An Iranian Misadventure

President Bush over U.S. and Iran flags
This column was written by Matthew Yglesias.
What to do about Iran is a genuinely difficult question. Neoconservatives tend to overstate the threat posed by the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons, but the truth is bad enough. Sanctions seem unlikely to deter the Tehran regime, currently cushioned by sky-high oil revenues. Air strikes seem likely to produce deeply problematic political and military consequences, while remaining rather limited in their capacity to actually halt the Iranian program. Nobody quite knows what to do.

It's cliché to say it, but this is one of those problems with no good answers. Which is why some of the more ingenious minds on the right – Bill Kristol, Stanley Kurtz, and Victor Davis Hanson to note a few I read over the weekend – are gearing up to blame the Democrats for a sure-to-be-unsatisfactory outcome. As their theory goes, things would be better if mean ol' liberals hadn't been so insistent on not offering unconditional support to all and every foreign-policy initiative undertaken by the Bush administration.

If liberals have any intention of playing politics to win, it's absolutely vital to start making sure that when the broad public catches wind of the finger-pointing and recriminations, the fingers wind up pointing in the right direction – squarely at the face of George W. Bush.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the last time Democrats were actually in a position to make American foreign policy, this problem didn't even exist. Unlike Iraq or North Korea, the entire drama has played out during the George W. Bush era, all the decisions have been made by George W. Bush, no Democrats have been involved in any way, and everything Bush has done has worked out poorly. There are some ins-and-outs and complexities to the story, but the short version is that the White House has, turning Theodore Roosevelt's wise principles on their head, chosen to talk loudly without carrying a stick of any sort.

From the day the words "axis of evil" first passed through the president's lips, the administration has consistently and bizarrely followed a policy of implying that the United States has a long-term ambition of to overthrow the Tehran regime while doing everything in its power to make it impossible for us to actually accomplish this. Faced with unambiguous military threats and a medium-sized window of opportunity in which the threats cannot be carried out, Iranian policymakers are doing what anyone with a functioning brain would do: try to take advantage of the window to build the nuclear weapons that will eliminate any long-term American threat. The "charitable" explanation, if you can call it that, for the administration's behavior is that they're once again elevating domestic politics over national security and have been trying to gain partisan advantage over the Democrats. The uncharitable explanation is that they're just really, really, really dumb.