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Will Bush Take Lame-Duck Action on Iran's Nuclear Ambitions?
What does Scott McClellan's tell-all book on his years at the White House have in common with Jimmy Carter's comment on the number of Israeli nukes and congressional hearings on War Powers?
They all, intentionally or inadvertently, have the effect of weakening those who advocate a potential end-of-term strike by American planes and missiles against Iranian nuclear and military targets.
Mr. Bush dropped hints during his visit to the Middle East last month that the Iranians should not continue their activities in Iraq, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, as well as in the nuclear-weapons field, on the assumption that they're going to get a better deal come next January.
Iran's nuclear ambitions were highlighted by public disclosure that the September Israeli bombing in Syria was of a nascent nuclear-weapons site, and just before the International Atomic Energy Agency, which had missed entirely the North Korean-Syrian joint enterprise, announced that Iran was being less than cooperative in its reporting to the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
Mr. Bush's words indicate that the administration has not ruled out launching strikes in its final months, or that it wants Iran to think so, notwithstanding opposition from the secretaries of state and defense, most of Congress, and an Iraq war weary general public.
The administration may have been inclined to kick the can down the road and let the next president handle the problem. The argument for action was that the longer the wait, the better the odds of Iran acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability. But by the same token, if Iran is five years away, let the next guy worry about it.
The mounting prospect of a win by Sen. Barack Obama in the November election confounds those calculations. It would not be a stretch to argue that in such a scenario, as it withdraws from Iraq and cuts deals from a position of weakness, this will rationalize a no-war policy on the grounds that a nuclear Iran can be deterred and its larger ambitions contained. This would void the current consensus that Iran nukes are totally unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering bills in both houses that would underscore its role and limit that of the president with respect to decisions to make war. The Constitutional War Powers Act (H.J. Res. 53), introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (D-N.C.), states that "the decision of the United States to provide for the initiation of hostilities by the Armed Forces, except for a limited range of defensive purposes, requires a collective judgment of the Congress and the President."
The debate over Congress' role is an important one; it's not being held just for the sake of abstract constitutional principles.
The bill, and its companion in the Senate, S. 2387, means to restrain the administration. Bombing Iranian training camps and nuclear facilities might not fall under the definition of "a limited range of defensive purposes," and would therefore require congressional assent. Given the anti-Iraq war sentiment that has swept through the Democrats -- something for which the Bush administration, as well as the intelligence community, bears much responsibility, the standard to which Congress will hold a president before joining in "collective judgment" may be too high to meet in a timely fashion.
Finally, there is the case of former President Carter, who became the first man to have occupied the Oval Office to publicly announce that Israel has nuclear weapons.
Since he spoke at a book fair and not a conference on nuclear physics, one suspects that his intent was to bolster the Iranian argument, also espoused by Arab states, that Israel benefits from a double standard, and that if the Jewish state can have nuclear weapons, then so can Iran. The Arab states put it differently, arguing that just as Iran should not have any nukes, neither should Israel.
If the tea leaves are confusing, that's because there's evidence to build a case forecasting a limited attack on Iranian targets after an election win by Sen. Obama and before his inauguration, as well as for the view that -- already weakened by Iraq and accused by Mr. McClellan of "manipulating sources of public opinion to the [his own] advantage" -- President Bush will stand down.
David Twersky writes frequently for the New York Sun.