A generation ago, the Iranian hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter and the Democrats the White House. Now, 26 years later, another Iranian hostage crisis threatens to do the same thing to George W. Bush and the Republican Party.
By Howard Fineman
In 1979, young Islamic radicals (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been one of them) imprisoned 52 Americans in Teheran for 444 humiliating days. Today, the whole world is hostage—not only to Iran’s fanaticism but, ironically, to America’s diminished power, and the president’s diminished standing, in the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
A nuclear-weaponized Iran is every sane person’s worst nightmare. And yet talking to politicians, diplomats and military types here, you get the sense that President Bush is trapped in every direction. A “war president” can’t launch a strike if the country isn’t behind him, if the likely costs in blood and treasure are obviously too high, and if voters are dubious about the benefits—in terms of their own safety—of the battles he’s already chosen to fight.
For as long as I’ve known him, Bush has liked to muse aloud about his theory of “political capital.” His dad’s mistake, he told me more than once, was to have not spent the vast political capital he accumulated in 1991 as the “liberator of Kuwait”—a failure that led, in his son’s mind, to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992.
After the attacks on 9/11, after the successful (and globally popular) obliteration of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and after the midterm congressional elections of 2002, President Bush was sitting in the White House with a colossal pile of military, diplomatic and political capital in front of him. And then he pushed the entire pile to the middle of the poker table and bet it all on his predetermined decision to invade Iraq. I said at the time and still believe that it was one of the most momentous decisions any president had ever made.
Now, and largely as a consequence, Bush finds himself bereft of political capital at precisely the moment when he (and the rest of the world) needs it most. To use his father’s terms (from his 1989 inaugural address), we have neither the will nor the wallet to take care of business in and with the bullies in Iran.
Here’s how the president is boxed in:
In terms of public opinion, Bush is at the low point of his presidency, not just in terms of job-approval ratings but—more dangerously—in terms of the kind of personal qualities for which people used to give him credit and leeway. Forget what the Democrats think—they don’t matter until, well, they do. And forget the vast majority of hard-core Republicans, who will stick with this president almost no matter what, and certainly as they scare themselves silly with visions of what a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency would look like.
What matters is that independent, swing voters—and some moderate Republicans belong in that category—have become deeply skeptical of the president’s credibility, competence and motives. They’re the ones who’ve pushed his ratings down to the regions previously occupied by Carter, Nixon and LBJ.
Unlike Iraq, a country cobbled together by the Great Powers in the early 20th century, Iran is the major leagues, in history, unity and population if not, as of this minute, in homegrown nuclear technology. Saddam Hussein was a bellicose character, but Iran has four times the population and several thousand more years of unified national identity. Iran also has big-league ballistic missiles capable of reaching, and ruining, lots of places in the Middle East region, including Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Iran also has millions of Shia allies in Iraq who would regard (and be asked to regard) an attack on Iran as an attack on Shia Islam. One retired general I checked in with (who asked to remain unidentified because he sometimes is called on for counsel by the administration) says that American troops in Iraq—who’ve been working in many ways with the Shiite majority there—would risk coming under attack by them, especially if there was any effort to redeploy them.
I’m told by someone who used to work for him that Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is as convinced of the seriousness of the case against Iran as he was dubious about the one against Iraq. The same European powers who were so reluctant to join with the American effort in Iraq are at least talking a tougher game on Iran. The genuine concern at the United Nations, paradoxically, will require that the U.S. work more closely with the international body. As he assembled the “Coalition of the Willing,” Bush essentially dismissed the U.N. as weak and accommodationist. But now the U.N. looks like a useful, if not indispensable, tool. And once you acknowledge the primacy of the U.N., you’ve got to stick with it, which gives something akin to veto power to the Russians and the Chinese.
Spot oil prices are at $69 a barrel—almost double what they were in the two years before we went to Iraq. Leave aside for a moment the possibility that the Iranians would fire missiles at the Saudi oil fields, the worldwide petroleum choke point. Leave aside the likelihood of stepped up sabotage in Iraq. Opening another battlefield in the region would surely send prices skyrocketing. If the GOP gets hammered in this fall’s congressional elections—and it looks increasingly like they will—gasoline prices could well be one reason.
Rooting out Iranian Islamofascists who bankroll and threaten the world with terror attacks: important. Being able to gas up your family’s fleet of cars: priceless.