In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush told Richard Clarke to figure out whether Saddam Hussein had a hand in the attacks. When Clarke resisted -- he'd already looked and determined that there was no Iraqi involvement -- he says that the president barked at him: "Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there's a connection."
Little did we know, but the president was secretly focused on Iran at the time. At least, that's what a U.S. military planner says in the midst of Seymour Hersh's rather alarming report in the latest New Yorker. Sure, the United States is more than three years and 2,500 dead soldiers into a war in Iraq, but the planner says that that other country -- the one with the "n" at the end -- has been at the center of the president's attention from the very beginning. "People think Bush has been focused on Saddam Hussein since 9/11," the planner tells Hersh. "In my view, if you had to name one nation that was his focus all the way along, it was Iran."
Maybe this explains why the Bush administration has bungled a war it never should have started in the first place, but that's not how the planner means it. He means it, apparently, as a way of portraying talk of bombing Iran as part of a carefully constructed plan of diplomatic coercion rather than as the reckless maneuvering of an administration that hasn't left itself a lot of options.
As both Hersh and the Washington Post are reporting, the Bush administration is making plans for what could be a large, preemptive bombing attack on Iran aimed at undermining the Iranian government and preventing it from enriching uranium used in making nuclear weapons. As the Post explains, two different plans are on the table. In one, the United States would strike only at facilities related to Iran's nuclear program. In the other, the United States would use bombs and cruise missiles to hit a wider array of Iranian targets, including the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard and Iranian intelligence, in a broader effort to destabilize the government. Hersh adds another scenario to the mix: "One of the military's initial option plans," he says, calls for the use of a tactical nuclear weapon against underground sites in Iran.
Maybe it's all just talk. One former National Security Council official tells the Post that the bombing plans are probably just a "diplomatic gambit to keep pressure on others that if they don't help solve the problem, we will have to." But Hersh says that the talk is already morphing into action. Relying on the word of current and former U.S. military and intelligence officials, he says that "Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups." A consultant with close ties to the Pentagon tells Hersh that Bush believes that he must do what "no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do," and that "saving Iran" is going to be his "legacy."
A former defense official says that some in the Bush administration believe that "a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government." Hearing that, we couldn't help thinking of Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold's reference to the "zealots" who took the U.S. to war in Iraq. When the former defense official heard it, his first thought was, "What are they smoking?"
You'd think -- as the former defense official apparently did -- that the Bush administration might be taking a once-bitten, twice-shy approach to preemptive war just now. But maybe we're misunderestimating the president again. Maybe he's got it all figured out. See, Iraq may not have had anything to do with 9/11, but the failed war there could serve as a fine base of operations for the one next door. As the Post reports, Pentagon planners are tossing around the idea of launching attacks on Iran from Iraq, but they're wondering -- in what seems like a rare collision with reality -- whether doing so would "exacerbate the political cost in the Muslim world, which would see it as proof that the United States invaded Iraq to make it a base for military conquest of the region."