As John Bolton, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, has said, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran was not an intelligence document. It was a political ploy—large, and awkward, from having been hashed through 16 intelligence bureaucracies, and yet focused on depriving the Bush administration of any justification for threatening Iran. Careful reading will reveal that the authors have covered their collective backsides against any eventuality. Having declared in the headline that Iran gave up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003, they quietly observe that Iran’s civilian nuclear energy program does, in fact, keep the weapons option alive, and they declare only “moderate confidence” that Iran hasn’t resumed its nuclear weapons program.

Spokesmen for the U.S. intelligence establishment, both on and off the record, echo the very senior John Kerr, who told the media, “We feel confident in our analytic tradecraft and resulting analysis in this estimate.” We have not heard them so confident since they were making unequivocal statements about Saddam Hussein’s holdings in WMD.

Three anti-Iraq war Democrats were among the NIE’s most prominent drivers. But their participation was never challenged, and all the information I have suggests the Bush administration connived in cuckolding itself.

The reasons are plain enough. The less obvious emerged for me in e-mail with several Bush loyalists, making the best case they could that the president was doing something clever through the NIE. On this view, Mr. Bush has bought into it as a kind of gambit, thinking he is forcing Arab quasi-allies, who are terrified of Iran, to be more cooperative with the United States; and encouraging the Europeans and Canadians to carry a bigger share of the defence burden and diplomatic heat, that America has been carrying disproportionately. The criticism of western allies who let the U.S. do all their dirty work, and reserve to themselves the luxury of nit-picking U.S. policy, is quite justified, and should shame us.

But if, indeed, the U.S. is tired of playing Atlas, strictly American interests dictate some other method for passing the ball. The sight of the American will, crumpling, only sends us scurrying for safety.

An American refusal to take the lead in confronting Iran will not pull the “frontline” Gulf States closer to America. Instead, it pushes them into making accommodations with Iran that they would not otherwise have to make, and thus directly advances Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.

The Iranians are publicly gloating about the NIE. It has obviously solidified the interests, within Iran, of the most adventurous factions around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is a fairly strict rule in Middle Eastern diplomacy: Never let your enemy gloat. It means you’re encouraging him to do something stupid. And his stupid will quickly translate into your pain.

My sense is that the positive commentary on the NIE, now from the right as well as left of the U.S. media spectrum, is whistling in the wind. The comparison that comes to my mind is inevitably Munich, from where Neville Chamberlain returned promising “peace in our time.” Everyone felt relieved because “now there won’t be a war,” but Churchill said, “we have suffered a terrible defeat without a war.” He was execrated for that, especially by his fellow Tories, rallying around Chamberlain in what seemed his hour of triumph.

The circumstances are not, of course, strictly comparable, nor yet as grim, but the flavour is the same. In the background, people are worried about an economic downturn, about the oil supply and price, and Mr. Bush is naturally trying to avoid saying or doing anything that might shatter consumer confidence. Everyone is relieved that “now there won’t be a war” that drives the price of oil above $200 a barrel. The relief is likely to be short-lived: with luck it may outlast the coming U.S. election season. But what a terrible legacy to the next president.

A better idea of what was at stake comes from Israel. The sense that Israel is being abandoned (like Czechoslovakia) to make America’s life easier has been expressed most succinctly in a long article by Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post, that ought to fill all Washington with alarm. She may be dismissed as over-excited, but the logic of her case is unanswerable, and is borne out in the farcical round of peace talks launched from Annapolis, where Israel, not Hamas, is cast as pariah.

Take this in: the Iranian leadership has publicly fantasized about incinerating Israel, using language that evokes a nuclear holocaust, and yet, the U.S. intelligence establishment, and the U.S. administration that accepts the “objectivity” of its views, shrugs at Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They further shrug at the Israeli intelligence establishment, which is entirely convinced Iran is on the way to aiming plutonium-tipped Shahab missiles at Tel Aviv.

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