Bush, Iran and the Politics of Doomsday

Today is the anniversary of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy. For the individuals who died, for their families, it was a day in which the personal worlds of thousands were suddenly turned upside down. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war, the entire country’s political, economic, and social worlds turned upside down as 12 million men and women donned uniforms and women entered new jobs on the home front.

As I write this Thursday morning, December 6, it has been about 100 hours since excerpts from the latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear capabilities became public knowledge around the world.

It is also about 75 hours since President Bush’s news conference on December 3 during which he declared the NIE’s findings changed nothing. Quite the contrary, Bush insisted that the NIE reinforced the administration’s approach: hold low-level discussions in Bagdad between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq; insist that Iran comply with UN Security Council demands that Tehran halt uranium enrichment as a precondition for any high-level direct negotiations with Washington; and impose another round of stiff international sanctions on Tehran.

And it is roughly 50 hours since President Bush arrived in Omaha, Nebraska Tuesday and declared that Tehran must “come clean” about its nuclear weapons ambitions and programs.

The phrase “come clean” recalled to mind two essays written in July and September 2003. Unbeknownst to the public, press, and pundits at the time, this was the transitional period for the invading forces. In these three months, the foreign soldiers lost the image of liberators and were saddled with the stigma of occupiers – their world turned upside down. It was also the period during which the full extent of the administration’s tampering with intelligence began to be apparent to all but the most doctrinaire observers.

Next door in Iran, the ayatollahs saw new instability in an already instable region of the world. Afghanistan and Iraq, two neighbors, had been invaded by U.S. forces, their governments overthrown and replaced by pro-western regimes, and now hosted 160,000 U.S. troops.. And while the Afghanistan venture was obviously retaliation for the al-Qaeda terror attacks on September 11, 2001, the March 2003 assault on Iraq was an example of the “Bush Doctrine” of “preventive war” applied to regimes that, in addition to secretly pursuing nuclear technology and knowledge, were deemed by Washington to be unfriendly.

The challenge for the ayatollahs in 2007 is in many ways the same one that Saddam had faced in 2003: how to prove a negative – that there were no weapons or programs to acquire weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. government incessantly insisted that there were. The only way to do this was to expose the manipulation of intelligence by the Bush White House as it sought congressional support against first Iraq and now against Iran.

All the ayatollahs can offer in defense are the lessons of the Iraq confrontation. In the four months before the invasion, UN inspectors had found no weapons and no programs for acquiring weapons of mass destruction – facts that at least denied the administration any official UN backing for attacking Iraq. Similarly, during the six months after the invasion, the 1,400 hand-picked inspectors of the U.S. Iraq Survey Team also failed to find any of the nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons the Bush administration alleged Saddam possessed.

So it seems that Saddam had been playing an elaborate shell game right up to the end. His nuclear weapons ploy not only kept regional enemies at bay but was convincing enough to fool western analysts that Iraq’s nuclear program remained potentially active. Analysts succumbed to classic mirror imaging because they simply could not imagine why Saddam would endure harsh UN sanctions and scores of foreigners running around his country unless he had a hidden program he planned to restart after inspections ended.

Whether it’s about Iraq in 2003 or Iran in 2007, the Middle East is a rough neighborhood. Any perception of weakness risks another country taking advantage of the situation. Thus the best defense is the appearance of a strong offense, which Saddam tried to portray – and did until his son-in-law, Hussein Kemal, “betrayed” him to western and UN intelligence agents. These, unfortunately, simply did not believe that the weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in 1991 and programs stopped.

As is clearly evident with this new NIE on Iran, the intelligence professionals have relearned something about their craft: when everyone agrees on everything, start over and find the contradiction or the omission that, if pursued, “turns the world upside down.”

That is the message of the key findings of the NIE: the Intelligence Community finds with “high confidence” that Tehran “halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003” and further finds with “moderate confidence” that this program has not been restarted.” The question remaining is for how long Tehran will sustain this hiatus – especially if the Bush administration refuses to change its stance.

The other fact — highly dangerous — the ayatollahs must weigh is Bush’s insistence that Iran “come clean,” a demand that indicates that Bush, unlike the Intelligence Community, still has learned nothing of the psychology of the Middle East. In the end, it is the political professionals, not the intelligence analysts, who make policy and implement programs. When the politicians let ideology override the facts, the mistakes of the past inevitably become the mistakes of the future. How else can one explain the efforts by conservative fear-mongering pundits to embrace a tortured interpretation of the latest report of the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear programs?

The moral is simple. If one believes in witches and warlocks, one will be able to find evidence they exist and eventually the actual beings. The administration and the world believed Saddam had weapons, and he obliged by dropping hints and acting as if he were hiding something.

The White House is trying to convince the public that Iran is another Iraq and is an imminent danger to the world. But this time, the world is not buying. The administration’s ploy this time will not turn anyone’s world upside down.

Col. DAN SMITH, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.