The president is on the defensive trying to make a believable argument that he had only learned of the NIE last week. Democrats are jubilant that they can now safely attack the president's Iran policy, which is in tatters.
For supporters of Israel, this is both an encouraging and a troubling development. On Iran, Jews have been caught between a Bush administration they don't trust, which at least wants to confront Iran, and a Democratic opposition that was divided over how to deal with Iran. The NIE casts this problem in bold relief.
The Iraq War hangs over the Iran debate. It is clouding the collective minds of Americans about Iran on both sides of the political divide. Our inability to think clearly about Iran is of special concern to supporters of Israel.
Historians will have many years to dissect the foreign policy of the Bush-Cheney administration. American leaders who wanted to challenge Iran ended up spending more than a trillion taxpayer dollars and thousands of American lives to remove the principal regional adversary of Iran -- Saddam Hussein -- and then to install and protect a Shiite regime in Baghdad that is sympathetic to Iran.
Along the way, the administration sacrificed U.S. credibility by hyping threats and politicizing the gathering of sensitive intelligence. Despite the failure of the Iraq War, some in the administration could not wait to move on to Iran and with their usual flair for fakery, exaggerating the immediacy of the Iranian threat. To protect their political flank, they blew the cover of Valerie Plame, one of our leading covert operatives on Iranian weapons development. Presumably, Plame was expendable, since they intended to manipulate the intelligence anyway.
For Democrats, the Iraq War has become the symbol of everything they loathe about the Bush administration. The Bush administration made the Iraq War an extension of domestic politics. It became a Republican war. When President Bush then turned the same partisan tools onto confronting Iran, Democrats were divided between those who saw Iran as a profound threat and those who saw confronting Iran as simply round two of the Iraq War.
The most effective resistance to pre-emptive war with Iran has come from within the government, from the diplomatic, military and intelligence leadership. The checks and balances are now all internal and hidden from public view.
Having been crushed by the administration when they raised objections regarding Iraq, and on the previous NIE on Iran, as well, these insiders vowed not to let it happen again. As the famous Downing Street memos from Great Britain made clear, the Bush people "fixed the intelligence around the policy" on Iraq.
This time around, the intelligence bureaucracy fought hard to overcome Vice President Dick Cheney's attempt to rewrite the NIE or, failing that, to keep it secret. Finally, Michael McConnell, the new director of intelligence, released portions of the report's findings. For the intelligence community to stand up to an administration that fires and slanders dissenters took rare courage.
Yet Iran is one of those cases in which the Democratic loyalties of most Jewish voters may end up warring with concern for Israel. The Iraq War was a less dramatic case. Even though Israel backed the American invasion, Iraq had much less salience than Iran. (Some Israeli officials have lately taken to saying that they warned Bush not to invade Iraq.)
In a nutshell, Iran is not Iraq.
Republican presidential candidates will have no problem attacking the NIE. Hostility to the NIE will play well on the campaign trail, and global belligerence is an easy sell to that party's voters. Expect the leading Republican candidates to knock this one out of the park. Republicans on Capitol Hill have already called for a bipartisan commission to critique the NIE.
Partisan attacks on the NIE, backed by right-wing supporters of Israel, are fairly easy to ignore. Conservatives have spent decades challenging intelligence assessments that do not support their policy goals. Israel's objections may be more telling, especially with Democrats.
The NIE does not suggest that Iran is not a long-term threat. Many Israelis believe Iran is a mortal threat to the Jewish state, although there is fierce internal disagreement about whether an attack on Iran's facilities is timely or wise.
Israel's leadership, across party lines, has already signaled its unhappiness with the NIE. Israel now feels isolated because of the discrediting by American government officials of the American administration. International sanctions against Iran may be politically harder to implement.
Israeli leaders are taking rapid steps to challenge the NIE. The Israel Defense Forces presented its own intelligence data on Sunday to Adm. Michael Mullen, in a rare visit to Israel by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush has scheduled his first presidential visit to Israel for January.
