Why did President Bush raise the specter of World War III on Oct. 3 when he had known for at least six months what the gist of the National Intelligence Estimate would say?
The key questions for talking heads on television programs are, What did the president know and when did he know it?
Clearly, Bush did not wish to disappoint loyal supporters at home and Israeli allies abroad who saw an existential threat to the Jewish state. There was much talk in recent months to the imperative need "to save Israel from a second holocaust."
Norman Podhoretz, godfather of the neocons and now foreign policy adviser to Rudi Giuliani's presidential campaign, wrote in Commentary last June, "Please Mr. President, as an American Jew, I beg you, bomb Iran." For the neocons, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was another Hitler. (Late-night comedians who can't pronounce his name call him I'm-a-dinner-jacket.) This was now World War IV; World War III was the one we won against the evil Soviet empire.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who says Darth Vader "is one of the nicer things I've been called recently," was clearly in the neocon camp and sent the NIE estimate back to the drawing board on several occasions in recent months. Star investigative reporter Seymour Hersh delivered one "scoop" after another in The New Yorker about a secret Pentagon unit planning a "shock and awe" aerial blitz designed to destroy not only nuclear installations, but also Iran's military assets, from missile batteries to naval bases in the Gulf.
The coming war with Iran even had its own "Curveball," the codename for the phony Iraqi defector to Germany who invented nuclear secrets in exchange for permanent residence. Curveball's fabrications provided the nub of Secretary of State Colin Powell's "proof positive" speech to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003, a month before the invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. intelligence community was never given access to Curveball, the impostor who triggered a half-trillion-dollar war and the loss of almost 4,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines. This time, it was Iranian nuclear secrets on a laptop's hard drive shoplifted by a defector.
The president doesn't need reminding by conservative columnists and neocon friends that Ahmadinejad had threatened to wipe Israel off the map. And Bush had signed off on the establishment of missile interceptors and advanced radar equipment deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland against incoming Iranian missiles tipped with nuclear warheads.
Even with an active secret nuclear weapons program in Iran, such a potential missile threat against European allies was judged to be 10 years away.
But the hawks kept pounding the drums of war against Iran, as they did on Iraq following the defeat of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Anyone opposed was taxed with the kind of abject appeasement that caused World War II — and 60 million dead.
This time some heavy artillery was wheeled into place against bombs-away-over-Iran. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., delivered a blistering attack against war talk and advocated serious U.S.-Iran negotiations. Former CENTCOM commanders Tony Zinni and John Abizaid also weighed in on the side of a geopolitical deal with Iran.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates had long since concluded a bombing campaign against Iran's 27 known nuclear installations would trigger a general upheaval throughout the Middle East, particularly the oil-producing countries of the Gulf. Iran's formidable retaliatory capabilities e.g., Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, underground assets in Shiite-controlled Iraq, Shiite minorities in Saudi oil fields and in Bahrain, headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, were dismissed by the neocons as bluff and bravado.
Gates takes them seriously. The Hamilton-Baker Iraq Study Group report a year ago made clear Iran wields more influence in Iraq than the United States. If given the word, Iran's underground agents in Iraq could most probably transform an honorable withdrawal from Iraq into something not seen since Saigon circa 1975.
Southern Iraq is a good case in point. Some 5,000 British troops gave up Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and its only port, last September and moved to a former Iraqi air base at a safer distance from nightly mortar attacks. From there, the Britons are quietly exfiltrating back to the United Kingdom, a few hundred at a time. Who's in charge in Basra today? Warlords and criminal gangs. Who controls them? Tehran, said a ranking Iraqi official, speaking privately, from his mobile phone in Baghdad this week.
The latest NIE makes tougher sanctions against Iran mission impossible. Russia and China were against further economic punishment anyway. They both have substantial business interests there. Germany already shut down three banks in Tehran, but most of the 1,700 German companies doing business in Iran will now ignore any pressure for withdrawal. Britain and France will conclude they are now off the U.S. sanctions hook.
Irrespective of U.N. resolutions, Iran can continue to order its most pressing needs through the free port of Dubai, expert in third-country labeling in the United Arab Emirates.
Some remained oblivious to the NIE.
"Speaking About the Unspeakable" is a report released last weekend by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Written by former deputy national security adviser for foreign affairs Chuck Freilich, the report says Israel and the United States should discuss crisis scenarios between Israel and Iran.
Google says Freilich is a dual U.S./Israeli citizen.
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