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Stumbling Into War

Last week, a U.S. official told Laura Rozen that the Bush administration was planning to "confront Iran in every way but direct armed conflict, using all means short of war." No mention, though, of how the White House planned to ensure that these new moves--confronting Iranian networks in Iraq, doubling its naval power in the Gulf, finding "covert ways to counter Hezbollah in Lebanon"--actually do stop short of war.

After all, say the U.S. military decides to "kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq," as seems to be the new policy. Iran could very likely retaliate. So the United States steps things up another notch. Iran does likewise. And so on. It wouldn't be inconceivable for the two countries to find themselves in a full-blown conflict in short order. Indeed, it seems more likely at this point that the United States will stumble into war with Iran rather than initiate one out of the blue.

So that brings us to Dafna Linzer's piece in the Washington Post today, which briefly mentions the "safety measures" the Bush administration is taking to avoid this scenario:

In meetings with Bush's other senior advisers, officials said, Rice insisted that the defense secretary appoint a senior official to personally oversee the program to prevent it from expanding into a full-scale conflict. Rice got the oversight guarantees she sought, though it remains unclear whether senior Pentagon officials must approve targets on a case-by-case basis or whether the oversight is more general.

That doesn't sound overly comforting--especially since we also learn that the new Iran policy "is based on the theory that Tehran will back down from its nuclear ambitions if the United States hits it hard in Iraq and elsewhere, creating a sense of vulnerability among Iranian leaders." In other words, the White House expects Iran to fold, in awe of American military might, rather than strike back. And hey, it's not like rosy assumptions have ever led us astray in the past...

--Bradford Plumer