Steve Clemons has an op-ed over at Salon today in which he argues that Bush is bluffing about bombing Iran, even though Cheney isn't:
Despite holding out a military option, ratcheting up tensions with Iran about meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan, and deploying carrier strike-force groups in the Persian Gulf, the president is not planning to bomb Iran. But there are several not-unrelated scenarios under which it might happen, if the neocon wing of the party, led by Vice President Cheney, succeeds in reasserting itself, or if there is some kind of "accidental," perhaps contrived, confrontation.Steve goes on to explain the reasons why he and the VSP's think Bush won't bomb Iran - but that Cheney still might engineer just that, despite Bush's wishes.
If the bombs were at the ready, Bush would be doing a lot more to prepare the nation and the military for a war far more consequential than the invasion of Iraq.Steve obviously feels recent reports that Bush has moved back into the Cheney camp on Iran are just more agitprop from the Fourth Branch since his entire argument is based on the supposition that Bush is still listening to Rice, Gates and the realist foreign policy community more than to Cheney and the neocons. But he doesn't really address why he thinks that in his article, which leaves a gaping hole in his optimism.
...Bush is aware that America's intelligence on Iran is weak. Even without admitting America's blind spots on Iraq, the intelligence failures on Iraq's WMD program create a formidable credibility hurdle.
Bush knows that the American military is stretched and that bombing Iran would not be a casual exercise. Reprisals in the Gulf toward U.S. forces and Iran's ability to cut off supply lines to the 160,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq could seriously endanger the entire American military.
Bush can also see China and Russia waiting in the wings, not to promote conflict but to take advantage of self-destructive missteps that the United States takes that would give them more leverage over and control of global energy flows. Iran has the third-largest undeveloped oil reserves in the world and the second-largest undeveloped natural gas reserves.
...Bush also knows that Iran controls "the temperature" of the terror networks it runs. Bombing Iran would blow the control gauge off, and Iran's terror networks could mobilize throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan and even the United States.
In sum, Bush does not plan to escalate toward a direct military conflict with Iran, at least not now -- and probably not later. The costs are too high, and there are still many options to be tried before the worst of all options is put back on the table. As it stands today, he wants that "third option," even if Cheney doesn't. Bush's war-prone team failed him on Iraq, and this time he'll be more reserved, more cautious. That is why a classic buildup to war with Iran, one in which the decision to bomb has already been made, is not something we should be worried about today.
What we should worry about, however, is the continued effort by the neocons to shore up their sagging influence. They now fear that events and arguments could intervene to keep what once seemed like a "nearly inevitable" attack from happening. They know that they must keep up the pressure on Bush and maintain a drumbeat calling for war.
...We should also worry about the kind of scenario David Wurmser floated, meaning an engineered provocation. An "accidental war" would escalate quickly and "end run," as Wurmser put it, the president's diplomatic, intelligence and military decision-making apparatus. It would most likely be triggered by one or both of the two people who would see their political fortunes rise through a new conflict -- Cheney and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
That kind of war is much more probable and very much worth worrying about.
I think Steve is an astute observer and incisive commentator, undoubtedly well-connected in the foreign policy establishment of Very Serious People who mostly think the same way he does on this - and I think Steve and the VSP's are flat out wrong to imagine Bush is listening to them.
After all Bush hasn't in the past, from the run-up to Iraq through the occupation there and the Iraq Study Group's findings, from opium-busting in Afghanistan to missile defenses in Eastern Europe. On every major foreign policy issue during his term, Bush has eventually sided with the Cheneyites and neocons, leaving the VSP's sputtering on the sidelines. Just because it makes sense is no indication of Bush's accepting reality.
Further, as I've argued before, the entire Bush administration's policy with Iran has been to try playing Texas Hold'em with a nation and region which works by haggling. The resultant cultural disconnect means that Iran is still waiting for the real negotiating to begin. ""Superweapons and 50,000 centrifuges? My grandmother would turn over in her grave! I'll let you have some knock-offs of Russian gear from last decade and maybe 1,500 centrifuges to keep a power plant going. Then I won't nuke ya".
However Bush, being a bad poker player, is preparing to go all the way on a busted flush. The Cheneyite's constant Wormtongue advice, which extends all the way to computer models which "prove" America can win against Iran and still not hurt the economy, will prevent him realising he's got a losing set of cards. Eventually, the card-hand he slams down on the table will be that "last option".