Let's say that George Galloway, Ramsey Clark and other luminaries of the international progressive movement got their wish. Let's say the Iraq war never happened. Saddam Hussein is still in power. How does he react to the Iranian nuclear program?
"You guys go ahead, I'll stick with Russian artillery pieces. Besides, those things are more trouble than they're worth! The testing, the maintenance, the hiding it's like having six wives! No thanks. I'll sit here in my palace and smoke my cigar and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism, thank you."
Or: Colorful Tikrit-specific profanity, hurled ashtrays, and a crash program that launders oil-for-food kickbacks into a secret weapons program facilitated by Libyan and North Korean assistance with information from the A.Q. Khan network, conducted under the indifferent eye of a world tired of pretending it cares about Iraq.
Some would actually prefer option No. 2, since it would give the region a "balance of power."
Well, tell that to Egypt, which came out against Iran's nuclear-bomb plans right around the time Vice President Cheney dropped by. Huzzah: That annual $2 billion bribe is finally paying off.
Tell it to the Saudis, as long as you're in the neighborhood Prince Saud al-Faisal opposes the Iranian bomb, although he blames Israel for the problem in the first place. Damnable pesky nation, insisting on surviving: the sheer cheek of those Jews.
Tell it to International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mo ElBaradei, who, sporting the rented testes that U.N. types like to use when diplomacy proves futile, threatened the Iranians with "force" if additional palaver fails.
No one wants Iran to have the bomb, except the apocalyptically minded mullahs. For them there is no God but Allah, and J. Robert Oppenheimer is his messenger.
At least it's not that bad. Scott Ritter could be defending Iran.
So what now? The Iranian situation has eerie overtones of the Iraq debate the gathering threat, the nuclear ambitions, the frowny faces of U.N. diplomats preparing the 13th Strongly Worded Document, complete with threatened revocation of parking garage privileges. But things are different now.
The American left believed in Iraq's WMDs and terrorist links in the '90s because that gave them much-needed hawk cred; it was Viagra for their dovish side. But they've spent the last two electoral cycles preaching defeat, insisting that when the Bush administration says something's a threat, it's a lie, a diversion tactic, an election ploy, a floorwax AND a dessert topping.
Oh, they'll suggest that Iran should have been the main target in the first place, but if the U.S. had invaded there in '03, we'd be looking at huge casualties, an occupation that continued to this day (quaqmire!) and evidence that the Iranians were still years away from a bomb. Years! And we invaded on that slender pretext? Impeach!
Well, something's going to happen. Iran is taking delivery of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia in March, press reports say. (Thanks, Vladimir! Anything we can do for you? Besides having the NYPD put the boot on all your U.N. limos?)
One suspects President Bush is disinclined to do the long, slow gavotte with the U.N. again, especially when half the big players have been in bed with Iran so long they feel comfortable enough to complain about the ayatollah-patterned sheets. (Honestly, Monsieur; c'est creepy.) The U.S. may attempt a political change, since the great mass of urban, educated, decent Iranians would rather rejoin the outer world than blow it up.
But if the mullahs looked brittle and nervous a few years ago, now they look downright insane and determined to turn their nation into a collective suicide bomb.
If there are attacks that set back the program, and they don't inspire a wave of nationalism that strengthens the mullahs' hands, and the threat is pushed off three years, and the Bush administration ends with the neutralization of the region's worst actors well, you can imagine what the progressives will say:
"What about North Korea? You did nothing about North Korea. We're no safer than ever. Oh, one more thing don't you DARE do anything about North Korea."
You can't win. But we must.