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Prominent Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh and Howard Dean are trying to out-hawk Bush on Iran. Most striking is party chairman Dean, who ran to the left of the Democratic pack in 2004.
"Iran is a terrorist government," Dean said flatly on February 12. "We cannot permit them to have nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The president has said, properly so, that no option can be taken off the table, and I think that is true."
It is a fair question whether the Democrats will hold to this line or revert to prevalent notions that force is too dangerous, won't work, or doesn't have sufficient international approval. But the Democratic hawks are on to a more fundamental critique of the Bush presidency - one that could have a great degree of resonance.
As Walter Shapiro wrote on salon.com, "Iran replaces Iraq as the dominant foreign-policy issue of the 2008 campaign." More than that, the central question will be a version of Ronald Reagan's in his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"
This week, the world was treated to pictures of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal grinning and shaking hands as if each had just eaten a canary. The election will likely be fought over whether this new axis of terror is still grinning, has been broken, or is fundamentally on the run.
The election season really gets going at the end of the summer before the New Hampshire primaries, only 18 months from now. By that time, it will be very hard to reverse a feeling of unease and insecurity in the American electorate if it has already sunk in.
Grinning jihadis will make Americans feel unsafe, and rightly so. Indeed, perceptions of safety in the free world since 9/11 probably peaked after the falls of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and are at a much lower ebb right now in the wake of the Cartoon Jihad, fear of Iran, and the riseof Hamas. Right now it can be argued that the jihadis have what in politics is called "the big mo" - momentum and a sense that things are going their way.
All this may seem rather obvious, but it clashes with a mindset that has sunk deep roots in Washington. This thinking holds that America can only do one thing at a time, and that thing is to consolidate democracy in Iraq. To confront Iran would be to "overextend." In any case, the lesson from Iraq is that the US must, almost at all costs, keep the Europeans on board, whether on Iran or the nascent Hamastan.
According to this mind-set, the Bush legacy will be the democratic foundation laid in Iraq. Regarding Iran, the thinking goes, there are no good options, so the only thing to do is muddle along to avoid war on the one hand and the mullahs going nuclear on the other.
THIS MUDDLING mindset must be replaced if Republicans want to hold on to the presidency and if George Bush does not want to leave office with the jihadis ascendant. The "must-win" attitude toward Iraq should be extended to Iran, where winning is defined as the fall of the Iranian regime or, at least, complete Iranian capitulation on the nuclear and terrorism issues, as Gaddafi did in Libya.
The Bush team's goal should be to either have won, or be clearly winning, against Iran 18 months from now: those jihadi grins should be gone. For that to happen Bush needs to exhibit the sort of coherent determination he did before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The strategy this time, however, should be different.
The invasion option is gone, but it is also neither appropriate nor necessary. The Iranian challenge calls for a three-track approach: UN Security Council sanctions, military options, and a human rights campaign for the Iranian people.
These tracks are mutually reenforcing. Swift and draconian UN-mandated sanctions are the best hope of avoiding military action. Unfortunately, Europe is likely to repeat its pre-Iraq war mistake of paving the way to the military action it wants to prevent by blocking sufficiently tough non-military measures.
The main missing component now concerns human rights. Last week the State Department belatedly announced that it would ask Congress for $75 million to, as Condoleezza Rice put it, "increase our support for democracy and improve our radio broadcasting, begin satellite television broadcasts... expand fellowships and scholarships for Iranian students, and to bolster our public diplomacy efforts."
But this should just be the beginning.
Bush has still not met with Iranian dissidents in the White House. He is still acting as if he can't fully pursue regime change in Iran, both because Americans would see this as getting into another war, and because it would contradict the international campaign linking sanctions to nukes and terror only, not to regime change.
But if Bush wants to wipe that grin off Ahmadinejad's face, he needs to start talking about the thousands of dissidents languishing in Iranian jails, about the brutal methods the regime uses to quash dissent, and about the almost daily acts of protest inside Iran that the international media generally ignore. The mullahs know the biggest threat to them is neither the UN nor the US Air Force but their own people, and that once they can no longer intimidate the world into ignoring the Iranian people, the jig will be up.
In his second inaugural address Bush said, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." He also said that advancing freedom was the "urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time."
Truer words have not been spoken; it is about time they were fully applied in the case of Iran.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11
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