The Wall Street Journal does not take the same view of the NIE we have. Rather than the public signal of a private rapprochement with Iran, the Journal’s editor think the report merely represents one more major assault on Administration policy by the Intelligence Community’s entrenched left, this time supinely announced from the defeated White House itself.
This interpretation is very pessimistic, and not impossible.
President Bush has been scrambling to rescue his Iran policy after this week’s intelligence switcheroo, but the fact that the White House has had to spin so furiously is a sign of how badly it has bungled this episode. In sum, Mr. Bush and his staff have allowed the intelligence bureaucracy to frame a new judgment in a way that has undermined four years of U.S. effort to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This kind of national security mismanagement has bedeviled the Bush Presidency. Recall the internal disputes over post-invasion Iraq, the smearing of Ahmad Chalabi by the State Department and CIA, hanging Scooter Libby out to dry after bungling the response to Joseph Wilson’s bogus accusations, and so on. Mr. Bush has too often failed to settle internal disputes and enforce the results.
What’s amazing in this case is how the White House has allowed intelligence analysts to drive policy. The very first sentence of this week’s national intelligence estimate (NIE) is written in a way that damages U.S. diplomacy: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Only in a footnote below does the NIE say that this definition of “nuclear weapons program” does “not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”
In fact, the main reason to be concerned about Iran is that we can’t trust this distinction between civilian and military. That distinction is real in a country like Japan. But we know Iran lied about its secret military efforts until it was discovered in 2003, and Iran continues to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, with 3,000 centrifuges, in defiance of binding U.N. resolutions. There is no civilian purpose for such enrichment. Iran has access to all the fuel it needs for civilian nuclear power from Russia at the plant in Bushehr. The NIE buries the potential danger from this enrichment, even though this enrichment has been the main focus of U.S. diplomacy against Iran.
In this regard, it’s hilarious to see the left and some in the media accuse Mr. Bush once again of distorting intelligence. The truth is the opposite. The White House was presented with this new estimate only weeks ago, and no doubt concluded it had little choice but to accept and release it however much its policy makers disagreed. Had it done otherwise, the finding would have been leaked and the Administration would have been assailed for “politicizing” intelligence.
The result is that we now have NIE judgments substituting for policy in a dangerous way. For one thing, these judgments are never certain, and policy in a dangerous world has to account for those uncertainties. We know from our own sources that not everyone in American intelligence agrees with this NIE “consensus,” and the Israelis have already made clear they don’t either. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that Israeli defense officials are exercised enough that they will present their Iran evidence to Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he visits that country tomorrow.
For that matter, not even the diplomats at the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency agree with the NIE. “To be frank, we are more skeptical,” a senior official close to the agency told the New York Times this week. “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.” Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, is also skeptical enough that he wants Congress to establish a bipartisan panel to explore the NIE’s evidence. We hope he keeps at it.
All the more so because the NIE heard ’round the world is already harming U.S. policy. The Chinese are backing away from whatever support they might have provided for tougher sanctions against Iran, while Russia has used the NIE as another reason to oppose them. Most delighted are the Iranians, who called the NIE a “victory” and reasserted their intention to proceed full-speed ahead with uranium enrichment. Behind the scenes, we can expect Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to expand their nuclear efforts as they conclude that the U.S. will now be unable to stop Iran from getting the bomb.
We reported earlier this week that the authors of this Iran NIE include former State Department officials who have a history of hostility to Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. But the ultimate responsibility for this fiasco lies with Mr. Bush. Too often he has appointed, or tolerated, officials who oppose his agenda, and failed to discipline them even when they have worked against his policies. Instead of being candid this week about the problems with the NIE, Mr. Bush and his National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, tried to spin it as a victory for their policy. They simply weren’t believable.
It’s a sign of the Bush Administration’s flagging authority that even many of its natural allies wondered this week if the NIE was really an attempt to back down from its own Iran policy. We only wish it were that competent.
The Guardian thinks the same thing, simultaneously rejoicing over “howling neocons” and patting on the back principal author Thomas Fingar, and co-authors Vann Van Diepen and Kenneth Brill, for effectively neutering the Bush Administration with respect to Iran during its final 13 months in office.