The one thing a president cannot afford to be is ridiculous. This week, George Bush lurched into that fatal category and into the true twilight of his presidency, festooned with all the traditional discomfitures. Senior aides and close advisers parley with literary agents and find compelling reasons to quit the White House and spend more time with their families. In public, even the First Lady seems to edge away from her stricken mate.




The latest, fatal instrument of Bush's public humiliation is the National Intelligence Estimate proclaiming in its unclassified version that Iran stopped trying to build a nuclear weapon in 2003, thus deliberately, with humiliating clarity, contradicting Bush and Cheney's unending invocation of the Iranian nuclear threat.




Now, in theory, an NIE represents the objective consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies on matters of national security. In practice, it is a useful guide to how a bunch of bureaucratic knife-fighters assess the balance of forces in Washington.




In 2002, Bush and Cheney were strong enough to ram their dire assessments of Iraq's WMDs into the infamous October 2002 NIE that began with the assertion that "we judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs &

if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." The NIE gave this prediction a "high confidence" rating, while appending a dissent from the State Department's Intelligence Bureau.




The cover story for the recently released NIE on Iran, with its U-turn on previous assessments, is that new information suddenly became available. In practice, this means that in the late summer, senior intelligence officials figured the consensus in Washington and Wall Street against an attack on Iran was powerful enough for them to lower the boom on the neo-cons. The latter have now retreated in disarray to their bunkers at the Weekly Standard and the National Review for a last stand, bellowing that it's a filthy plot by peaceniks in the State Department. Actually, it is, in part, exactly that. The NIE strikes at the neo-cons and it strikes at Israel, which has staked much on firing the United States to attack Iran.




"It's no secret," snarled the National Review, "that careerists at the CIA and State have been less interested in implementing the president's policies on Iran, Iraq and North Korea than in sabotaging them at every opportunity." The Wall Street Journal's nutty editorial page went further, fingering "hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials"&

353;" including Tom Fingar, formerly of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research as drafters of the treacherous NIE.




Humiliated by the NIE, which flatly contradicted all his recent claims about Iran's rush for nuclear weapons, Bush flailed away in his Tuesday press conference, eliciting contempt as he claimed he'd only just become aware of the NIE.




"If that's true," Sen. Joe Biden declared, "he has the most incompetent staff in modern American history, and he's one of the most incompetent presidents in modern American history."




Only the former CIA spook Bob Baer &

model for George Clooney Jr.'s CIA role in the movie Syriana &

tried to give Bush a better role than mere dupe and fall guy, claiming that Bush himself had pushed for the NIE to go public. Motive? To head off an attack on Iran, which would undercut any American successes in Iraq. One can imagine one of America's more Machiavellian presidents doing this, like FDR or LBJ, but Bush?




The only ray of comfort for the president was that Hillary Clinton chose the start of the week to make herself equally ridiculous, if not more so. As she slipped behind Barack Obama in the polls in Iowa, her campaign issued a press release on Dec. — designed to paint Obama as a man consumed by ruthless, lifelong ambition: "In kindergarten, Senator Obama wrote an essay titled 'I Want to Become President.' Iis Darmawan, 63, Senator Obama's kindergarten teacher, remembers him as an exceptionally tall and curly haired child who quickly picked up the local language and had sharp math skills. He wrote an essay titled, 'I Want to Become President,' the teacher said."




In kindergarten! As the Clinton campaign might say, giving its own twist on St. Ignatius of Loyola, "Give me the child although he is seven, and we'll smear him anyway."




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .