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(Yes, Virginia, there is a game called Axes of Evil.  I kid you not.  — CHS)

What should a country do if it finds itself in an increasingly insecure world but realizes that its President and Vice President and their closest advisors cannot be trusted with protecting the national security? Suppose you've elected an administration that is so completely incompetent that it has bungled almost everything it has done, so belligerant that it has squandered the almost universal international support it enjoyed in the weeks after 9/11 while alienating most of its historic friends and allies, and so dishonest that no one can trust what it says, making it impossible to discern whether any threat the Administration claims to see in Iran (or anywhere else) is real, exaggerated or "hyped" (see General Caldwell, below)? What do you do when you realize that this dangerous combination of incompetence, belligerence and dishonesty is a primary cause of the increasing instability, hatred and distrust in the Middle East and contributing to the threats the nation faces?

That is the unstated dilemma that floated just below the surface all week long, as the Bush Adminstration blundered its way towards a war it claims it is not planning against Iran. And even here, one has to be careful, because the Administration often frames its denials of intent as not planning an "invasion" against Iran, but never answers directly whether it is planning an "attack" on Iran's nuclear or military installations.

The credibility/incompetence/belligerence themes played out all week, beginning with a briefing last weekend by "unidentified" US military officials in Iraq claiming that that they had solid evidence that particularly lethal roadside explosive devices being used to kill US troops were manufactured/coming from Iran and being supplied by an element, the Quds Force, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The source of the IEDs was not news — that had been known since 2003 — but two further claims — that the supply and intent for use against US forces were sanctioned at the highest levels of the Iranian government, and that the devices were responsible for up to 25 percent of US casualties — sparked a round of skepticism and clarifications which were still ongoing in yesterday's Presidential news conference.

Skeptics were quick to note that the NYT front page story of the initial briefing was a mostly uncritical repetition written by Michael Gordon, who was the co-author with Judy Miller of the original uncritical WMD stories, fed to them by senior Administration officials. Among many others, Glenn Greenwald, now at Salon, noted the disturbing similiarities in uncritical reporting, and also linked to Juan Cole, who dissected the plausibility that the claimed percentage of US casualties could be attributed to these devices given all the reports that most casualties were the result of US fights with Sunni insurgents, not the Shiites who were the presumed recipients of Iranian weapons. Other reports picked up on the skepticism, and Atrios took on the confused reporting of CNN's Barbara Starr.

By Wednesday, General Caldwell, who was part of the original briefing, was backing away from any claim that the Iranian government approved/sanctioned the effort, and General Pace, Chairman of the JCS, forced the situation by stating emphatically that he had no direct evidence to support such a claim of Iranian government approval. Faced with a serious credibility problem and reminders of Iraq, the President was forced to clarify in yesterday's presser that while he was certain the Quds Force were supplying the IEDs, and certain that the Quds Force were part of the Iranian Government, we were not claiming that the highest Iranian officials — meaning the the Supreme Leader/Ayotolla — were aware of or sanctioned the effort. The President then assured the nation that his Administration never intended any of the claims to be a pretext for war with Iran; we only meant to explain that if such weapons were being introduced into Iraq, the Commander in Chief had a responsibility to make sure US troops were protected. But what started out as an apparent effort to justify attacks on a country for killing our troops wound up as another demonstration of the Administration's ineptitude and lack of credibility. By the news hour this evening, Secretary Gates and General Pace were blaming this all on the unidentified briefers in Iraq going beyond what had been cleared.

The themes were also present in the Newsweek cover story, Rumors of War, which describes the long and painful history of US-Iranian relations, from repeated interventions, support of dictators, and CIA meddling, to the rise of the Ayatollahs and the seizure of US embassy personnel, to the election of President Ahmadenejad and his repeated threatening statements regarding Israel, and the recent US raids and capture of Iranians in Iraq, some of whom were guests of our increasingly nervous Kurdish allies. But the article also tells another story of a nation that on several occasions tried to reach out to the US:

Yet a NEWSWEEK investigation has also found periods of marked cooperation and even tentative steps toward possible reconciliation in recent years—far more than is commonly realized. After September 11 in particular, relations grew warmer than at any time since the fall of the shah. America wanted Iran's help in Afghanistan, and Iran gave it, partly out of fear of an angry superpower and partly in order to be rid of its troublesome Taliban neighbors. In time, hard-liners on both sides were able to undo the efforts of diplomats to build on that foundation. The damage only worsened as those hawks became intoxicated with their own success. The secret history of the Bush administration's dealings with Iran is one of arrogance, mistrust and failure. But it is also a history that offers some hope.

The article goes on to describe instance after instance of Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan, both in facilitating the overthrow of the Taliban and in helping to stabilize the country and install the interim government afterwards, followed by a sizeable commitment of funds for reconstruction. But this opportunity to transform US relations with Iran was then scuttled by hardliners in the Bush Administration and Iran. Remember when Bush told us that Iran (along with Iraq and North Korea) formed an "axis of evil"? According to Newsweek:

In a pattern that would become familiar, however, a chill quickly followed the warming in relations. Barely a week after the Tokyo meeting, Iran was included with Iraq and North Korea in the "Axis of Evil." Michael Gerson, now a NEWSWEEK contributor, headed the White House speechwriting shop at the time. He says Iran and North Korea were inserted into Bush's controversial State of the Union address in order to avoid focusing solely on Iraq. At the time, Bush was already making plans to topple Saddam Hussein, but he wasn't ready to say so. Gerson says it was Condoleezza Rice, then national-security adviser, who told him which two countries to include along with Iraq. But the phrase also appealed to a president who felt himself thrust into a grand struggle. Senior aides say it reminded him of Ronald Reagan's ringing denunciations of the "evil empire."

Once again, Iran's reformists were knocked back on their heels. "Those who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were marginalized," says Adeli. "The speech somehow exonerated those who had always doubted America's intentions." The Khameini aide concurs: "The Axis of Evil speech did not surprise the Supreme Leader. He never trusted the Americans." [emphasis mine]

Let that sink in a moment. A Bush speech written by Gerson's team almost cavalierly proclaimed Iran our worst enemy, at Condi Rice's suggestion, to avoid singling out Iraq and to make Bush sound like Ronald Reagan. And with that, the Iranian moderates and their hopes for reconciliation were overthrown.

The article goes on to claim that despite this beligerent name-calling, the Iranian leaders continued to make overtures to the US, including cooperation in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But eventually, the White House would again rebuff Iranian efforts at reconciliation, including one facilitated by a Swiss diplomat, an effort reported in June 2006 by the Washington Post. Other articles would pick up on this story, suggesting again that Rice and others in the Bush regime blew an opportunity to reconcile with Iran. Senator Chris Dodd has asked the State Department to explain. But is it any wonder that the Republican Party now finds itself losing influence and support across the board, especially on national security?

It is hard to know what to make of this. We have been conditioned for so long to think of Iran as "the enemy," and the reckless and threatening statements by the Iranian President must be taken seriously. But one cannot help but think that much of the animosity between the two nations never had to happen and is not based on any inherent, irreversible conflict of US and Iranian interests. Were there not more peaceful paths that history could have taken? And if they had been pursued, would they have been sabotaged then, just as neocons like John Bolton and Elliot Abrams are trying to sabotage the agreements with North Korea now?

In the meantime, we have an Administration for whom a policy of waging peace in the Middle East has been missing for six increasingly violent years, but whose incompetence, belligerence and dishonesty make war more likely and “winning” less likely. Our national security may require that we challenge the prevailing assumption that we’re stuck with this dilemma for two more years.