Taking Down the NIE

Published February 7, 2008

National Review Online

The biggest story of the 2008 campaign so far may not be the fall or rise of any candidate, but the quick and quiet decline of the war on terror as a bone of political contention. Supposedly, the terror war is yesterday's news, and in any case a losing issue for the Republicans in 2008. Yet this newly congealing conventional wisdom is mistaken. Republicans can win this election on national security. In fact, with its cover story this week, The Economist has dropped the winning argument into Republican laps, if only we have the guts and smarts to use it.

The success of the surge and the media's aversion to that success have driven Iraq from the front pages. Putting aside the question of media bias, the fact is, Americans are weary of Iraq, and tired as well of our internal battles over the war. The public may be relieved at Iraq's comparative turnaround, yet there's still a feeling that the war was a mistake — or at least enough of a problem to cast doubt on hawkish solutions.

Still, the public worries about the perilous state of the world. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the vision of a chaotic, nuclear-armed Pakistan falling into Islamist hands electrified Americans and reminded them of the stakes in the overall war against terror. The public understands that Islamist extremism in a world of nuclear proliferation is still the greatest threat to our safety. Even so, Americans remain weary of what seem like ill-chosen battles, and eager for a break from having to think about war at all. That is the reality of our current mood — which doesn't mean the war can't return as an issue, only that there has to be a good reason.

Well, there is a good reason, and it's called Iran. Of course, last December's National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), by claiming that Iran has long-since abandoned its nuclear weapons program, effectively took the Bush administration's military option in Iran off the table, thereby letting the air out of national security as a campaign issue. Rudy Giuliani's ill-fated release of a campaign ad on the Iranian threat, just as the NIE report broke, marked the moment of political transition. Since then, Iran has been AWOL from our public debates, and with it the most fateful and pressing decision in the broader war against terror.

There's just one problem. The NIE report is misleading and mendacious nonsense. What's more, our very hardly-neocon European allies are just now waking up to that fact. The Economist's “Has Iran Won?” cover story (consisting of both an opinion piece and an extended issue briefing) makes it clear that the clean bill of health so misleadingly granted Iran by the NIE has effectively unraveled five years of painstaking European diplomacy. According to The Economist, the NIE report was a huge mistake — an intellectually distorted product that has not only left Europe's diplomats angry and despondent but has killed the once genuine prospect of cooperation from Russia and China, and left Iran in position for a nuclear breakout during the next presidential term. The title of The Economist's extended analysis gives a feel for this remarkable cover story: “As the enrichment machines spin on: How America's own intelligence services have brought international policy on Iran to the edge of collapse.”

The emerging diplomatic disaster spawned by the NIE report, which is increasingly recognized as misleading, raises the prospect of flipping the current political dynamic. The NIE had seemed to confirm the dovish Democratic line: Fears of Iran are greatly exaggerated. So let's drop our guns, hand the problem back to the diplomats (especially those helpful Europeans), and concentrate on domestic issues instead.

Yet, as the truth about the NIE report emerges from decidedly non-neocon sources like The Economist, it's increasingly clear that the real NIE story is actually a Republican warning come true. Dovish intelligence analysts eager to discredit the administration and tie its hands have not only distorted and betrayed the truth about Iran, they have undercut and infuriated the very European diplomats America's doves look to for approval and assistance. The NIE lied. Europe's peacemakers cried. Seizing on this story could bring national security back into the heart of this election campaign — and for all the right reasons.

No one's saying the NIE's author's intended to harm America or to help Iran get the bomb. This is more a “shoot-yourself-in-the-foot” narrative than a “stab-in-the-back” one, where ham-handed attempts by dovish bureaucrats to influence policy ended up distorting intelligence and inadvertently harming the West's diplomatic efforts. The Economist calls the NIE an “own goal,” as when a soccer player accidentally scores against his own team. The upshot is that it's not the hawks, but bureaucratic doves, who can justly be accused of distorting intelligence for political reasons. Nor is The Economist shy about pointing up how Democrats have foolishly allowed their opposition to the president to play into Iranian hands: “Presuming Mr. Bush's guns to be now truly spiked, his critics at home are cheering along with the Iranians.” Up to now, the NIE report has killed Iran as a campaign issue. Yet The Economist's cover story shows that the NIE report itself is the issue — and a winning one for Republicans.

