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Beyond Saber Rattling

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 20, 2007

The United States was never in danger of becoming the "pitiful, helpless giant" that Richard Nixon conjured up in 1970 to justify the invasion of Cambodia -- and it does not risk that fate today. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and President Bush both need to keep that in mind to avoid stumbling into a widening of the war in Iraq.

The danger is real even if neither leader deliberately seeks such an outcome. Bush's calculated saber rattling against Iranian "triumphalism" in Iraq and the Persian Gulf has been met with new bravado from Ahmadinejad. The Iranian pugnaciously tells his neighbors that "America is weak and cannot protect you." Worse, he seems to believe it.

Ahmadinejad traveled to Abu Dhabi last Sunday to deliver that message after sending his foreign minister to squeeze an invitation out of the Arab emirate, which has strong security ties to the United States. A few days earlier, Iranian intelligence agents imprisoned Haleh Esfandiari on bogus spying charges.

Esfandiari, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, is director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Lee Hamilton, the Wilson Center's director, was the co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, which recently urged increased U.S. engagement with Iran. Ahmadinejad goes out of his way to give offense to Washington and then dares a response.

So do Russia's Vladimir Putin and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Like Ahmadinejad, they seem convinced that they can convert their nations' status as major energy exporters into foreign policy gains at the expense of an administration that is staggering under burdens of scandal and mismanagement at home and abroad.

Other leaders are finding more subtle ways to test the capacity and resolve of a lame-duck president whose party has lost control of Congress and who oversees a politically unpopular and draining war. They would not be human if they did not. And Bush would not be Bush if he were not tempted to take bold, decisive action to show them that he is still in charge and still potent.

But history and contemporary politics both suggest that this is a time for steady nerves and calibrated pressure tactics -- not sudden lurches in policy. Using Iraq as a springboard and rationale for an American military strike into Iran would expand the current disaster, just as Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, nominally undertaken to show American strength, came to undermine the U.S. presence in Indochina.

That invasion was meant to bolster an earlier U.S.-backed coup in Phnom Penh. Washington would risk similar results in Iraq by strong-arming the admittedly faltering government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki out of office and replacing Maliki with a U.S.-anointed Iraqi savior.

Arab allies are urging such a course on Bush and would not object to U.S. military action against Iran. There is growing concern in Baghdad that Washington is developing a "Plan B" that involves both hitting Iran and ousting Maliki -- who ironically was brought to office by American pressure to force out Ibrahim al-Jafari, Maliki's predecessor. The concern is augmented by demands from both sides of the aisle in Congress that Maliki meet obviously unrealistic benchmarks quickly or face a cutoff of U.S. support.

"Why should we fight somebody else's war against Iran?" asked Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Maliki's national security adviser, during a visit to Washington this month. "We say no to Saudi Arabia fighting Iran in Iraq." He also emphasized that "this Iraqi government is here to stay. It would bring incalculable risks to consider changing this government."

Not really. This is a government that barely exists and should be changed. But that change should come not from U.S. intervention but from fresh national elections, to be called and overseen by the United Nations this winter. New elections provide the best chance of achieving workable power- and revenue-sharing arrangements in Iraq. It is vital that Iran encourage the majority Shiite population in Iraq to accept such elections and arrangements.

The United States has rattled the saber loudly enough. The dispatching of a second aircraft carrier group toward Iran's waters, the capture and holding of five Iranian operatives in northern Iraq, and a hard-line speech by Vice President Cheney in the Gulf have gotten Ahmadinejad's attention. Targeted banking sanctions are creating significant dislocation and pain for Tehran.

This is the moment for Bush to show America's long-term strength by putting his weight behind the second track of a bifurcated policy: fully engaging with Iran on both Iraq and nuclear weapons, and bringing the Gulf Arabs and European allies into that dialogue. That would be the work of a confident giant.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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