The more the radical Muslims huff and puff, the more certain elements of the governments of the West are eager to run and hide.
This might be reassuring strategy for the easily frightened, but the fatal flaw in this strategy is that there aren't any places left to hide.
The New York Times, inspired by the fictional Alfred E. ("What? Me Worry?") Neuman, reports with a tone of undisguised disdain that senior officials in the Bush administration and leading Republican congressmen have concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies are deliberately playing down the threat that Iran poses to the United States and the West. Naturally the Democrats, who regard George W. Bush as the source of evil in the world, agree with Mr. Neuman that the rosiest assessment is always correct.
When the Iranian government finally replied this week to the U.N. Security Council demand that it halt its uranium-enrichment program by Aug. 31 to qualify for certain incentives, the answer, as a senior Israeli official rightly calls it, is "flipping the world the bird." The middle-finger salute was not what the "six powers" had in mind, but it's satisfaction enough for Alfred E. Neuman, certain of the world powers, the Democrats in Congress and the editors of the New York Times. The Russians and the Chinese quickly called the Iranian offer a willingness to keep talking even if the negotiations never go anywhere.
The Iranians, surprised that its terrorist client Hezbollah survived a few rounds longer than Arab states ever have in a match with Israel, may soon have more than a bird to flip to the civilized world. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which closely monitors what is said and reported in the region, reports that the Iranian news service al-Borz, which has reliable sources within the Tehran government, predicts that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will announce Iran's "nuclear birth" on the first anniversary of the establishment of his government later this month. The Tehran Times, which is regarded as loosely affiliated with the government, suggests that it may already be too late to abort a nuclear birth. "If the West is seeking to impede Iran's nuclear industry," the newspaper observed this week, "it should realize that Iran has passed this stage." And if not now, soon.
The intelligence bureaucrats at Langley share none of this concern. The CIA analysts, who demonstrated their ineptitude in the run-up to the Iraq war, are determined now to believe that Iran is years away from being able to build a nuclear weapon. This assessment is shared by, in addition to Alfred E. Neuman, most of the other U.S. intelligence agencies.
"When the intelligence community says Iran is five to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon," Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, tells the New York Times, "I ask: 'If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?' The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least dangerous world possible."
George W. Bush no longer talks about Islam as "the religion of peace," though many millions of Muslims are still as harmless as Methodists or Mennonites as they ever were, but the caution on the part of the intelligence services serves the timidity in Washington and London not to regard Iran as the imminent threat it was only months ago. Britain's population has at last passed the 60 million mark, and the bad news is that the gains, such as they are, reflect the arrival of Muslim immigrants from South Asia scornful of assimilation. George W.'s sinking poll numbers discourage boldness here.
The well-connected Jerusalem Post quotes "a senior source" within the Israeli government saying that the Israelis have concluded that Israel may have to "go it alone" in dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran. "The Iranians know the world will do nothing," he says. "This is similar to the world's attempts to appease Hitler in the 1930s they are trying to feed the beast."
The Israelis bought time for the civilized world once before, when it took out Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor at Osirik in June 1981. The leaders of the West cried great crocodile tears in public, and said prayers of thanksgiving in private. Running up another such debt is tempting.