Iran Out of Ideas

Hey, don’t look at me that way. You know you feel the same way I do. You voted for Bush twice and you never doubted his smarts. He has degrees from Yale and Harvard and he won four straight huge elections — two for governor of Texas and two for President of the United States. This liberal game of acting like he is an obvious buffoon is just nastiness without basis; come to think of it, that about describes their entire ideology. This is sort of The Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse, where the emperor is dressed but everyone laughs that he is naked. Bush comes across generally as quite capable, with periodic gaffes quickly fixed, as competent and articulate as most CEOs.

And yet… and yet… you wish — like I do — he would just once say something so smart, so original, so incisive, so insightful the faces of his detractors would, in the Talmudic phrase, "turn the color of the bottom of a pot." Finally, if you were paying attention, it has happened. Last week’s press conference included a brilliant response to a question about Iran, a one-liner that subtly mocked the premise of the questioner. It restored my confidence in a bright and engaged leader.

Here is the story. He was asked by a reporter if he was certain the Iranian weaponry seeping into the Iraqi insurgency was getting there with the blessings of the Iranian government. His answer was an unanticipated bit of salty genius. "Which is worse, if they know or if they don’t know?"

Touche! For too long the debate about Iranian mischief-making has been sidetracked by the question: how can you be sure the government is the culprit? Perhaps there are factions in Iran operating without federal license. Rogue terror networks. Fanatics of various stripes. President Ahmadinejad who says Israel and the West must be destroyed may not actually be trying to destroy them. The ones trying may be people who aren’t saying they’re trying. In which case the President should do nothing.

In one dazzling thrust, the President punctured this absurd conceit. His point is devastating. If there are forces in Iran operating as unilateral NGOs, that is even a worse scenario. The first advantage in an operation, however malevolent, originating from a government body is there are resources short of military might which can be used to effect change. Even the most insolent head of state has a degree of susceptibility to diplomatic or economic pressures. If there are out-of-control hotheads with a sophisticated infrastructure for both procurement and delivery of ordnance, we are in a deeper mess.

Number two, if the government of Iran cannot rein in these elements, because they are either too strong or too elusive, we now have two very troublesome enemies in the same country. The government who opposes us rhetorically and builds nukes while supplying Hezbollah against Israel, and the radicals who are even worse. So for Iran to hide behind an I-don’t-know defense is a palpable absurdity.

These situations turn up a lot in life and the lessons translate well from arena to arena. Look at Cardinal Law in Boston a few years ago, who was presiding over a mare’s nest of abusing priests. His detractors shouted that he was knowingly providing cover for a pack of vicious predators. His defenders said he had been insulated from the problem by his subordinates, who handled it without allowing the information to flow up to the top. There, too, the question applied: “Which is worse, if he knew or if he didn’t know?” Once the charge of malevolence can only be countered by a defense of incompetence, you have arrived at the crossroads between perdition and limbo.

Indeed something like this argument can be applied to the work of the C.I.A. in helping Clinton, Cohen, Bush and Powell form judgments about Saddam Hussein’s unconventional capabilities. The rabid left-wingers say it was a conspiracy to lie. The more reasonable folks write it off as merely staggering incompetence. Neither view is helping agency recruiters excite young people into signing on the dotted line. (Each microdot, of course, containing poison to be licked if the KGB tortures you for the CIA’s top-secret location. The Langley building is a clever front peopled by stooges like Valerie Plame.)

What you tell countries like Iran who export anti-American terrorism is you are holding them responsible. Whether it comes from a stuffy federal building or from a dark basement off an alley, Iran is accountable for anything crossing their border outwards. But why am I giving advice? You and I can sleep easy, counting on that sharp cookie in the White House we voted for two times.