ANALYSIS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Is war talk just talk?

‘And then what?’ A strike on Iran may be one problem too many for Bush

Mr Bush himself has often been depicted as willing to use force to avoid going down in history as the president on whose watch Tehran made the decisive steps towards the bomb. But administration staff paint a very different picture of the president’s priorities during his last 14 months in office.

“For those problems we can solve, let’s solve them,” a senior administration official tells the Financial Times, setting out a framework the president has given his top staff. “For those that we cannot solve, let’s leave our successors a set of policies and instruments that provide them with, in our view, the best prospect for success after we leave office.”

Such comments almost sound like an advance excuse for not resolving the Iran dispute. But then the state of the US as a whole and the Bush administration in particular is very different from the days of 2002-03.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 remain a powerful memory but the overwhelming support for Mr Bush that followed them is long gone. Instead of the enthusiasm America once exhibited for the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the country is now war-weary and its forces are already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Oil is almost $100 a barrel and could go far higher in the event of an attack on Iran.

Of particular importance are the US military’s deep reservations about a pre-emptive attack on Iran, largely because of the uncertain consequences that would result. In addition, pragmatists have replaced hawks among Mr Bush’s closest colleagues. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — Nothing seems more emblematic of the state of American presidential power than the fact that General Musharraf appears quite indifferent to its influence. And if there is a word that captures this moment it is “path.” If Pakistan can at least present the appearance of being oriented in the direction of democracy; if it can take one or two baby steps along that path, then that’s good enough for President Bush and his Secretary of State. It seems strange then that even when the president is clearly so weak that those competing to take his place are finding it so difficult to muster their own strength. Bush may have little power to shape the world, yet his administration seems as powerful as ever when it comes to shaping American political debate.

How to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been described as the defining foreign policy of the presidential race. Although that might currently be the case, the fact that it is, is not a reflection of a reality to which everyone is bound; it is a reflection of the weakness of the Democratic candidates in setting their own agendas.

Two questions on which the candidates should be pressed are these:

Firstly, as you strive to become the next president, will you allow the current presidency to define your own agenda?

And secondly, in as much as it can be assumed that dealing with Iran will be a major concern of the next president, do you anticipate that there will be other issues that command more of your attention — issues such as global warming?

Anyone with the courage to deconstruct the Iranian issue should start by posing a simple question: Is this about Iran or is it about nuclear weapons?

Nuclear proliferation is not unthinkable. In the space of a few years, India, Pakistan, and North Korea all barged into the nuclear club. Are we to understand then that whereas the new entries were undesirable, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would place it in a unique category? The suicidal state?

On the other hand, if we are to assume that Iran is not a country governed by people possessed by a death wish, then the issue must focus squarely on nuclear proliferation. Yet the underlying logic here is one that any eight-year old can understand. In the playground of global affairs we have two options: We either let the playground bullies make up rules that they can impose on others yet ignore themselves, or alternatively we accept that the strong and the weak must abide by an impartial set of rules that apply to everyone. In this case we would have to conclude that the issue is not Iran; it is a pressing need to halt proliferation which is itself an objective that can only exert the force of principle if bound to a practical effort to accomplish global nuclear disarmament. That’s an objective that several of the Democratic candidates tried on for size recently but one that thus far they have been much too timid to deploy for the purpose of setting the political agenda. It seems ironic that so many could aspire to become president, yet so few have much appetite for showing how they intend to be presidential.

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Comments

  1. One thing no one talks about regarding Iran’s nuclear program is whether Iran should have what they say they really want: nuclear power plants. In many ways, the scariest thing about Iranian nuclear power isn’t that they could produce bombs; it’s that they could create another Chernobyl. That’s a tough issue for Bush to raise because he’s pro-nuclear power — wants to sell US nuclear technology abroad, e.g., to India. It probably also figures into the French position, since a self-sufficient Iranian nuclear power industry would cut into France’s leading position. It’s also tough for Bush because it raises the Peak Oil issue: if Iran is worried about making the transition to a world with declining petroleum output, shouldn’t net oil importers like the US be worried too? Once you accept that Peak Oil is a real problem, then nuclear power has to be taken seriously because, like it or not, it’s an option on people’s minds — for that matter, it also comes up in the context of Global Warming, another problematic issue for Bush. So it seems likely that to some extent the US (and France) are opposing the proliferation of nuclear power, permitted under the NPT, under the guise of opposing bombs. A more sensible, more realistic approach would be to look to extend the NPT to ensure better safety standards, but US failure to disarm under the NPT and Bush’s commitment to building even more bombs are once again in the way. So add all that to your list of aspiring presidential issues.