What to watch for in that speech tonight

So, we already know what that man in the White House is going to say on national TV tonight – the guts of it anyway:  Troop levels in Iraq will be dialed back — but not till summer of next year, and only to pre-"surge" levels, and only if certain unspecified measures of "progress" are met.

The president’s handlers let that news spill out late Tuesday afternoon, and the timing was no accident, coming shortly after the unintended highlight from Gen. Petraeus’s two days of testimony – when he booted a simple question about whether a successful outcome in Iraq will make America safer.  (And how telling it was that the question was asked by Virginia GOP senator John Warner – who just announced his retirement and thus no longer gives a damn about who he might offend by asking impertinent questions.)  Announcing the troop plan in time for the 6:30 network newscasts and the prime-time cable yakfests made anything Petraeus said a secondary story.

But that doesn’t mean the president won’t make any news tonight.  Recall his speech in January, when he announced the “surge” in the first place.  The outlines of the plan were well known by the time he made the speech.  But this key section of the speech was not:

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenges. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

We're also taking other steps to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests in the Middle East. I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence-sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies. We will work with the governments of Turkey and Iraq to help them resolve problems along their border. And we will work with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region.

So this is what to look for tonight: New and more dramatic threats against Iran.

As we explained a couple of weeks ago, the Vice President’s office has launched a fresh bomb-Iran propaganda campaign to coincide with 9/11.  That said, it hasn’t been as dramatic as I had anticipated.  Some scattered headlines here and there, but Petraeus made no new spectacular allegation about Iran mucking things up in Iraq.  He did, however, say all the right things from the White House’s viewpoint in an interview Monday with Fox’s Brit Hume (who also said all the right things from the White House’s viewpoint):

HUME: Do the rules of engagement that you're operating under allow you do to what you think you need to do to suppress this activity on the part of Iran, or perhaps do you need assistance from military not under your command to do this?

PETRAEUS: They allow us to do what we need to do inside Iraq.

HUME:Is that enough in your view?

PETRAEUS: Well, that's what I'm responsible for, and again, when I have concerns about something beyond that, I take them to my boss . . . and in fact, we have shared our concerns with him and with the chain of command, and there is a pretty hard look ongoing at that particular situation.

HUME: That sounds pretty disturbing, Ambassador Crocker — that we are confronting with Iran now a situation where it doesn't appear that we have any diplomatic possibilities to suppress this activity by Iran, or do we?

On Wednesday, Fox followed this up with a story about extensive plans underway for an attack on Iran, backed up not by idle speculation but by some real news:

Germany — a pivotal player among three European nations to rein in Iran's nuclear program over the last two-and-a-half years through a mixture of diplomacy and sanctions supported by the United States — notified its allies last week that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel refuses to support the imposition of any further sanctions against Iran that could be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.  [Editor’s note: So much for all the talk about Frau Merkel being more “pro-American” than Gerhard Schroeder.]

Consequently, according to a well-placed Bush administration source, "everyone in town" is now participating in a broad discussion about the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with the likely timeframe for any such course of action being over the next eight to 10 months, after the presidential primaries have probably been decided, but well before the November 2008 elections.

The discussions are now focused on two basic options: less invasive scenarios under which the U.S. might blockade Iranian imports of gasoline or exports of oil, actions generally thought to exact too high a cost on the Iranian people but not enough on the regime in Tehran; and full-scale aerial bombardment.

On the latter course, active consideration is being given as to how long it would take to degrade Iranian air defenses before American air superiority could be established and U.S. fighter jets could then begin a systematic attack on Iran's known nuclear targets.

There was a time I thought it impossible for the White House to order an attack on Iran in 2008; while it would undoubtedly garner the support of the deluded and bloodthirsty one-third of the nation that still believes Saddam had a hand in 9/11, the qualms and/or hostility of the other two-thirds would surely tank the prospects of the Republican presidential nominee, whoever it might be.  But two things have changed, one of which the Fox story hints at:

  1. Many states have moved up their presidential primaries to February.  So compared to years gone by, there’ll be a bigger gap between the time the major party nominees are decided and the time people who aren’t political junkies start paying attention to the general election campaign, around Labor Day.  The White House may well figure it can squeeze an Iran campaign into this window (for surely the president’s men are counting on another cakewalk, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) and face no electoral consequences.
  2. The chances of a Republican winning the general election are considerably less than they were even a few months ago.  The White House could figure there’s nothing to lose by attacking in ’08 – even if it does get messy.

And there’s that whole delusions-of-grandeur thing with the president fancying himself another Churchill, or at least Harry Truman – unloved in office but lionized decades later.  Forget any lame duck talk: A man who has that much certainty about his place in history (and his rectitude in the eyes of God), is capable of much mischief in the next 16 months.