How to even begin to understand President Bush's most recent news conference. Over the last year or more, these meet the press sessions have evolved into a strange, harrowing form of Kabuki theater wherein the President takes stage center, leans ever so casually on the podium (his signature stance), and speaks his truth.




At last week's sortie Bush began by dressing down Congress for stalling legislation pertaining to trade, domestic surveillance, federal spending and children's health. There's work to be done on behalf of the American people, he said, sharing that he's still relevant and plans to "sprint toward the end," while insisting he's a "strong finisher." Good grief. No, please, Mr. President, don't finish strong. No sprinting. In fact, visit Liechtenstein, discuss mutual exchanges, bring photos from the ranch, a few of Barney, that little dickens who needs a new chew. Stay awhile. We'll all be fine back home.




But alas, not to be. With almost the first question, a White House reporter asked about Iran (maybe for the next 15 months he could pretend it was the Gulf Coast and simply ignore it).




Now keep in mind that according to recent polls, this President's approval ratings are below 25 per cent; yet, eerily, he seems energized, confident, almost combative. Or a lot combative. Certainly not chastened. Before discussing Iran, Bush briefly spoke about the ongoing threat posed by Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, ignoring the disclosure by General James Conway that our military has all but defeated the evil doers in Iraq. Really? We won? Great. Now let's all go home. That was why we were there, right? To defeat Al Qaeda? Isn't that what the president said? General Conway said mission accomplished, so, every one grab a Humvee and we're outta here. No? As it turns out the President made it clear to the press that we're now waiting for political reconciliation, and when the politicians stand up we can stand down. Until then, gotta stay.




But back to Iran. The lead up to the Iran question was an interrogatory about Israel bombing Syria's nascent nuclear plant, built (allegedly) with the cooperation of North Korea. Would the President like to comment? No. He had no comment.




So what about Iran?




Some background: the administration has stated unequivocally that Iran will not be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon. A declarative, unambiguous sentence and chilling in the extreme. Especially in light of that country's insistence that it is a sovereign nation and, like Pakistan and India, has every right to develop nuclear technology if it so chooses. Over the last year the aggressive rhetoric regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions has escalated. Some speculate that this administration, led by the Vice President, is loathe to leave office without taking out Iran's nuclear research program (which would require, some believe, nuclear-tipped, bunker-busting weapons).




In a recent article in the New Yorker magazine, however, journalist Seymour Hersh argued that the administration, having assessed the lack of public support for a massive air strike aimed at Iran's nuclear sites, is now committed to retaliating in a limited way. Iran, we're told, has been shipping sophisticated explosively weapons and money to Iraq's Shiite insurgents. "The revised bombing...is gathering support among generals and admirals in the Pentagon." The strikes would include destroying the Revolutionary guard training camps, supply depots and command and control facilities. "Cheney's option is now for a fast in and out &

for surgical strikes," writes Hersh, quoting a senior American intelligence official. The official goes on to say that "The Navy's planes, ships, and cruise missiles are in place in the Gulf and operating daily. They've got everything they need &

even AWACS are in place and the targets in Iran have been programmed."




Yet, when Bush was asked in his news conference about Iran he said, almost conversationally, that "he had told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." The words "World War III" made headlines, sounding all too much like the ramp up to Iraq, when WMDs and mushroom clouds were graphically described.




So why did the President switch back to framing Iran as a gathering nuclear threat? The cynical answer is that such rhetoric is part of a political calculus which assumes that if the public can be frightened enough by threats of Iran selling a radiological bomb to terrorists, or attacking Israel (fulfilling their promise to wipe Israel off the map), then the Republicans will have an edge in 2008. Strong, decisive leadership is needed and the Republicans have been painting the Democrats as being weak on defense to great effect for years. Using the language of Armageddon may suffice instead of relying on their disastrous record of the last seven years. It worked in 2004.




Of course, the leading Republican presidential candidates are on board, with Rudy Giuliani, the likely nominee, out-hawking the Commander-in-Chief, and John McCain doing his now famous Beach Boys imitation of "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."




We could, of course, launch air strikes against Iran, surgical or otherwise. As the officer said: the resources are all in place. But the list of consequences, which are glossed over, would reverberate globally, and not just in the oil markets.




Yet, despite the possibility of creating another catastrophic front, there is the feeling, pervasive at times, that this White House wants to do something regarding Iran, even if it's wrong. And then define said action as finishing strong.




The option they seem incapable of exploring, however, is diplomacy. And it begs the question: why? Why a war plan and not a peace plan? Why not convene a Middle East summit? Why not mount a series of aggressive diplomatic proposals? Why not talk to Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt and point out to all concerned that a peaceful Iraq would lend stability to the region? That would be a sprint worth noting. So what's missing from this puzzle?