WASHINGTON -- It was only 30 years ago that the world's most powerful political leaders diverted attention from deep political troubles at home by beginning the bluff and bargain that speeded the end of the nuclear threats of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan, wounded by the almost comic revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal, and Mikhail Gorbachev, caught in the whirlpool of the economic collapse of communism, managed to make a series of deals that saved their reputations and eventually made the world a safer place to live.
Now that process is repeating itself as parody, with George W. Bush in political trouble at home and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the loose-lipped leader of a proud country in self-inflicted crisis, trying to assert (or save) himself by threatening to use nuclear weapons and capability Iran does not have.
The wonderland scene of this verbal confrontation seemed to hit a peak last week as the Iranians used white doves to celebrate the peaceful nature of their non-existent nuclear weapons. At the same time, official sources and network news in the United States gravely intoned that part of American contingency planning was to prevent the use or development of the bombs Iran does not have by raining our nuclear-tipped bunker busters on places where the Iranians may or may not be doing bad nuclear things.
You could not make this up: We are saying that we may be forced to nuke Iran to prevent them from getting nukes. A Pentagon official put it another way in last week's New Yorker magazine: "The bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the United States."
Contingency, contingency, wild speculation, wild speculation, says the White House. Of course, those were the same words Bush and his unilateralists were using before they invaded Iraq to destroy nuclear weapons and other threats that did not exist -- and, in the process, destroyed the threat and capability of the U.S. military.
"Deeply unhelpful" was the judgment of the British foreign minister, Jack Straw, as he evaluated the frothing of President Ahmadinejad in Tehran. That is both true and untrue. Ahmadinejad is certainly an unhelpful person and almost certainly a total fraud in exaggerating Iran's nuclear prospects and claiming all he cares about is peace and peaceful nuclear energy sources.
But, by provoking the White House into its own bluff and exaggeration, the Iranian warmonger is helping preserve and protect the crazed military-religious complex clinging to power in Iran. The only way the bad guys there can survive is to unite their country by persuading its people one more time that they are under the gun of the "Great Satan" in Washington, as we talk up another war in the Middle East. Iranians who hate Ahmadinejad and the tyrannical ayatollahs hate even more the possibility of the Americans and the British taking over their country, as we have done in the past.
The Iranians are, at the moment, only as powerful as President Bush and his unhinged secretary of defense say they are. If Bush and Donald Rumsfeld did not exist, the bad boys of Iran would have to invent them.
On this Bush's watch, we have invaded a country --yes, a lousy country with a bloody dictator -- for reasons we still can't explain. Worse: We are not winning; we are only occupying. Much of the world, which was with us morally after Sept. 11, 2001, has turned against us in the years since as we stained ourselves in ways large and small; the whole world is watching American blunder and torture.
We are borrowing from the world to spill our treasure, or our grandchildren's, into the sands of Araby. Our volunteer military is already stretched beyond its capability in Iraq; recruitment is in trouble, with even a third of West Point graduates quitting after their mandatory five years of service.
It is difficult and profoundly depressing to contemplate what Bush and Rumsfeld will come up with in the almost three years they have left in office. This president came to power as superpower, when the United States dominated the world economically, morally and militarily. That will not be true when he leaves. We have been diminished in almost every way by this administration's ignorance and incompetence -- and now we are going to do more of it by shouting ourselves hoarse in response to fanatic loudmouths in Iran rather than letting them destroy themselves with their own people.
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