President Nixon, a very good poker player, once defined the art of brinkmanship as persuading your opponent that you are insane and, unless appeased by pledges of surrender, quite capable of blowing up the planet.
By these robust standards George Bush is doing a moderately competent job in suggesting that if stymied by Iran on the matter of halting its nuclear program, he'll dump a couple of nukes on that country's relevant research sites, or get Israel to do the job for him. There are plenty of rational people in Congress, think tanks and the Pentagon who think he's capable of it.
Col. Sam Gardner, who's taught at the National War College, recently sketched out the plan as it could unfold: "As one of the last steps before a strike, we'll see USAF tankers moved to unusual places, like Bulgaria. These will be used to refuel the U.S.-based B-2 bombers on their strike missions into Iran. When that happens, we'll only be days away from a strike."
A tripwire for escalation would be the U.N. Security Council's Feb. 21 deadline for Iran to suspend "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development," subject to verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
There's certainly disquiet in Congress, particularly after Bush's Jan. 17 State of the Union address, where he reprised his notorious "Axis of Evil" address of 2002, identifying Iran as the number-one troublemaker and fomenter of terror in the region.
"Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without congressional approval?" the Virginia Democrat, Sen. James Webb, recently asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice said she'd get back to him.
The Bush administration is capable of almost any folly, but would it really bomb Iran's nuclear research labs? Would it prod Israel into taking on the job?
Israel, of course, has been making plenty of hay out of President Ahmadinejad's crack about how "the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time." Along with the recent "holocaust conference," it's probably the biggest leg-up for Israeli bond drives since the Yom Kippur war. Prime Minister Olmert quotes it on an almost daily basis.
But aside from rhetorical haymaking, the notion of Israel nuking Iran's N-plants is farfetched. Indeed, the military wisdom is that, as a practical enterprise, it can't, since among many technical limitations, Israel's bombers would require refueling over hostile territory.
Aside from this, Israel still won't officially admit to having a nuclear arsenal. It would take a stupefying jump from that disingenuous posture to being the first power in the region to explode a nuclear device. The point of having a nuclear deterrent is to deter, not to use.
Iran is well aware that in 1999 and 2004, Israelis bought Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles. As President Chirac asked in his recent press conference, what good would it do Iran to have a nuclear bomb, or even two?
"Where would it fire that bomb? At Israel? It wouldn't have traveled 200 meters through the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed."
So the job would fall to the U.S. Air Force, and there are certainly Air Force generals telling Bush it would be a snap, just as Curtis LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, told President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the command could "reduce the Soviet Union to a smoldering irradiated ruin in three hours."
But Air Force credibility is low at the moment. LeMay's heirs told Bush that "shock and awe" bombing in 2003 would prompt Saddam to run up the white flag. It didn't. U.S. ground forces carried the day. But there aren't any U.S. ground forces available to invade a country many times bigger than Iraq, filled with a large population mostly loyal to the regime.
The problem is that brinkmanship suits everyone's book. Ahmadinejad, facing serious political problems, can posture about standing up to the Great Satan. Olmert can say Ahmadinejad wants to finish off Israel and kill all the Jews. Bush sees Iran as a terrific way of changing the subject from the mess in Iraq and putting the Democrats on the spot.
The Democrats take the lead of their presidential hopefuls, who have no intention of being corralled by the Republicans as sympathizers of Holocaust deniers who want to destroy Israel. These days, to be a player, any candidate for the U.S. presidency has to raise about $100 million, of which a large share will come from American Jews. Barack Obama and John Edwards call for swift withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But when it comes to Iran, they roar in unison with Hillary Clinton that no option can be left off the table. In other words, if it comes to it, nuke 'em.
Is there room for sanity here? The best hope will be for Iran to finish its testing cycle, declare mission accomplished and figure out some sort of face-saving halt in its program by Feb. 21. Can we hope for prudence from the White House? Who knows?
Bush is a nutty guy. It was his insistence on democratic elections in Iraq that put the Shi'a in control. Now he's blaming Iran for trying to capitalize on the consequences. This is not a regime that thinks things through very sensibly.