Washington Watch: Teetering on the brink

Bush's administration is divided between those who want to strike now, those who urge more diplomacy.

douglas bloomfield224.88 (photo credit: )
douglas bloomfield224.88
(photo credit: )
Brinksmanship is a dangerous game, and never so much as when the leading players have long records of poor judgment like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The trouble with teetering on the brink is that someone could slip over the edge and take everyone with him when all he really wanted to do was thump his chest, impress his followers and scare his enemies. That kind of bravado cost Saddam Hussein his job. The late, unlamented Iraqi dictator's boasts of his arsenal of advanced missiles and weapons not only fooled his own generals but ours as well, leading the Bush administration to go to war without waiting for any hard evidence that it wasn't a bluff. In the case of Iran, what we don't know - and some may not care to find out - is how much of its leaders' threats to attack Israel and American bases and to close the Straits of Hormuz are also a bluff. We got an interesting glimpse last week when a dramatic display of missile launches turned out to be less rocket science than Photoshop. BUT THAT didn't seem to discourage the neocon hawks who brought us the glorious liberation of Iraq and democratization of the entire Arab world. Fearful that Sen. Barack Obama will be the next president, they are pushing for an attack on Iran between the election and inauguration. If John McCain is elected, they're willing to wait a while longer for their war, possibly because they'd like jobs in his administration so they can pursue their agendas. Both McCain and Obama quickly condemned the Iranian missile display and called for intensified sanctions, but that's where the similarity ended. Obama said it showed the need for "direct and aggressive diplomacy," while McCain dismissed that and said the display demonstrates the need for an anti-missile system in Europe. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) stepped up pressure on Congress to demand more stringent sanctions - notably blocking gasoline shipments to Iran and barring travel by that country's officials - but it's a non-binding resolution the administration will likely ignore. The measure may be toothless, but it is getting considerable attention and, along with the growing calls from Israel to act against the Iranian nuclear program, it has escalated talk that Israel and its supporters are trying to push the US into another Mideast war. DESPITE BUSH'S tough talk, he has been reluctant to tighten the screws on the ayatollahs. No sanctions have been imposed on foreign companies helping Iran, and in fact US exports to that country have actually increased nearly 20 fold since Bush became president, including military equipment, according to an Associated Press report. One popular US import is bull semen, which may account for the enormous amount of bull being exported by Iran. Undersecretary of State William Burns, a former ambassador to Israel, told a House committee last week that Iran's nuclear progress has been "modest" because it has "not yet perfected enrichment" and international sanctions have "impaired" its access to needed nuclear and missile technology. Nonetheless, he added, "time is not on our side" or Israel's. Israelis feel that acutely and are worried a widening gap is opening between Jerusalem and Washington over how to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Bush administration is divided between the hawks, led by Cheney, who feel time to strike is running out, especially if Obama is the next president, and those who urge caution and more diplomacy, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon top brass. The president has dropped his aggressive rhetoric and his vow to prevent Iran from going nuclear and is talking up multilateral diplomacy while still rejecting bilateral talks. DESPITE THEIR sense of urgency, the Israelis appear to be bowing to US pressure to pull back from the brink but are keeping the focus on the threat. That's why meeting Cheney will be a top priority when Defense Minister Ehud Barak comes to town this week. London's Sunday Times quoted a senior Pentagon official saying Bush has given Israel an "amber light" to prepare for an attack on Iran if diplomacy fails, but it came with a warning to expect no help from us in the unlikely case it turns green, no use of our bases in Iraq, no logistical support. However, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said if Iran attacks Israel, the US will come to its defense. In the escalating war of words and military exercises, Iran and Israel are blaming each other for raising tensions. Interestingly, many leaks about Israeli preparations - the Syrian raid details, the air force maneuvers, acquisition of bunker buster bombs - are coming from Washington, not Jerusalem. Stepping up the psychological warfare, Iran conducted its missile display and Israeli officials unveiled a new spy plane for watching Iran and leaked that they're getting encouragement from unnamed Arab countries to attack Iran. The Pentagon shot down stories that the IAF has been practicing in Iraqi air space and using US bases there to prepare for striking Iran. Israel and Iran have something in common - each thinks the other is crazy, an unstable, unethical and unpredictable enemy that is well armed, tough and devious. That could be a deterrent - or just the thing to lead to a miscalculation and send one of them over the brink into war.