By DICK POLMAN
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 WMD, only to suffer irreparable domestic political damage when it turned out that he had committed American blood and treasure to the overthrow of a dictator who had no WMD. 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 — in 2003.
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 adviser, Stephen Hadley, said (last week) 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 depicts the Iranians as far more rational than the Bush administration — and certain ’08 presidential candidates — 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.”
X Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.