Is President Bush going to attack Iran? That question looms large around the world, as if he doesn't have enough on his plate with Iraq.
The administration's drumbeat about Iran has an all-too familiar ring. The rhetorical assault against Iran -- with which the U.S. has had no diplomatic relations since 1979 -- began with a background news briefing Feb. 11 in Baghdad when U.S. military officials accused Iranians at the "highest levels" of providing sophisticated explosive devices to Shiite militants to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
No tape recorders or cameras were permitted at the briefing and reporters were barred from using the names of the briefers.
Within a day, the administration began backtracking, starting with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who cast doubt on whether the Iranian government was clearly complicit in smuggling armor-piercing weapons into Iraq.
Pace said the discovery of explosives "could not translate to the Iranian government per se (that it) is directly involved in doing this."
Bush seemed headed in the same direction when he told a Feb. 14 news conference that he did not know whether the arms shipments were on orders of the Islamic Republic's leaders. But it didn't matter who did the ordering, the point is "they are there," he said.
He was asked bluntly if he was trying to find a pretext for war. "No," he said. "It means, I'm trying to protect our troops."
Now the president should realize he has a vast credibility gap stemming from the administration falsehoods that set the groundwork for the 2003 attack on Iraq.
Two presidents went down the drain politically when they lost their credibility and were no longer believed -- Lyndon B. Johnson over the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.
Bush is carrying a lot of baggage from his false statements against Baghdad in the run up to the war.
There was the time when he told the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 12, 2002, that "no terrorist state poses a greater or more immediate threat to the security of our people and the stability of the world than the regime of Saddam Hussein."
In his State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2003, the president kept up his red-hot baloney: "We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more."
On May 6, 2003, he said, "We continue to have confidence that (WMD) will be found."
This was pure fiction, though we haven't heard any apologies from the top administration officials who helped to perpetrate the myth of an urgent Iraqi threat and caches of weapons of mass destruction.
Despite his denials that he might widen the war to include Iran, there is skepticism about Bush's next move, prompted by his dispatch of a second aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf region.
Also, there is the puzzling appointment of a Navy officer, Adm. William Fallon, to head Central Command, which overseas U.S. military operations in the region. This puts a sailor in charge of the ground war in Iraq where more than 140,000 soldiers and Marines are slogging it out.
And then there are plans to double the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, apparently to counter any attempt by Iran to block oil exports from the Gulf.
It's doubtful that the U.S. will get the same support from its allies for a more muscular approach against Iran as it has had in opposing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
There are touches of irony in the White House charges that Iran is "meddling" in Iraq. Look who is talking.
If anything, we have given a new meaning to the role of the Muslim Shiites in the Middle East. Iran is mainly Shiite, the Muslim sect we have emboldened in Iraq.
Fortunately, there are indications that Congress is becoming more vigilant against further military moves by Bush.
Sen. Robert Byrd, Rep. Barbara Lee and others are sponsoring resolutions to bar the administration from attacking Iran without congressional authorization. At last, they will be speaking for the people.
Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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