Iran NIE: Why Must Bush Agree?

There's been a lot of thoughtful commentary on the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran released December 3, and I mention it in my forthcoming Creators Syndicate column. The NIE includes its authors' assessments of the motivation of the mullah regime, such as:

"Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

Some commentators seem to assume that the president is bound to accept the NIE authors' assessment. This strikes me as importantly wrong--and contrary to democratic theory. We have a choice of candidates for president, and we choose the one who comes closest to sharing our view on issues, including the character of the threats the nation faces. Americans chose Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 because they shared his view that it was important that Britain resist Nazi Germany. Other candidates on offer during the selection process--Robert Taft, for example--did not share that view. In the 1930s, British Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain believed that Hitler could be appeased and war avoided. Winston Churchill--and few others--took the opposite view. It turned out that Churchill was right, and in 1940, when the Labor Party indicated it would no longer support Chamberlain, Churchill became prime minister. In the 1970s Jimmy Carter famously changed his assessment of the leaders of the Soviet Union: In his first year in office he decried the "inordinate fear of communism," but after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he found that fear not to be "inordinate."

Assessing the motives of unfriendly leaders should not be subcontracted out to career civil servants, like the NIE authors. The NIE is not a legal opinion that the president is legally bound to follow.

Are Iran's leaders taking a "cost-benefit approach," as the NIE authors estimate? Or are they seeking to destroy Israel and the United States, as some of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's comments indicate? We have no way of being sure. The NIE authors are presumably making their best guess, and the president and citizens may want to give it respectful attention. But they are under no obligation to agree.

By Michael Barone