World doesn’t end, Bush suffers blow

On the top of the front page of today’s Washington Post, in response to reports that Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons program, one of the headline reads “A Blow to Bush’s Tehran Policy.” Though perhaps not entirely wrong, this seems like an odd first take on the story — sort of the reverse of the old joke Washington Post headline “World Ends, Independent Counsel Appointed To Investigate.”
If Iran actually has abandoned its program to build nuclear weapons, that’s great news for the Bush administration and just about everyone else. And rather than a blow to Bush policy, this news (if true) should be viewed in the first instance as vindication of the administration — both its use of force in 2003 against a neighbor of Iran’s that was thought to possess WMD and its insistence that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Even former CIA man and Bush administration critic Paul Pillar (my college roommate) told the Post that there’s good reason to see matters this way.
It is true, of course, that the NIE findings have implications for administration policy going forward. They mean, presumably, that there will be no preemptive strike on Iran. But it’s been clear enough for some time that no such strike would occur (in retrospect the administration’s unwillingness in this regard may well have been the result of internal debate about whether the Iranian nuclear weapons program was proceeding). The NIE findings may also make it more difficult to induce powers such as Russia and China into supporting tougher sanctions. But it’s never been very likely that they would support tough sanctions or that such a regime would be effective.
The real problem for the administration and the nation is that one can have little confidence in the accuracy of the NIE’s current assessments. Our intelligence community appears to have been wrong in its key assessments of Iraq’s WMD capability and intentions during the run-up period to both Gulf Wars. And, if the intelligence community is correct about Iran now, then it was wrong in its 2005 assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, an assessment in which it placed high confidence.
As John Bolton told the Post:

While I was in the administration, I saw intelligence march up the hill and down the hill in short periods of time with no reason for them to change their mind. I’ve never based my view on this week’s intelligence.

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