A QUESTION I am frequently asked is whether I think the United States will attack Iran before President Bush leaves office in January.
My answer is that I don't think so. But I am not sure.
The logic for not attacking Iran is overwhelming in my view, based on a nonpolitical assessment of the threat it presents America as well as of our current readiness to wage war.
At the same time there still are troubling signs that President Bush, or Vice President Dick Cheney, or the Pentagon generals, or whoever is running Washington, may be thinking about such an attack and starting another large Middle Eastern war.
One reason for this concern is that administration leaders are talking about war against Iran as an option. One theory of such threats is that they are not meant but are simply being made to try to scare Iran off its nuclear program, or to scare America's reluctant allies into trying to bludgeon Iran into halting its nuclear program through economic sanctions.
"Don't worry, it's just the Big Bad Wolf huffing and puffing again," runs this analysis. What other countries really think of such American exhortations was expressed most eloquently by the Indian Foreign Ministry last week in response to U.S. "advice" to India in advance of a visit there by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I draw from the New York Times of April 23. India said it did not need "any guidance on the future conduct of bilateral relations. India and Iran are ancient civilizations whose relations span centuries. Both nations are perfectly capable of managing all aspects of their relationship with the appropriate degree of care and attention."
The second reason for concern that Washington's band of war makers, war profiteers, and their theorist lackeys and flacks might lead our weary country into one more unnecessary war in the Middle East is the experience of the run-up to the Iraq war.
Based on the narrowness of Mr. Bush's Florida "victory" in 2000 and realizing that voters had some basic understanding of Mr. Bush's limited talents, the President's campaign team saw that a second-term victory in 2004 was unlikely unless Mr. Bush was a war president, so the drums began to roll. Iraq appeared increasingly to be cast in the role of loose dog on the parkway and the endless shock and awe began.
Now, roll the clock ahead to the 2008 elections, as seen by a Republican strategist looking to hold onto the White House at almost any cost in spite of the dire state of the economy and of our armed forces.
The Republican candidate is a former Navy pilot and bona fide war hero, albeit his experience is at the tactical level. The Democratic candidate is either young and somewhat inexperienced or a woman who would be hard to mistake for Xena Warrior Princess or G.I. Jane.
Taking America to war again in the final months of the current administration would make the case for electing Mr. McCain - with his white uniform, all those medals, and war-seasoning - just what America needs to lead us in a time of war, gas rationing, and maybe even a draft to soak up all those unemployed from the ruined economy.
What an appealing scenario. How else to get 71-year-old John McCain on the grueling campaign trail one more time other than this prospect of victory? The only question is whether it should be Israel or the United States that bombs the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz to set off the war.
The skeptic says that the Bush Administration couldn't be that irresponsible. But how badly do the Republicans not want to relinquish the White House? How much do they not want a reckoning of the real costs of their eight years in power to the American public?
In considering the price to the country of such a political move, it is important to look at both the current state of U.S. forces and the opportunity costs of such a war against Iran.
It is the conclusion of seasoned uniformed and civilian analysts that our army is broken after five years of war in Iraq. Restoring its equipment to a pre-Iraq war level of readiness will take 10 years.
The manpower situation is disturbing. A report released by Congress April 21 stated that the Army and the Marine Corps had dipped into the ranks of convicted felons in 2007 at double the rate of 2006 to fill recruiting quotas.
The Army received "conduct waivers" for recruits convicted of crimes that include burglary, breaking and entering, rape, sexual assault, and - incredibly - child molestation.
But the White House understands full well that to try to reinstitute the draft would be to bring to an immediate halt its politically and financially profitable war. So what do a few hundred convicted felons wearing our uniform matter?
What about the threat posed by Iran?
First of all, unlike India, Israel, and Pakistan, which have nuclear weapons and have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because they don't want to accept obligatory inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has.
What is more, in a piece of extraordinary candor, theater, or deception, Iran earlier this month hosted a guided tour of Natanz to show off its new nuclear enrichment centrifuges, which it continues to maintain are intended entirely to develop the country's nuclear energy capacity, not weapons.
To the degree that Iran is a threat or a problem, the United States should follow the path of unconditional dialogue trodden by former President Jimmy Carter with Hamas. President Ronald Reagan's top aides traveled to Tehran in 1986, only a few years after Iran's Islamic revolution. What prevents Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from going? Instead we hear about Pentagon plans of military action against Iran from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But, then, it's an election year.