No one except the Iranian leadership knows the full truth about Iran's nuclear weapons program or its future plans. Even the consensus of 16 American intelligence agencies cannot guarantee that the United States knows for sure. Israel does not know for certain.
An intelligence estimate is, at the end of the day, only an estimate. Nothing has changed in Iran this week; only our perception of what is happening there has, as well as the options politically available to Bush.
The Bush administration is in the unaccustomed position of pointing out nuances in an intelligence report. Their previous stance has been to tell us to ignore any nuanced intelligence that argues against the policy they want to implement, going so far as to delete dissenting views from reports given to Congress. Yet, these nuances are important.
That Iran once had a nuclear weapons program and then abandoned it in 2003 is important information. If grumblings from within Iran about stopping the nuclear program are pieces of the estimate, they might also be deception. Iran might still obtain a nuclear weapon from outside sources, or its nuclear program may be very well hidden, as Israel is contending.Intimidated Democrats have always depended on external information like the NIE for the confidence to challenge Bush in the global arena. Democrats have every right to use this teachable moment about the administration's lack of credibility.
Make no mistake, though. This is also about the deceptions that led to the Iraq War and that have never been fully aired. It is also about a fear among Democrats and within the intelligence and military communities that the president might launch an attack on Iran without any consideration of the consequences.
Andrew Lachman addressed the need for progressives to avoid being naïve about Iran in an article a month ago in these pages ("Progressives Should Join Jews on Iran Strategy," Nov. 11). His advice that progressives should reach out to the Jewish community, acknowledging the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism and supporting sanctions, is even more timely now.
The NIE casts grave doubt on arguments that call for war with Iran now. But every Democratic candidate should consider the following scenario, which somebody ought to ask at the next debate: "What if you are inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, and the next day, Iran announces that it has constructed a nuclear weapon. What would be your response?"
Every candidate must be able to answer that question now. Will you accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and if not, what would you do about it? What if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon? Can you make a case for strategic ambiguity along the lines of our policy regarding a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?
You'd better have a serious answer.
If her Democratic rivals attack N.Y. Sen Hillary Clinton's vote for a congressional resolution on Iran that seemed to empower Bush's Iran policy and argue that diplomacy is the only way to go, they may have a hard time answering the questions above.
Democrats can say, "The best approach now is caution. We do not know what Iran has or what it intends. We have a credible intelligence estimate, and it's time for the president and vice president to stop popping off. We know war is off the table for now. We should talk with our adversaries, and Iran is still our adversary. We should therefore begin direct talks with Iran. But we are not ready to assume the best about Iran's intentions. And we must send the message that a nuclear Iran would be an urgent matter."
While this approach may hurt a candidate with the Democratic base, it would make him or her a better candidate and president. It would reassure Israel that American domestic politics have not left Israel out on a limb. It would also assure America's allies in the Mideast that the United States is not executing a complete 180-degree turn on Iran, a nation whose expansive ambitions have alarmed its neighbors.
America should constructively engage Iran, because that is the only thing that threatens the rule of the mullahs. American culture, in the name of a better-liked and more credible America, will be a more subversive force in Tehran than an isolated American leadership.
This may not be the best time to talk exclusively about diplomacy while Iran crows at America's expense. If Democrats want to run our foreign policy in 2009, they need to remember John F. Kennedy's words: "We must never negotiate out of fear. But we must never fear to negotiate."
The NIE is the beginning, not the end, of the real debate on Iran. Until now, it's been reason against the administration's hype. Now it can be reason vs. reason, evidence vs. evidence. Israel and its supporters will have their say and their chance to make their case. They can no longer hope that Bush and Cheney will take action, regardless of the facts.
By forcing into public view, at great personal risk, the first serious attempt by our government to publicly address what is known about Iran's nuclear program, the American intelligence community has done a public service. The immediate danger of an ill-advised war is past, but the decision about what to do about Iran is still an urgent work in progress.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.