a backlash across the region, was a factor in its decision to begin the current operational planning.” But the officials are mistaken; Israel is very clearly in no hurry to launch a preemptive attack on Iran, with all the risks that thereunto pertain.

No, the most plausible explanation is quite different. Its name is November 7, 2006 — Election Day.

Bush and the Republican Party are just now in the dumps, with a majority of Americans of the opinion that our intervention in Iraq was misguided. (Still, Zogby International reports that 85% of American soldiers in Iraq believe that the war is in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s role in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.) Far from the messianic presidency that Bush thought was in his grasp, disgrace is his more likely legacy.

And nothing now on the horizon promises to reverse his and his party’s ill fortunes — not the exploding deficit, nor the Medicare prescription drug “benefit,” nor the assault on privacy, not even good economic news. And almost surely not, as the president plainly hoped and may hope still, Iraq.

Election Day is now less than seven months away. There is an outside chance that before then, Iraqis will finally have put together a government, but the prospect that such a government can bring the insurgency to an end before November becomes dimmer with each passing day. What to do?

Ah: Create a climate of fear (based on reality) regarding Iran, and then, come August or September, unleash the bombs. No large ground forces this time — just bombs and missiles and perhaps, in order to penetrate Iran’s underground and massively reinforced nuclear facilities, tactical nuclear weapons. (It likely doesn’t hurt the pro-war cause that we’ve so far never had a chance to test such weapons in actual battlefield conditions.) In, and just a few days later, out.

And keep your fingers tightly crossed that you’ve wrecked all the scattered and hidden sites; as also destroyed any residual retaliatory capacity; as also so ruined civic morale that Iran’s alleged 40,000 suicide bombers, some number of them in place, choose to return home rather than carry out their murderous missions. To say nothing of the likely major disruption of the oil market, with who knows what calamitous global economic consequences.

Lots of luck. No analysis I’ve seen suggests that even with six more months of intelligence than we now have, we will be able to identify all the important sites. And no experience that anyone has had suggests that a nation’s morale can be broken by massive bombing.

The substantive argument seems clear: No war, not now. There is also a prudential argument that applies to American Jews in particular. We ought be especially circumspect in cheerleading for war.

One cannot say in advance, not with any great certainty, how such a war will end. One cannot say with any certainty what Israel’s role will be, nor what threats Israel will face.

One therefore cannot say whether America’s might will be needed not only for the initial assault on Iran but also to protect Israel. And that is a road that Israel and its friends do not want to go down — more precisely, ought not want to go down — unless and until there is no alternative.

But the war fever in Washington mounts, and soon it will grip the entire nation. Our leaders cry havoc, and so let slip the dogs of war.

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