Will the Bush Administration bomb Iran? Recently that question has been the subject of enormous speculation and numerous articles in the press. Newsweek asked, "Is war with Iran next?" and the Economist asked, "Next stop Iran?" The BBC reported this week that our government's "contingency plans for air strikes on Iran extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country's military infrastructure." The Nation cites the deployment of a second aircraft carrier and additional minesweepers to the Persian Gulf and the announcement of plans to double the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as signs that the Bush Administration is preparing for war. Others have cited the deployment of Patriot missiles to Iran's neighbors as a sign that the Administration is preparing for Iranian retaliation to a U.S. attack.
What the evidence seems to indicate so far is that the Bush Administration very much wants to bomb Iran, but it appears to be testing the waters. The big question for them: will the most important Democratic politicians and the media, at least initially, support such an attack? The two influence each other - in the absence of opposition from Democratic leaders that the media considers important, the media would report favorably on an attack even if the individual reporters and producers think it is a disastrous mistake. And many politicians would look immediately to the media, as well as to public opinion polls that are influenced by the media, to decide their position on the new war.
The normal course of events in a situation like this, where the target country has already been demonized, and the rationale for military action established, would be for all of these elements to fall into place - at least at the beginning of such a war. This happened in the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, despite a deeply divided Congress and large scale public opposition before the war started. And we all remember what happened in 2003 when the Iraq War began.
The unprecedented new factor that the Bush team must weigh this time is that the President has been severely discredited by the last war: the deceptions regarding weapons of mass destruction and false allegations about links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, for example. And of course the disaster of the seemingly endless war itself. It's easy to see what they are thinking: will the old rules apply, or will serious opposition begin with day one of the new war?
If they think that the old rules apply, an attack is extremely likely. The Bush team does not seem all that concerned about the consequences within the region - including possible retaliation against U.S. troops in Iraq, a cutoff of oil supplies that sends oil prices sky rocketing, or a widening of the conflict to include other countries. All these are things that could, if the spin is well-managed, be blamed on Iran. The opening of a new front could give the President's regional war a new lease on life, if the public relations effort is successful.
Many people, having witnessed the tens of millions of people that took to the streets worldwide but failed to prevent the Iraq war, have succumbed to a sort of fatalism about the possibility of another war. Others assume that President Bush and his team are oblivious to the expected domestic political fallout and will do whatever they want to do.
This is mistaken. Cheney and Bush are not on a political suicide mission. Last week's agreement with North Korea, which Cheney was almost certainly against (it was openly denounced by many hardliners such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton) is a case in point. A key objective of signing off on this agreement was to begin to re-establish the President's credibility on foreign policy and security issues. They are not looking to deliberately marginalize this Presidency or their party and give up on the 2008 elections.
That is why it is so important for Congress to weigh in forcefully against an attack against Iran without their authorization, and for negotiations, which would make an attack much more politically difficult. The politicians, especially Democrats, who are on the fence must feel they have no choice but to oppose this new war, and to stick to this opposition when the bombs start falling. Only if the Bush team sees that the Iran war will get no "honeymoon" can we expect them not to do it.