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Bush won in Iran, but he’d prefer the world didn’t know

By Joel Brinkley

Now that the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies have declared with "high confidence" that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program four years ago, the Bush administration finds itself in an "awkward" position," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it with a refreshing bit of honesty last week.

No president, Democratic or Republican, is quick to admit he is wrong. If you look back through history you won’t find many presidential apologies, with the glaring exception of Bill Clinton, who became a serial apologist — once he was incontrovertibly caught with his pants down.

Still, even by historical standards, President Bush has been unusually averse to admitting error. But Bush’s reaction to the considered view of his own intelligence agencies sets a new standard. He and his aides quite obviously wish the American intelligence community had kept its views to itself.

The intelligence agencies have been spectacularly wrong more than once before. But in the current political climate, surely the agencies would not have put out this opinion unless they were quite sure. Logically, you would think, their estimate should allow Bush to breathe a sigh of relief: Thank goodness; the problem with Iran is not as serious as we had feared. Instead, he is trying his best to twist and warp the published report so that it complements rather than contradicts his dire warnings about Iran.

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"The NIE says that Iran had a hidden, covert nuclear weapons program," he said early this month, as if that alone was proof of evil intent. "What’s to say they couldn’t start another nuclear weapons program?"

Lots of nations have had hidden, covert, nuclear development including India, Israel, Pakistan, France, China — for that matter, the United States. What country has tried to develop nuclear weapons with trumpets and fanfare?

Could Iran start another program? Of course. So could South Africa or Syria or Serbia. Argentina and Brazil reluctantly abandoned their nuclear weapons programs in the 1980s — a decision still chaffing at Brazil’s leaders. While he was running for office in 2003, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, complained, "If someone asks me to disarm and keep a slingshot while he comes at me with a cannon, what good does that do?"

My point is, why can’t Bush simply accept that his policy worked? Four years ago, just as soon as the United States and its European allies began putting pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, Tehran backed down and stopped the research. Congratulations!

To be sure, Iran remains a dangerous state that supports terrorism. But Iran is cooperating to some extent with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors; they are in Iran this week. That is what happened when Algeria, Brazil, Argentina, Serbia and other states stopped weapons research. They accepted atomic agency inspections, and none of them have restarted their nuclear programs.

By some accounts, the administration was building a case to attack Iran. At the very least, it was trying to persuade China and Russia to accept a far more stringent U.N. Security Council resolution. Now, of course, the odds of passing that are slim.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page had an interesting take on this. It accused Bush of mismanagement — for allowing the intelligence agencies to publish the report. Too often, the Journal said, Bush has "tolerated officials who oppose his agenda and failed to discipline them when they have worked against his policies."

So Bush should discipline the officials who brought him the good news? That would make a scene to remember. But if you carefully read Gates’ speech in Bahrain last week, he seems to be endorsing the Journal’s view.

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"The estimate clearly has come at an awkward time," he said. "It has annoyed a number of friends, and it has confused our allies around the world in terms of what we are trying to accomplish."

Then he noted, with obvious displeasure, that the intelligence agencies decide on their own what to report.

That wasn’t always so. During the buildup to the Iraq invasion, the White House pressured the agencies to produce "intelligence" to support the case for war. The agencies complied. Quite obviously Bush and his aides remain wistful for those days.

Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Comment at news@postbulletin.com.

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