President Bush's threat to attack Iran threatens the United States. The consequences of a new war in the Middle East—for that is what it would be, with Iran fighting back with terrorism—need no listing. Striking a second Muslim country while occupying Iraq would be a ramifying blunder, spreading death far into the century, holding our children and their children hostage to Bush's catastrophic presidency.
If Iran is building a nuclear weapon, Bush is responsible. First, he grouped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in the "axis of evil," a gratuitous and counter-productive provocation. Then he announced a new U.S. strategy: pre-emption. The U.S. gave itself the right to strike countries suspected of harboring terrorists or weapons of mass destruction without any act of belligerence on their part. Threatening pre-emption, critics warned, would motivate the axis of evil countries to rapidly develop nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack, as North Korea appears to have done. Next Bush implemented this new strategy, making "preventive war" on Iraq. Saddam had a nuclear program, went the logic of the administration's case for war. Unless we "took him out" Saddam would have a nuclear weapon within a few years. He could then deter pre-emption while sharing his largesse with terrorists who would attack the United States with nuclear weapons. The case for war reinforced the message sent to Tehran by the war itself: in order to deter attack from a superpower following a strategy of pre-emption and imperialism (a.k.a. "regime change"), go nuclear.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq has been a deliverance for the mullahs ruling Iran. They founded their claim to legitimacy on their resistance to a U.S.-backed dictator; they came to power in 1979 behind student demonstrators shouting "Death to the U.S.!," and "Death to the Shah!"; they invoke the Great Satan to distract the Iranian people from their repression. Bush's threat last week renews the regime's nationalist bona fides. If he bombs the Iranian nuclear reactors, the mullahs will be in power for generations.
Will Bush do it? He does not have to face the voters again; that political check is gone. His supine party controls the Congress; that institutional check is gone. War cemented Bush's presidency. Before September 11 he was the least legitimate president since "Rutherfraud" B. Hayes, installed in the White House by the vote of a Republican Supreme Court justice, Joseph P. Bradley, who was the Clarence Thomas of 1877. As the Downing Street memo indicates, the climate of fear generated by the looming war with Iraq helped the GOP recapture the Senate in 2002, as Karl Rove calculated. The war in Iraq, which the administration spun as the main battlefield in the "war on terror," re-elected Bush in 2004. Iraq has since become a political wound for Bush and a liability for his party. Cutting and running look to be in the cards there. To cover his retreat from an Iraq collapsing into civil war, Bush will need to look strong. Republicans need fear to prevail in next year's elections— to mask the debacle of Iraq.