No doubt the disturbing sound of war drums emanating again from the Pentagon and the White House is meant to discourage Iran from the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Combined with wise diplomatic and economic strategy, the tactical deployment of aggressive noises might help prevent that distant but disturbing prospect from becoming a scary reality someday.
The bulk of evidence indicates that Iran is far from obtaining enough nuclear fuel to build a bomb, despite much alarmism from right-wing advocates of violent "regime change." But just as the threat of military action persuaded Saddam Hussein to admit the United Nations weapons inspectors whose work might have prevented war, the possibility of force could induce the mullahs to meet the West in productive negotiations.
For warning noises to be taken seriously, however, the noisemakers must possess credibility -- and over the past three years, the Bush administration has squandered that precious commodity, along with many lives and much treasure. Having gone to war under the false pretense of preventing a rogue state from obtaining nuclear weapons, President Bush has badly undermined his government's capability to cope with the real thing.
So still another of the nightmare scenarios foreseen by opponents of the Iraq war may now be coming true. The White House hawks bluster about American power, but Bush's war has weakened us politically, diplomatically, militarily and economically in a dangerous world.
The events of recent days -- coinciding inconveniently with news stories about the Pentagon's planning for strikes against Iran -- have put those weaknesses on embarrassing display. While the White House wants to focus attention on the potential peril from Iran, America and the world remain transfixed by the emerging story of the lies that led to war in Iraq.
First came the news that in the aftermath of the invasion, President Bush and Vice President Cheney secretly disseminated misleading snippets from the classified 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged efforts to obtain uranium yellowcake from Niger. By then they knew, or should have known, that those allegations were bogus.
Then the Washington Post revealed that the president had continued to tout the existence of "mobile biological weapons laboratories" in Iraq -- terrifying trailers photographed from space and promoted by Colin Powell in his famous address at the United Nations -- long after those so-called labs were found on the ground to present no threat. White House press secretary Scott McClellan retorted that Bush hadn't lied intentionally. He just didn't know what he was talking about.
Of course, McClellan confronted an unappetizing choice in responding to this problem, which again demonstrates the damage inflicted on our national reputation. The president and his administration's highest-ranking officials either lied repeatedly about what the intelligence showed, or they are all such incompetent managers that their assessments of intelligence are utterly worthless. Under the circumstances, little that they may now say about Iran is likely to be believed, even if it is true.
Those cascading doubts have corroded not only the public support for the Iraq war but the unity that would be essential should the president decide to take military action against another country. Public concern about Bush's leadership and his government was measured this week in another round of plummeting poll ratings.
Aside from the obvious suspicions about why the United States went to war, those numbers reflect the perception that the Bush administration is also lying or deluded about current conditions in Iraq. That worry was bolstered by an official government report, featured on the front page of the New York Times April 9, that described in grim, province-by-province detail how badly the war is going. From the perspective of Tehran, that report indicated how difficult it would be for the United States to mount an invasion of Iran -- and how vulnerable our forces in Iraq would be to attacks by Iran's Shiite allies there.
What may be most damaging to our military credibility -- as distinguished from our diplomatic and political authority -- is the increasingly open restiveness of the officer corps. More retired flag officers spoke out this week to demand the ouster of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has lost the confidence of everyone, it would appear, except the president and the vice president. But the truth is that many, many active-duty officers are equally furious, and they feel alienated from the White House as well as the civilian leaders in the Pentagon. That too leaves us weaker in the eyes of both enemies and allies.
The best way to deal with Iran is to achieve a diplomatic solution that preserves peace. How unfortunate that the strength we might now use to achieve that critical objective has been wasted so recklessly in a war we should have avoided.