When Don Rumsfeld ruled over the Department of Defense, articles from the Daily Telegraph (and the Jerusalem Post) would often be featured in the Pentagon’s daily “Early Bird” compilation of important news stories that was then distributed throughout the national-security bureaucracy. Since Rumsfeld’s departure, however, the frequency with which Telegraph articles have appeared has diminished sharply, a measure, I believe, of the degree to which Robert Gates and his principal aides consider the publication credible, as opposed, say, to yet another media megaphone through which neo-conservatives and other hawks could shout their views and wage their “war of ideas” against liberals and other assorted enemies.
Now, the Telegraph has offered a soapbox to John Bolton who, consistent with his views of the past four or five months, still believes that George W. Bush will not order an attack on Iran before he leaves office, but also now argues that Israel will do so between the November elections and the inaugural of the new president, particularly if that president is Sen. Obama. “With McCain they might still be looking at a delay” beyond the inauguration, Bolton told the newspaper. “But, [g]iven that time is on Iran’s side, I think the argument for military action is sooner rather than later absent some other development.”
(Bolton also insists that the Arab world would be privately “pleased” by such an attack, although, given his acute cultural sensitivity, I have no idea how he might reach such a conclusion, particularly given recent polling data, as well as the consistent and unequivocal statements of opposition to any attack (least of all one by Israel) by top Arab leaders, most recently in the Washington Post by Jordan’s King Abdullah.)
The interview with Bolton comes on the heels of the New York Times’ (somewhat credulous) account of Israeli military exercises over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece last week which was depicted as a trial run for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. That report, which has traveled through the global media at the speed of light, has obviously added to speculation regarding Israel’s intentions and Washington’s attitude.
Unfortunately, neither the Telegraph article nor Bolton addresses whether Israel would seek a green light from Washington before carrying out such an attack and whether, if it did, the Bush administration would offer one — a key point given the fact that Israeli warplanes would almost certainly have to traverse U.S.-controlled Iraqi air space to get to their targets. Most analysts believe that Israel is most unlikely to act without some sign of U.S. approval in light of the enormous consequences — economic, as well as military and political — that would almost certainly ensue from such an action. And, of course, if Washington went along, then it would clearly be considered an accomplice, which, accordingly, raises the question why, under those circumstances, it wouldn’t itself take part. (The Telegraph notes that Bill Kristol still holds out hope that Bush himself will order an attack, particularly if Obama wins the election.)
I believe it is increasingly clear that if there is going to be an attack on Iran — be it Israeli or U.S. or both — before Bush leaves office, it will take place in the period between the election and the inauguration. And I also agree that an attack is more likely if Obama wins the election than if McCain win. That said, however, I still believe an attack is more of a possibility than a probability and that what we are seeing in the ongoing flurry of threats, predictions, and leaks is more psychological warfare directed at persuading Iran, Russia, China, and Washington’s European allies that war is really going to happen unless Tehran halts its uranium enrichment program than it is the real thing. As one former senior U.S. Middle East intelligence officer noted today, the Israelis have long relied on the element of surprise in their military strategy (see last December’s attack on the alleged Syrian nuclear facility), and advertising their intentions quite as ostentatiously as they have been does not appear consistent with that record. Indeed, using Bolton in the Telegraph as a channel for scaring the Iranians, if, indeed, the Israelis put him up to it, would seem counter-productive.
Still, this drumbeat of threats, which shows no signs yet of diminishing, carries with it its momentum that not only strengthens hard-liners in both camps, but also makes the situation on the ground far more tense and volatile. So, regardless of actual intention, the chances of war breaking out accidentally appear to be on the rise.