This Dog Won't Wag

Put aside completely the merits of starting a war with Iran, which is easy to do since there are none. Does the White House really believe that it can help itself politically by doing this? Do the people who have alienated this country and decimated another actually think that they can get away with this -- that the natural order would assert itself, and that the people would respond in the usual rallying way if the president went on prime-time television to announce the commencement of air strikes?

The two most recent polls I found on the question suggest a resounding no. There's a CNN poll from nearly a month ago that asks people about "military action" against Iran; 26 percent said they would favor it, and 68 percent said they'd oppose. There's also a more recent CBS survey that asked people to choose among "military action now," "diplomacy now," and "not a threat." Just 21 percent supported military action, while 57 percent backed diplomacy and 14 percent said Iran was not a threat (they're wrong, I think).

A population so disposed won't easily be flipped, especially by an administration with this track record. And it's numbers like these that have made me a skeptic on the Iran question. Any White House knows that you can't launch a war with numbers like that.

Indeed, this very White House faced skepticism about Iraq in early and mid 2002. Then commenced the marketing campaign of which Andy Card so famously spoke after Labor Day 2002: the television appearances, the ominous warnings about mushroom clouds, the Cincinnati speech, and the notorious sixteen words. Public opinion changed. Even this administration knew that it needed 50-percent-plus-one behind it before it could go into Iraq.

So the point, for the White House, is to move the numbers on Iran. That requires a new "marketing campaign," and sure enough, it started in earnest this past weekend, with the leak to the Times about Iran supplying the EFPs to Shia insurgents in Iraq. Reading that story was a vertiginous experience. It reminded me precisely of reading about the aluminum tubes back in September 2002. The author of the EFPs piece, Michael R. Gordon, was a co-author with Judy Miller on the tubes article, an irony noted here and there. (Gordon also endorsed the surge in a January appearance on Charlie Rose's show, which earned him a reprimand from his superiors.)

Juxtaposed, the polls and the Times piece describe well the razor's edge we're currently dancing on. The polls reflect the sensible conclusion of the American people. Only the real hard-shellers at this point -- about a quarter of the population -- want to go Strangelove on Iran. The rest understand they've been lied to repeatedly and wouldn't trust this bunch to help their mother up off the street if she were lying in front of a bus.

But how about among the national media? If elite media people were polled by CNN or CBS, what do we think the percentages would be? We start with the prominent avowed conservatives who've supported or at least defended almost everything the administration has done (there are a small number of exceptions). Toss in an unrepentant liberal hawk or three, and reporters like Gordon whose appetites for war are fed by their appetites for "scoops" that make the case for war, and I suspect we're well above 25. Ditto the Washington foreign-policy establishment.

And that, in domestic political terms, may end up as the crucial difference between Iraq and Iran. With a full-scale ground war that asked parents and spouses to endorse risking the lives of their loved ones, the Bush officials knew they had to win broad public support. But with targeted air strikes, they might feel that as long as enough talking heads are on television defending whatever they do, they'll have cover.

Iran is a serious problem. I shouldn't even need to clear my throat by saying it. But it's also self-evident that any act of war would stand a very good chance of turning a serious problem into a catastrophic one.

The Bush administration invites its final demise if it repeats its arrogant errors of the past and moves aggressively against Iran. Far from a rallying around the president, I suspect there will be thunderous outrage, unless circumstances -- the real circumstances, as opposed to the ginned-up ones -- are indisputably shown to have warranted military action.

I can't believe they'd do it. But then, they've done a lot of things I couldn't believe.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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