One hears not an encouraging word about US President George W. Bush these days, even from Republican loyalists. Yet I believe that Bush will stage the strongest political comeback of any US politician since Abraham Lincoln won reelection in 1864 in the midst of the American Civil War.

Two years ago I wrote that Bush would win a second term as president but live to regret it. Iraq’s internal collapse and the president’s poll numbers bear my forecast out. But Bush’s Republicans will triumph in next November’s congressional elections for the same reason that Bush beat Democratic challenger John Kerry in 2004. Americans rally around a wartime commander in chief, and Bush will have bombed Iranian nuclear installations by October.

One factoid encapsulates Bush’s opportunity: in a February 14 CNN/Gallup poll, 80% of respondents said they believed that Iran, if it had nuclear weapons, would hand them over to terrorists; 59% said Iran might use nuclear weapons against the United States. A slight majority of those polled, to be sure, did not wish to use military action against Iran, but that should be interpreted as “not yet,” for two-thirds said they worried that the US would not do enough to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Americans are a misunderstood people. Only one in five owns a passport, and a tiny fraction of non-immigrant Americans learns a foreign language. US apathy regarding what might plague the rest of the world is matched only by US bloodlust when attacked. President Bush earned overwhelming support by toppling Saddam Hussein, a caricature villain who appeared to threaten Americans, but earned opprobrium by committing American lives to the political rehabilitation of Iraq, about which Americans care little.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is the sort of villain that Central Casting once sourced for studio film productions in Hollywood. No more than Napoleon Bonaparte could stay away from Russia can Ahmadinejad abandon Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He represents a generation that has bled for its country and its sect for a quarter-century and now has come into its maturity and must demonstrate its mettle. The Revolutionary Guards of 1979 now are middle-aged men who now at last have a chance to lead. Ahmadinejad has salted the regime’s middle ranks with thousands of men like himself.

America’s discomfiture in Iraq provides Iran with an opportunity to restore its regional greatness, the last one for centuries, if not millennia. If Iran stands down as a prospective nuclear power, it faces a rapidly graying population, declining capacity to export oil and discontent among rural folk and the urban poor. The promise of the Islamic Revolution will have melted into mediocrity and cynicism, and the generation of Ahmadinejad will have turned out a damp squib. I made this case half a year ago (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005). And I have predicted a US-led attack on Iran with Western as well as Saudi support all year (Why the West will attack Iran, January 24).

Now we have from Seymour Hersh an instantly celebrated report  in The New Yorker claiming that President Bush is preparing war against Iran, including the prospective use of tactical nuclear weapons. The president, according to one of Hersh’s interlocutors, is “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” and believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.” So broad was the consensus among foreign-policy experts cited by Hersh that the White House had to deny that the use of force was imminent, insisting that it was intent upon a diplomatic solution.

Certainly the use of force is not imminent. Even under the most alarmist estimates Iran cannot field a serviceable bomb during 2006. The Bush administration has considerable time to attempt a diplomatic solution, certainly until the eve of the congressional elections.

To be very precise, I am not accusing the White House of manipulating the Iranian issue for political purposes. On the contrary, if the US president thought only in terms of political consequences he never would have risked so much on the Quixotic quest for Iraqi democracy. Still, Bush has the opportunity to shift the subject away from the unpopular campaign to improve the politics of the Middle East, and back to the extremely popular subject of killing terrorists. He believes (and I am long since on record agreeing) that Washington will have to put paid to Ahmadinejad before very long, and there is no reason not to look for a political benefit as well.

In fact, some of Bush’s supporters are citing my thesis that confrontation with Iran cannot be avoided. In its weekly e-mail newsletter, the Weekly Standard, the most neo-conservative of all US publications, offered the following note by online editor Jonathan V Last:

Iran is a looming crisis, but it’s still far enough away that you can find smart, interesting writing on the topic without having to wade through too much dross. One of the most intriguing writers on Iran over the last several months has been the anonymous “Spengler” from the Asia Times [Online].

Spengler has been arguing for some time now that a Western attack on Iran is nearly inevitable because, he says, Iran’s demographics – the country’s average age is soaring upwards at an alarming rate – are pushing the country toward an attempt to establish a Persian empire:

“Re-engineering the shape of Iran’s population, the central plank of the new government’s domestic program, should be understood as the flip side of Iran’s nuclear coin. Aggressive relocation of Iranians and an aggressive foreign policy both constitute a response to the coming crisis.

“Iran claims that it must develop nuclear power to replace diminishing oil exports. It seems clear that Iranian exports will fall sharply, perhaps to zero by 2020, according to Iranian estimates. But Iran’s motives for acquiring nuclear power are not only economic but strategic. Like [Adolf] Hitler and [Josef] Stalin, Ahmadinejad looks to imperial expansion as a solution for economic crisis at home …

“Iran’s ultra-Islamist government has no hope of ameliorating the crisis through productivity growth. Instead it proposes totalitarian methods that will not reduce the pain, but only squelch the screams. Iran envisages a regional Shi’ite empire backed by nuclear weaponry” [Demographics and Iran’s imperial design].

So what if Spengler is right and a military conflict with Iran is on its way? Blogger Dan McLaughlin noted … something troubling in the way liberals are approaching the possibility of this showdown. McLaughlin pointed us toward the bright and engaging Washington Monthly writer Kevin Drum, who says of Iran: “If Democrats don’t start thinking about how they’re going to respond to this, they’re idiots. We don’t always get to pick the issues to run on. Sometimes they’re picked for us.”

McLaughlin also highlights something Drum wrote last February: “Democrats ought to figure out now what they think about Iran. After all, we’ve got the Ken Pollack book, we’ve got the referral to the Security Council, we’ve got the slam-dunk intelligence, and we’ve got the lunatic leader screaming insults at the United States. Remember what happened the last time all the stars aligned like that?”

So: What would be the Democratic response if (a) Bush asked for an authorization of force against Iran or (b) simply launched an assault without asking Congress? The chances of this coming up as an issue this year are strong enough that it would be foolish not to be prepared to deal with it.

As McLaughlin observes, there’s something troubling in the idea that one of [the US political] parties should be crafting its stance on this subject not by looking through the lens of US policy, but by using the filter of domestic politics.

I am somewhat surprised to find myself quoted so generously in a publication whose views I have treated rather roughly these past three years, and the US president’s political fortunes were far from my mind when I wrote the demographic analysis of Iran’s imperial design. No matter: if conflict with Iran is indeed unavoidable, the Bush administration can re-emerge as a war government rather than as Wilsonian nation-builders, with every expectation of popular support. The Democrats already have begun to game the responses to a US attack on Iran before the election, as Last reports, which is to say that the Republicans have begun to game the Democratic response.

Just as in the 2004 elections, the Democrats will have a losing hand if the White House orders force against Iran. Americans rally behind a wartime leader; the one exception was Vietnam. America’s engagement with Iran would resemble the Bill Clinton administration’s aerial attack on Serbia rather than the Iraq wars, for there is no reason at all to employ ground groups.

God takes care of drunks, small children and the United States of America. Improbably, destiny has a surprise in store for George W. Bush.

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