Calling for a preemptive strike on Iran may be a losing political play right now — but the Republican nominee need not do that. Yes, we've got to put at least the possibility of a strike against Iran back on the table. Keeping the military option alive is actually the best way to stop Iran's bomb, short of war. This ought to have been obvious before, but it's now been proven in practice. The collapse of our military option in Iran — thanks to the NIE's distortions — has destroyed our diplomatic option, as well. That fact creates a genuinely teachable foreign-policy moment.

We've heard it claimed that Europe's vaunted soft power actually depends upon the hard fact of American military protection. Europe's emerging diplomatic disaster on Iran proves it. Take America's military option in Iran off the table, and the Iranians will have their bomb — quite possibly before the end of the next presidential term. The best way to “give peace a chance” in Iran is to keep a realistic threat of war in reserve. A Republican nominee ought to be able to say this, without claiming that war is inevitable. On the contrary, the point is that only a tough stand on force has any hope of solving the crisis by purely diplomatic means.

When I hear Democrats enthusing privately about this election, one of their thrills is imagining how impressed our European allies will be to see a bunch of supposed American troglodytes electing a woman or an African-American as president. That'll show those Europeans how sophisticated we are! The problem is that the West doesn't need another Europe. What the West really needs is an American tough cop who can place an iron fist inside Europe's velvet glove. That, of course, is precisely what Republicans supply.

Not that The Economist is calling for a tougher Iran policy. On the contrary, exasperated as The Economist may be by the NIE fiasco, the magazine is now seemingly prepared to give away the store. The Economist wants the administration to drop its dema
nd that Iran stop enriching uranium before talks get under way, then quickly offer the mullahs a “grand bargain” for an overall peace. They remain skeptical of a deal, however, since they grant that Iran is in no mood to negotiate, and is in any case likely to use drawn-out talks as a cover to finish its bomb.

Yet it's certainly impressive that so relatively dovish a magazine now confirms conservative complaints about the NIE in every other respect. In contrast to the NIE, The Economist is clear that the real threat from Iran is not the supposedly suspended weaponization program, which can quickly be restarted and completed, but the uranium-enrichment program that Iran is carrying out in open defiance of the world. “Whether by accident or design,” says The Economist, “the [NIE] report was written in such a way that allowed the finding about weaponisation to suck attention away from the uranium work….” The Economist even takes International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei to task for undercutting U.N. diplomacy, and for perhaps even hiding the truth about Iran's nuclear plans — all for the sake of frustrating America's hawks. And the magazine's reporting is clearly based on extensive discussions with European diplomats deeply angered by what they view as a seriously distorted and damaging intelligence report.

Given this, an aggressive attack on the NIE by the Republican nominee can successfully bring national security back into the center of campaign 2008. Whether the Republican standard-bearer is John McCain or not, the nominee will not have President Bush's credibility problem on intelligence issues. What's more, the demonstrably misleading and diplomatically disastrous NIE will not survive sustained scrutiny. Not only will an aggressive Republican attack on the NIE effectively revive the Iran issue, it will teach a powerful lesson about the dangers of overenthusiastic dovishness.

If the Republican nominee does go after the NIE, what will the Democrats say in response? If the Dems defend the report, they'll look bad, because the NIE is in truth deeply misleading and has severely damaged international diplomacy on Iran. Even The Economist says so. National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell distanced himself from his own agency's findings just this Tuesday. If, on the other hand, the Democrats should agree that the NIE has some serious problems, Republicans still come out on top.

If either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama agreed with the Republican nominee that the Iranian threat is far more real and proximate than the NIE report implies, that would be major news, and would surely return the Iran issue to the heart of the campaign. The Republican nominee would then have the advantage. Better still, general agreement from both nominees that the NIE report is flawed would simultaneously put the military option back on the table and kick-start our failing efforts to solve the Iran problem without force. That would be very good indeed, and not just for the Republicans, but for the country as a whole.

So in effect, the willingness of the Republican nominee to openly and aggressively challenge the NIE report would give a real-time demonstration of how toughness in the war on terror brings results. Whether the Democrats run a “grand bargain” strategy or an “I'm tough, too” gambit in reply, this is a game they can't win.

Ultimately, however, the real reason that the NIE report is a winning issue is that the threat of a nuclear Iran is all-too-real. The Economist reports that the Iranians could have enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb by 2009, the very first year of the new president's term, and by 2010–2015 at the latest. The Iran bomb issue is therefore likely to dominate the next administration. Given that, our presidential nominees have both a right and an obligation to explain how they intend to handle this issue.


— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an NRO contributing editor.

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