Bush: Nothing's Changed

The fundamentalist psyche strikes again:

"To me, the NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) provides an opportunity for us to rally the international communityto continue to rally the communityto pressure the Iranian regime to suspend its program," the president said. "What's to say they couldn't start another covert nuclear weapons program."

He also asserted that the report means "nothing's changed," focusing on the previous existence of a weapons program and not addressing the discrepancy between his rhetoric and the disclosure that weapons program has been frozen for four years.

"I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger," he said. "I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."

No question Iran is still a danger. But you have here a classic example of Bush's foreign policy thinking: his position is that Iran is a threat and must be countered by all necessary means. This applies whether Iran is cooperating or not cooperating. It applies if Iran is accelerating work toward a nuke or if it has suspended its work. Like other idees fixes, i.e. tax cuts, the data are less important than the assertion of doctrine. The empirical reality doesn't matter when dealing with the regime like Tehran. Bush believes that it's the nature of that regime to be a source of destruction. And so policy will always be the same.

The empirical question is simply whether Iran can be appealed to and dealt with as a rational actor on the world stage rather than as an existential enemy. I don't think this is an easy call, and my suspicion of some neocon statements about Iran doesn't mean they don't have a critical point about a country headed by a religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad. But as a prudential matter, the news that the Iranians may well have responded rationally to international threats by suspending their program in 2003 suggests to me that they are open to sticks and carrots; and that diplomacy with them requires more nuance. This can therefore be seen as an opportunity for more engagement, not less.

That is the difference between conservatism and neoconservatism; the former is empirically based, skeptical and flexible. The latter is ideological, faith-based and rigid. With Gates and Rice ascendant, conservatism may be having a come-back.