Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Green light to bomb Iran?

President Bush’s tour of the Middle East has been overshadowed by the horserace between the many candidates from both the Republican and Democratic Parties who are campaigning to replace him. However, he remains President for one more year and it is important to watch what he does and says.

So far he has been urging Arab governments to take a stronger stance against Iran. By and large the surrounding Arab governments see Iran as a problem to be managed – not solved. They have seen how the United States “solved” the problem of Iraq and are a little leery about going along with any more American solutions. So far President Bush’s official statements to Arab governments has fallen flat.

However, the President’s statements that may have an impact on the Middle East were off-hand remarks he made to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he did not believe the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. The NIE reported the Persian country had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The report took steam out of the White House’s steady drumbeat last summer and fall for taking action (i.e., military action) against Iran. (Of course, the report also confirmed Iran had such a program that the Iranian regime had been denying.)

Israel, surrounded by hostile governments vowing its destruction, does not hesitate taking pre-emptive military strikes when felt threatened. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed a facility in Iraq developing nuclear weapons. Prior to 1979, Israel and Iran viewed each other as natural allies in a region where each were surrounded by unfriendly Arab governments. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, however, relations deteriorated quickly as the official Iranian state position on Israel did a complete 180-degree turn. Unofficial relations have been up and down over the years but definitely turned sour under the administration of Mahmound Ahmadinejad. Israel has every reason to be concerned about what Iran is up to.

What is of concern is whether Bush’s remarks undermining the credibility of his own intelligence agencies’ assessments are a way of urging the Israeli government to take military action against Iran even thought the United States won’t at this time.

Here is Fred Kaplan in Slate:
President George W. Bush hasn't accomplished much on his voyage to the Middle East, but he did take the time to inflict another wound on the entire U.S. intelligence community—and on the credibility of anything he might ever again say about the world.

In the latest Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that, during a private conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Bush "all but disowned" the agencies' Dec. 3 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. A "senior administration official who accompanied Bush" on the trip confided to Hirsh that Bush "told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views."

The NIE—which was signed by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies—concluded "with high confidence" that Iran had "halted its nuclear weapons program" back in the fall of 2003. The estimate, released to the public in sanitized form, seriously undercut efforts by the Bush-Cheney White House to portray Iran's nuclear ambitions as an imminent threat—and left the world either relieved or (especially in Israel's case) alarmed that the option of a U.S. airstrike on Iran was pretty much off the table.

There are two … ironies. First, this NIE is the product of reforms that President Bush himself signed into law—the creation of a director of national intelligence and various other procedural changes—designed to keep intelligence analysis free of political interference.

Second, the NIE contains plenty of passages that could legitimately justify a less-than-optimistic appraisal of Iran's intentions and capabilities. For instance, the estimate found that Iran is still enriching uranium and that it "has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decided to do so." The authors allowed that they "do not know" whether Iran might want to resume its nuclear-weapons program in the future. Finally, they concluded that Iran stopped the program "primarily in response to increasing international security and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work." Therefore, Bush could have argued, the pressure needs to be kept up—or else Iran will rev up its clandestine program once again.

Secretary of Defense (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates has taken this approach when talking about the NIE to international audiences. Gates has said Iran and the rest of the world shouldn't cherry-pick the findings—that if they buy the agency's conclusion that Iran has stopped its nuclear-weapons program, they should buy the less-rosy conclusions, too. For a while, Bush displayed the opposite tendency: He played up the NIE's more sobering conclusions while dismissing the main finding. Now, in a private conversation with Israel's prime minister, he's rejected the whole package and says its conclusions "don't reflect his own views" (wherever he gets them from).

This remark has three baleful consequences. First, it can't help but demoralize the intelligence community. NIEs are meant, ultimately, for only one reader, the president; and here's the president telling another world leader that he doesn't believe it because, well, he doesn't agree with it.

Second, it reinforces the widespread view that the president views intelligence strictly as a political tool: When it backs up his policies, it's as good as gold; when it doesn't, it's "just guessing." This result is that all intelligence is degraded and devalued, at home and abroad. Let's say that six months from now Bush publicizes an NIE concluding that Iran has resumed its nuclear-weapons program or that, say, North Korea is reprocessing more plutonium. Given that he pooh-poohed an NIE that rubbed against his own views, why should anyone take him seriously for embracing an NIE that confirms them?

Third, by telling Olmert that it's all right to ignore the NIE, Bush is in effect telling him that Israel should go ahead and behave as if its findings had never been published. Hirsh reports that, when Olmert was asked whether he felt reassured by Bush's words, he replied, "I am very happy." ABC News reported Monday that, at a closed hearing of the Israeli parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, Olmert testified, "All options that prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capabilities are legitimate within the context of how to grapple with this matter."

It is increasingly unlikely, for many reasons, that the United States will bomb Iran before the year is out. But, wittingly or not, did Bush just flash a green light to Olmert?
You can read the entire piece here.

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