When President Bush started making noises about World War III, he only confirmed what has been a Democratic article of faith all year: Between now and Election Day he and Dick Cheney, cheered on by the mob of neocon dead-enders, are going to bomb Iran.
But what happens if President Bush does not bomb Iran? That is good news for the world, but potentially terrible news for the Democrats. If we do go to war in Iran, the election will indeed be a referendum on the results, which the Republican Party will own no matter whom it nominates for president. But if we don't, the Democratic standard-bearer will have to take a clear stand on the defining issue of the race. As we saw once again at Tuesday night's debate, the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, does not have one.
The reason so many Democrats believe war with Iran is inevitable, of course, is that the administration is so flagrantly rerunning the sales campaign that gave us Iraq. The same old scare tactic - a Middle East Hitler plotting a nuclear holocaust - has been recycled with a fresh arsenal of hyped, loosey-goosey intelligence and outright falsehoods that are sometimes regurgitated without corroboration by the press.
Mr. Bush has gone so far as to accuse Iran of shipping arms to its Sunni antagonists in the Taliban, a stretch Newsweek finally slapped down last week. Back in the reality-based community, it is Mr. Bush who has most conspicuously enabled the Taliban's resurgence by dropping the ball as it regrouped in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Administration policy also opened the door to Iran's lethal involvement in Iraq. The Iraqi "unity government" that our troops are dying to prop up has more allies in its Shiite counterpart in Tehran than it does in Washington.
Yet 2002 history may not literally repeat itself. Mr. Cheney doesn't necessarily rule in the post-Rumsfeld second Bush term. There are saner military minds afoot now: the defense secretary Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs chairman Mike Mullen, the Central Command chief William Fallon. They know that a clean, surgical military strike at Iran could precipitate even more blowback than our "cakewalk" in Iraq. The Economist tallied up the risks of a potential Shock and Awe II this summer: "Iran could fire hundreds of missiles at Israel, attack American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, organize terrorist attacks in the West or choke off tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, the world's oil windpipe."
Then there's the really bad news. Much as Iraq distracted America from the war against Al Qaeda, so a strike on Iran could ignite Pakistan, Al Qaeda's thriving base and the actual central front of the war on terror. As Joe Biden said Tuesday night, if we attack Iran to stop it from obtaining a few kilograms of highly enriched uranium, we risk facilitating the fall of the teetering Musharraf government and the unleashing of Pakistan's already good-to-go nuclear arsenal on Israel and India.
A full-scale regional war, chaos in the oil market, an overstretched American military pushed past the brink - all to take down a little thug like Ahmadinejad (who isn't even Iran's primary leader) and a state, however truculent, whose defense budget is less than 1 percent of America's? Call me a Pollyanna, but I don't think even the Bush administration can be this crazy.
Yet there is nonetheless a method to all the mad threats of war coming out of the White House. While the saber- rattling is reckless as foreign policy, it's a proven winner as election-year Republican campaign strategy. The real point may be less to intimidate Iranians than to frighten Americans. Fear, the only remaining card this administration still knows how to play, may once more give a seemingly spent G.O.P. a crack at the White House in 2008.
Whatever happens in or to Iran, the American public will be carpet-bombed by apocalyptic propaganda for the 12 months to come. Mr. Bush has nothing to lose by once again using the specter of war to pillory the Democrats as soft on national security. The question for the Democrats is whether they'll walk once more into this trap.
You'd think the same tired tactics wouldn't work again after Iraq, a debacle now soundly rejected by a lopsided majority of voters. But even a lame-duck president can effectively wield the power of the bully pulpit. From Mr. Bush's surge speech in January to Gen. David Petraeus's Congressional testimony in September, the pivot toward Iran has been relentless.
Reinforcements are arriving daily. Dan Senor, the former flack for L. Paul Bremer in Baghdad, fronted a recent Fox News special, "Iran: The Ticking Bomb," a perfect accompaniment to the Rudy Giuliani campaign that is ubiquitous on that Murdoch channel. The former Bush flack Ari Fleischer is a founder of Freedom's Watch, a neocon fat-cat fund that has been spending $15 million for ads supporting the surge and is poised to up the ante for Iran war fever.
There are signs that the steady invocation of new mushroom clouds is already having an impact as it did in 2002 and 2003. A Zogby poll last month found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) now supports a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
In 2002 Senators Clinton, Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards and Chris Dodd all looked over their shoulders at such polls. They and the party's Congressional leaders, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, voted for the Iraq war resolution out of the cynical calculation that it would inoculate them against charges of wussiness. Sure, they had their caveats at the time. They talked about wanting "to give diplomacy the best possible opportunity" (as Mr. Gephardt put it then). In her Oct. 10, 2002, speech of support for the Iraq resolution on the Senate floor, Mrs. Clinton hedged by saying, "A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war."
We know how smart this strategic positioning turned out to be. Weeks later the Democrats lost the Senate.
This time around, with the exception of Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic candidates seem to be saying what they really believe rather than trying to play both sides against the middle. Only Mrs. Clinton voted for this fall's nonbinding Kyl-Lieberman Senate resolution, designed by its hawk authors to validate Mr. Bush's Iran policy. The House isn't even going to bring up this malevolent bill because, as Nancy Pelosi has said, there has "never been a declaration by a Congress before in our history" that "declared a piece of a country's army to be a terrorist organization."
In 2002, the Iraq war resolution passed by 77 to 23. In 2007, Kyl-Lieberman passed by 76 to 22. No sooner did Mrs. Clinton cast her vote than she started taking heat in Iowa. Her response was to blur her stand. She abruptly signed on as the sole co- sponsor of a six-month-old (and languishing) bill introduced by the Virginia Democrat Jim Webb forbidding money for military operations in Iran without Congressional approval.
In Tuesday's debate Mrs. Clinton tried to play down her vote for Kyl-Lieberman again by incessantly repeating her belief in "vigorous diplomacy" as well as the same sound bite she used after her Iraq vote five years ago. "I am not in favor of this rush for war," she said, "but I'm also not in favor of doing nothing."
Much like her now notorious effort to fudge her stand on Eliot Spitzer's driver's license program for illegal immigrants, this is a profile in vacillation. And this time Mrs. Clinton's straddling stood out as it didn't in 2002. That's not because she was the only woman on stage but because she is the only Democratic candidate who has not said a firm no to Bush policy.
That leaves her in a no man's - or woman's - land. If Mr. Bush actually does make a strike against Iran, Mrs. Clinton will be the only leading Democrat to have played a cameo role in enabling it. If he doesn't, she can no longer be arguing in the campaign crunch of fall 2008 that she is against rushing to war, because it would no longer be a rush. Her hand would be forced.
Mr. Biden got a well-deserved laugh Tuesday night when he said there are only three things in a Giuliani sentence: "a noun and a verb and 9/11." But a year from now, after the public has been worn down by so many months more of effective White House propaganda, "America's mayor" (or any of his similarly bellicose Republican rivals) will be offering voters the clearest possible choice, however perilous, about America's future in the world.
Potentially facing that Republican may be a Democrat who is not in favor of rushing to war in Iran but, now as in 2002, may well be in favor of walking to war. In any event, she will not have been a leader in making the strenuous case for an alternative policy that defuses rather than escalates tensions with Tehran.
Noun + verb + 9/11 - also Mr. Bush's strategy in 2004, lest we forget - would once again square off against a Democratic opponent who was for a pre-emptive war before being against it.
-- Frank Rich
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company