Thinking War-War Again

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 12, 2007

Listening to George W. Bush announce his fantasy-based escalation of the war in Iraq, which could only make sense in some parallel universe where pigs fly and fish commute on bicycles, I flashed on something Bush's hero Winston Churchill once said: "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject." By that standard, President Bush is no fanatic.

True, he scores off the charts on the part about inflexibility of mind. But the Decider changes the subject all the time. First, the way to fight the "war on terror" was to invade Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was sheltering Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Before finishing that job, Bush decided to invade Iraq, which had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And now, with Iraq mired in bloody chaos, he seems to be changing the subject yet again -- to Iran.

I won't spend much time on the president's new "strategy" for Iraq, because at best it's a modest change in tactics -- tragically, one that further plunges U.S. forces into the kind of urban warfare in which insurgents and guerrillas always have the advantage. The battle of Baghdad promises to look like the battle of Fallujah writ large, and it promises to solve nothing. In the end, Bush still has to depend on the Iraqi "unity" government to end the sectarian civil war, but it's clear that the Shiite-dominated regime will do no such thing as long as the Shiites are winning.

On the shift to Iran, I hope I'm wrong but fear I'm right. In his speech Wednesday night, Bush went out of his way to lay out the goal of "stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges," specifying that this new task "begins with addressing Iran and Syria."

Of course, he doesn't mean addressing them with tough-minded diplomacy, which is what the Iraq Study Group suggested. Bush decided long ago that talking to regimes he doesn't like amounts to rewarding bad people for bad behavior. However dangerous a world this reckless president leaves behind for his successor, at least we can be thankful that he wasn't anywhere near the White House during the Cold War. He probably would have disconnected the hotline to the Kremlin, or at least kept Leonid Brezhnev on permanent hold.

"Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops," Bush said. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces."

Those words had hardly escaped his lips when U.S. forces stormed an Iranian government office in Irbil, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq, and hauled away five Iranian staff members regardless of their diplomatic status. Local Kurdish officials apparently were not told in advance of the raid, which looked as if it were meant to underscore the president's point -- or even provoke an intemperate reaction from Tehran.

Bush also mentioned that he has sent a second aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf region. The USS John C. Stennis, with its attendant mini-fleet, is on its way to join the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. That's generally known as gunboat diplomacy.

All this comes shortly after someone leaked to the Sunday Times of London that Israeli pilots are busy training for a mission to destroy Iran's key nuclear facilities with "bunker-busting" low-yield nuclear weapons. The Israeli government promptly denied the story, but not without adding that somebody had better bring an end to Iran's nuclear program, and soon. That somebody could only be the United States.

Meanwhile, much about Iran's nuclear program -- and about the country's intentions -- remains unknown. Experts disagree on how much success the Iranians are having in their uranium enrichment program and on how close they are to actually being able to build a nuclear bomb -- estimates range from two to 10 years. We're not even sure where all the key nuclear facilities are or how hardened they are against attack.

As cynical as I am about this administration, it's hard for me to imagine that at this point, with all the push-back he's getting from Congress and the public about escalating American involvement in Iraq, George W. Bush would even think about launching a new military adventure in Iran. But you have to worry about a president who talks so much about the judgment of history and who has such a Manichaean view of the world.

I have the sinking feeling that he's never heard another famous Churchill quote: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

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