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This Time, Bush Really Does Want to Avoid War

By Ian Bremmer

Wolf! Wolf!

Several Democrats, including some now running for president, say they voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush's push for war in Iraq only to give him the negotiating leverage to force Saddam Hussein to back down before military action became "necessary." They claim not to have recognized that Bush was already set on invasion and hoped only to avoid war. Having seen Bush's case for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction unravel, a variety of skeptics now question the case that Bush is building against Iran.

The president says that a little-known unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has provided Iraqi militants with armor-penetrating weapons that have killed more than 170 U.S. soldiers, and that the Iranian government must be held accountable. He also says Iran is arming Shiite militia groups, feeding the sectarian violence now plaguing much of central Iraq. The president's many critics now warn that the White House is again using sketchy intelligence to build domestic and international support for military action in the Middle East.

What's different four years later? This time, Bush really is trying to avoid military action, not to promote it.

As everyone in the universe now knows, the president and his foreign-policy team used disputed intelligence to rally domestic and international support for a war against Saddam Hussein that they had already decided to wage. Administration officials presented circumstantial evidence that the Iraqi dictator was sitting on stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and building a nuclear program, and that his government had ties with al-Qaida.

Once the fog of war had cleared, the administration had forfeited a lot of its credibility -- with foreign governments, members of both U.S. political parties and a majority of the American people. Now the White House hopes to persuade these same audiences that Iran is directly responsible for U.S. casualties in Iraq and for stoking sectarian violence there.

Leaving aside natural skepticism about these claims, the Bush team is ratcheting up pressure on Iran precisely to delay as long as possible the day that the president is forced to choose between de facto acceptance of a nuclear Iran and military action that may create more problems than it solves.

A U.S. ground invasion of Iran is not a credible threat. The White House knows that Iran's leaders are well aware that U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan take that option off the table, even if such a plan made political or military sense.

But limiting military action to air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities is hardly an ideal option. Such a move might well provoke Iran to pull significant amounts of its oil exports off the market and/or disrupt the flow of tanker traffic through the vitally important bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz. Either option would add substantial upward pressure on energy prices. Tehran could also retaliate by proxy through aggressive support for Hezbollah and Hamas attacks on Israel.

What's more, air strikes might not work. Iran has scattered its nuclear assets all over the country and is burying some of them in fortified bunkers deep underground. But if air strikes eventually prove the only alternative to a nuclear Iran, Bush will consider them, even if no one abroad and virtually no one at home will back them. He's right not to expect much support. Evidence that Iran is active in Iraq won't change that, and the White House knows it.

But the president hopes that, even if no one buys his case against Iran, many (both at home and abroad) will believe the White House is willing to accept the risks that come with air strikes and to move ahead without international backing. That's how he hopes to bolster support for a more confrontational diplomatic approach -- tougher Security Council resolutions, various forms of sanctions and other forms of pressure that many in Washington hope will encourage pragmatists in Iran to sideline firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and slow Iran's drive toward a nuclear capability. All without firing a shot.

Will it work? It's too soon to say. But the Bush team knows that failure to organize support for credible and sustainable pressure on Iran will accelerate momentum toward the showdown that no one (with the possible exception of Ahmadinejad) really wants. Even if Bush were willing to shy from the fight, U.S. security commitments to Israel will hold his feet to the fire. For Israelis, Iran's nuclear progress represents a clear and present existential danger. Bolstering international support for coercive diplomacy is Bush's last best chance of avoiding a decision on air strikes.

So far, the U.S. has won only watered-down Security Council resolutions against Iran. The Russians, whose Security Council veto Washington hopes to avoid, have signaled that they have pushed Tehran about as far as they're going to. Beyond the U.N., international participation in any sort of coalition of countries willing to impose tough sanctions of their own remains highly uncertain. Still, these are the only options now standing between the president and a decision on whether to roll the dice on an air attack.

But the Bush White House has cried wolf once too often. If the president's tough talk doesn't win support for greater international pressure on Tehran, doubts about the administration's credibility may produce the very outcome everyone hopes to avoid.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy and the author of "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,". He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

(C) 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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