Our incredible President

President Bush has now firmly established his credentials as an incredible world leader.

But this is no occasion for celebration. Because in an age of Islamic terrorism and nuclear uncertainty, when the world needs to trust the words of the leader of the planet’s only superpower, President Bush has demonstrated that his words are indeed incredible. As in: not credible. Or as Merriam-Webster Online defines it: “implausible, inconceivable, unbelievable, unconvincing” and “too … improbable to be believed.”

In a stunning National Intelligence Estimate, the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community reversed their analysis of two years ago and concluded that Iran actually stopped its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. That is, of course, good news for a world that understands that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an unacceptable peril.

But the juxtaposition of what U.S. intelligence officials knew and when they knew it with what the U.S. president knew and when he knew it has shattered anew the credibility of the president. Indeed, the world was already skeptical, having seen Bush invade Iraq after assuring the world that U.S. intelligence had established that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction — which turned out to be dead wrong.

In 2005, a National Intelligence Estimate had concluded “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons.” The president and other top officials then repeatedly warned of Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons.

But last August, Bush was told by Director of National Intelligence John McConnell about new intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program that was being analyzed. (It reportedly came from communications intercepts in which Iranian military officers were saying their nuclear program had been halted years earlier.)

Yet on Oct. 17, some two months after learning of the new intelligence, Bush sounded the old alarm: “If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be a dangerous threat to world peace …We got a leader in Iran who has announced that he wants to destroy Israel. So I’ve 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. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.”

And again, on Oct. 23: “Iran is pursuing the technology that could be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles of increasing range that could deliver them.”

The new NIE, released Monday, concluded “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear-weapons program.” When national security adviser Stephen Hadley briefed reporters, the first question was how the 2005 NIE was “so wrong about what Iran was doing or what its intentions were” in 2003. Incredibly (see above definition), Hadley replied: “I don’t think we were wrong about what it’s doing or what its intentions were.”

So reporters followed up:

Q: But in 2005 you thought that they had a nuclear-weapons program, whereas you now think they abandoned it, or put it aside in 2003.

Hadley: We thought they had that program; we did indeed, in 2005. …We … have determined that, indeed, they did have a program … but we also determined that they had suspended it … in fall of 2003 in response to international pressure. That’s exactly right.

Q: But, Steve, the question is, how did the government get it wrong? And isn’t that troubling that it got so wrong over that two-year span?

Hadley: I don’t think it is so wrong. I think it is right … they got it right, in terms of being concerned about Iran seeking a nuclear weapon.

Tuesday morning, Bush acknowledged at a news conference that McConnell told him last August that there was new intelligence about Iran and nuclear weapons. But Bush denied McConnell told him what the new intelligence was — and apparently Bush never asked. (We can only infer this because no reporter followed up by asking the president why he never followed up.) Could Bush really have been so incurious about a matter so urgent? Incredible.

Bush also told reporters: “Look, Iran was dangerous. Iran is dangerous. And Iran will be dangerous if they have the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Bush is dead right. That’s why it is urgent that he is trusted and persuasive. He could have artfully used this new intelligence assessment to rebuild his shattered mantle of global trust by admitting past errors, making a virtue of reality and bridging his global incredibility gap. Instead, he squandered all that just to save face.

It is uncertain now whether our leaderless world will ever heed anything he says.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)