It is a particularly irony that meetings ostensibly dedicated to the cause of peace can frequently be used to plan war. President George W. Bush's just completed visit to the Middle East was just such a moment. The ostensible purpose to make peace between Palestinians and Israel was quickly subsumed into a broader agenda to confront Iran, which became the focus of meetings with America's Arab friends during the stops in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates that followed the three days in Israel. Bush's agenda included taking aim at Iran's presumed allies in the region, most particularly Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas, all of whom were criticized during the trip and afterwards. Since his return to Washington, the verbal attacks on Iran and its alleged "interference" in the Persian Gulf have continued unabated. The revelation that many aspects of so-called Straits of Hormuz incident on January 6th were largely after-the-fact inventions of the Pentagon has not diminished the fury being directed at Tehran by the Administration and by the Republican presidential candidates, one of whom suggested that if the Iranians had come any closer to the US vessels he would have sent them up to paradise as martyrs to sample the virgins that they had been promised.
Sources in Washington believe that while he was in Israel Bush gave the green light to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority to take on and destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip, using whatever means are necessary. Israel needed little urging and has only been restrained at all because of its concern that large numbers of civilian casualties would be bad for its public image. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, would also welcome the demise of Hamas, but he knows full well that he does not have the resources to address the problem. The result has been a series of major Israeli air attacks on Gaza that have killed twenty-seven Palestinians in the past ten days, many of whom have been civilians. In November, after the Annapolis Peace Conference, there was a similar surge in which thirty-two Palestinians were killed by the Israelis. There is no sign that the rising death toll has in any way weakened Hamas.
One would have thought that both Israel and the United States, not to mention Mahmoud Abbas, would have finally realized that there is no military solution to Hamas in Gaza, but the newer, more robust attitude is a product of the resurgence of Vice President Dick Cheney and the neocon hawks that surround him. Cheney and his friends are again planning to attack Iran before Bush leaves office. The Vice President's ability to dictate White House foreign policy went into decline last year when a series of articles appeared in The Washington Post detailing how he was the main force behind many administration policies, not the president. President Bush was reportedly miffed by the implication that he was a political lightweight compared to his deputy and he shifted his support to the more moderate policies being promoted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.
Cheney's success at reassuming control over the foreign policy process came through exploitation of President Bush's mistrust of the intelligence community, which he has long seen as hostile to his interventionist policies. That the intelligence community works for the president and is structured with so many checks and balances that it would be incapable of playing such a role has long been irrelevant as the administration and its cheerleaders have sought to find a convenient scapegoat for its foreign policy disasters. The release of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran in early December provided the critical wedge issue that enabled Cheney to shift the president in a more bellicose direction. As the estimate made a case that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program, it was widely seen as contradictory to the administration policy which has sought to demonize Iran and set it up for regime change. Bush, an immoderately stubborn man at the best of times, was not about to let facts change his thinking.
During President Bush's just concluded visit to the Middle East, this process of distancing from the intelligence agencies culminated in the president's telling both Prime Minister Olmert and the Saudis that the NIE did not influence his thinking about Iran. At one point, he said "I defended our intelligence services, but made it clear that they're an independent agency; that they come to conclusions separate from what I may or may not want." Bush also told Olmert that an Israeli intelligence assessment, which detailed the threat posed by Iran and claimed that the weapons program is again up and running, more closely matched his own assessment. The Bush claim that the intelligence community is somehow independent of the government of which it is apart is, of course, completely absurd, but it is symptomatic of the thinking of Cheney and his supporters.
Bush and Cheney are now back on track for a program of bringing American democracy to the Middle East through force of arms if necessary. When the Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and senior CIA analysts briefed Vice President Cheney about the potential blowback coming from a military confrontation with Iran early in January, Cheney was dismissive, responding that the US could handle any consequences. The Vice President, who has reportedly been regularly disparaging US intelligence assessments at National Security Council meetings, has taken the position that CIA and the intelligence community have been getting "payback" for their being blamed for the poor intelligence that contributed to the invasion of Iraq and have been quite deliberately undermining American policy on Iran.
Both McConnell and General Michael Hayden of CIA have been frustrated by the hostility coming from the White House. They have reluctantly come to the conclusion that Cheney is intentionally and deliberately denigrating US intelligence agencies through his allies at the neocon dominated Washington think tanks. He has also been personally promoting the critical media campaign against the NIE assessment, which has been concentrated in the usual neocon house organs, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and Fox News.
According to intelligence sources in Washington, Vice President Cheney has again begun to urge Bush to act against Iran before the end of his presidency. Cheney has suggested that if the Israelis act against Iran, the US will be implicated in the attack and would have no choice but to join Tel Aviv in taking military action. The resurgence of Cheney and the instability arising from Bush's attempts to reinvigorate the faltering anti-Iran Arab coalition has alarmed several senior members of the American intelligence community who are now backing away from their optimistic assessment that the NIE on Iran ensured the US would not attack Iran. Many now believe Bush has agreed in principle with Cheney that military conflict with Iran must be initiated before the next President takes office.