Three simple points about Iran/NIE

These don't qualify as news, given no doubt voluminous discussion overnight (my time) in the U.S. Still, for my own personal record:

1) The report is unambiguously good news, of the sort we're not accustomed to receiving in recent years from that part of the world. At least it's good on the merits -- more on the politics below.

The Iran-hawks who have said that an Iranian nuke would threaten the very survival of the West should be relieved to hear that the threat is not at hand. The Iran-doves who have claimed that Iran could be turned away from the nuke path through diplomacy, delay, incentive, threat, etc should be grateful for evidence that something other than a U.S. military strike changed the Iranian leadership's mind. If an Iranian weapon would have been bad for America, for Israel, for Europe, and in the deepest sense for the Iranian people themselves, then all of those parties are now better off.

2) For nearly three years, "yes, they will" / "no, they wouldn't dare" arguments about the Bush Administration's intentions have raged within the press and among analysts. The question was whether the president and vice president might actually go ahead and order a preemptive air or land strike against Iran -- despite the absence of clear Congressional approval, despite the obvious lack of support within America's professional military, despite the overwhelming evidence that in the crudest sense a military approach could not work. I've been in the "they wouldn't dare" camp -- and have urged members of Congress to remove doubt by prohibiting use of funds toward this end. Other writers and analysts have consistently said: No, just you wait, it's coming, these guys are determined to get the job done.

The argument is in a sense moot now. In the face of this NIE, a possibility that had once seemed remote -- that the uniformed military might resist carrying out an order for a self-destructive attack on Iran --is suddenly more plausible. On what rational grounds could a president or vice president now order a strike? The order itself might be grounds for judging a commander-in-chief unfit to hold office. But some time it will be worth going back to see how close the president or vice president ever came to preparing for attack.

3) On politics, this good news (for the country) is obviously awkward for the Administration and many others who have gone farthest out on the Iran-hawk limb. To me it intensifies my main concern about Hillary Clinton: that, having voted five years ago for the war in Iraq, which she then continued to support for years, she went ahead this fall and voted for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which however you slice it was essentially a vote for legitimizing military action against Iran. (For what it's worth, this is not an endorsement or de-endorsement of any candidate. It's just an expression of what personally bothers me most in her recent policies.)

Yes, you can argue -- as Senator Clinton did just now in the excellent NPR radio-only Democratic candidates' debate* -- that world affairs require both carrots and sticks, that the threat of force is important for getting a regime's attention, and so on. But the reported change in Iran's behavior happened in 2003! It didn't have anything to do with Kyl-Lieberman. And of course the Kyl-Lieberman vote occurred after the world, the American public, and every member of the Senate had had the intervening five years to see how the Bush Administration was likely to interpret even a hazy mandate.

You could also argue, from a purely operational perspective, that as the first woman ever to have a plausible chance to become president, Hillary Clinton is the one candidate who can never ever appear to be "soft." It's fine for senators like Jim Webb or Chuck Hagel, with their Vietnam-combat photos on their office walls, to say that a particular war would be rash, unnecessary, doomed, or self-defeating. Indeed, both of those senators were among the 22 with the guts and sense to vote against Kyl-Lieberman. (Barack Obama said he was against the measure, but he didn't change his campaign schedule to show up and cast a No vote.) But -- the operational argument would continue -- the moment a Democratic female candidate cast such a vote, she would lose her "political viability within the system," in words her husband once used.

I can understand that logic. The question in: when does it end? If the experience of supporting the Iraq war wasn't enough to embolden her to oppose Kyl-Lieberman and its implied threat of war with Iran, what would? If she is sworn in as the first female president, she will still have to remove doubts about her "toughness." There will be the 2010 midterms to think of. And of course the 2012 reelection campaign. And if she is tough enough to get through that, then concerns about her legacy. Over the long run, is there any difference between a candidate who needs to "seem" hawkish on questions like Iraq and Iran, and a candidate who is an actual hawk?

I sympathize completely with her predicament: dealing with those atavistic voter emotions about the "weakness" of female candidates is a terrible problem. But here's the predicament it creates for voters. If I don't want the next president to be someone who had a hawkish outlook on both Iraq and Iran, do I say: Never mind, she's not really a hawk, she just has to vote like one?
* The quality of this debate, which was not all about the preening moderators (unlike the ones I've seen on TV) and was not all about catching the candidate in some minor contradiction with past statements, highlights how terrible and destructive the TV debates in general have been. Subject for another day.

Best debate answer I heard, on a subject I know about: Joe Biden essentially saying, "Give me a break, are you kidding, OF COURSE the U.S. is stronger than China?" when one of the NPR hosts was grilling the candidates about whether China or the U.S. had the upper hand over the other.