Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as secretary of defense is quickly fading from memory, but yesterday, as his successor shuttled from briefing to hearing, one of Rumsfeld's famous aphorisms came to mind: If you can't solve a problem, enlarge it.
Coming from Gates, it sounded technical rather than slick. "We are beginning to move aggressively to try and identify and root out the networks that are involved in helping to bring Iranian-supplied [bombs] into Iraq," Gates said. If you can't solve Iraq, enlarge it. While you were sleeping, the war with Iran might have begun.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., spotted it. At the end of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Biden looked sternly at the secretary and made one last point: "If the president concluded he had to invade Iran … or Syria in pursuit of these networks, I believe the present authorization granted the president to use force in Iraq does not cover that and he does need congressional authority to do that. … I just want to set that marker."
So, the marker was set, but on the ground, events were already moving ahead of it. On Thursday, U.S. forces raided Iranian targets in Irbil, Iraq, and detained five Iranian officials. As he mentioned in Wednesday night's speech, President Bush has ordered a second aircraft carrier, along with its support ships, to the Gulf. "Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges," said the president. "This begins with addressing Iran and Syria."
It was Albert Einstein who once said, "You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war." A renowned specialist on Iranian affairs, Ali Ansari, concluded, in an interview with Britain's Independent, that Bush's speech amounts to "a declaration of war" on Iran.
No doubt old comparisons will soon be made: If Bush was once Lyndon Johnson and Iraq Vietnam, the president will now become Richard Nixon and Iran will serve as neighboring Cambodia. "Some of us remember 1970, Madam Secretary," Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., told Rice. "And that was Cambodia, and when our government lied to the American people and said we didn't cross the border going into Cambodia, in fact we did."
Some of the reasons for escalation are strikingly similar: supply routes, material support, insurgency sanctuaries. It's a tempting comparison. But it is also misleading, as the president recognized in his speech when he declared, "We will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region." Cambodia never tried to acquire nuclear weapons, nor did it pursue regional dominance.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have talked with people familiar with the meetings four U.S. senators recently had in the Middle East. One of them asked me a question: Can you guess which two meetings were the most similar? I tried and failed, so he gave me the answer: "The meeting with [King] Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia] was the Bedouin version of the meeting with [Israeli opposition leader] Benjamin Netanyahu."
Netanyahu is the most vocal alarmist on Iran, and in the meetings he has with U.S. visitors, he tends to repeat the analogy he uses in public. It's not about Vietnam, and it's not about Cambodia. "This is 1938," he says. "Iran is Germany, and it is about to arm itself with nuclear weapons." The Saudi monarch, I wrote in Ha'aretz, "for whom the Nazi analogy is not his natural domain, expressed exactly the same fear, but in somewhat different words." One of the senators came home with this nagging thought: Is it possible that Iraq is really the secondary issue—and Iran is what policy-makers ought to be worrying about?
National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte expressed his concern during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday: "Iran's influence is rising in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program," he said. If threatened, it might retaliate with terror attacks—with the help of its ally Hezbollah—"against U.S. interests." The rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Greece Friday morning serves as a sobering reminder of the many options terrorist organizations can quite easily pursue.
"The Iranians need to know, and the Syrians need to know," said Rice in yesterday's hearing, "that the United States is not finding it acceptable and is not going to simply tolerate their activities to try and harm our forces or to destabilize Iraq." This drops the ball, yet again, on the Iranian side of the court. It is high noon: If Tehran doesn't stop its nefarious activities—and assuming Washington doesn't go back on its pledge to "not tolerate"—someone, somewhere, is going to pull the trigger.