James Carroll

Last week, the rattling of sabers filled the air. Various published reports, most notably one from Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, indicated that Washington is removing swords from scabbards and heightening the threat aimed at Iran, which refuses to suspend its nuclear project.

It may be that such reports, based on alarming insider accounts of planning and military exercises, are themselves part of Washington's strategy of coercive diplomacy. But who can trust the Bush administration to play games of feint and intimidation without unleashing forces it cannot control, stumbling again into disastrous confrontation?

An Iranian official dismissed the talk of imminent U.S. military action as mere psychological warfare, but then he made a telling observation. Instead of attributing the escalations of threat to strategic impulses, the official labeled them a manifestation of "Americans' anger and despair."

The phrase leapt out of the news report, demanding to be taken seriously. Anger and despair so precisely define the broad American mood that those emotions may be the only things that President George W. Bush and his circle have in common with the surrounding legions of his antagonists.

We Americans are in anger and despair because every nightmare of which we were warned has come to pass. Bush's team is in anger and despair because their grand and - to them - selfless ambitions have been thwarted at every turn. Indeed, anger and despair can seem universally inevitable responses to what America has done and what it faces now.

While the anger and despair of those on the margins of power only increase the experience of marginal powerlessness, the anger and despair of those who continue to shape national policy can be truly dangerous if such policy owes more to these emotions than to reasoned realism.

Is such affective disarray subliminally shaping the direction of U.S. policy? That seems an impudent question. Yet all at once, like an out-of-focus lens snapping into clarity, it makes sense of what is happening. With the U.S. military stressed to an extreme in Iraq by a mainly Sunni insurgency, why in the world would Washington risk inflaming the Shiite population against America by wildly threatening Iran?

Look at the self-defeating irrationality of the bush team's maneuvering. How does America hope to pressure Tehran into abandoning its nuclear project? Why, by making its threat explicitly nuclear.

Seymour Hersh, citing a "former official," reported that U.S. warplanes near Iran "have been flying simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions - rapid ascending maneuvers known as 'over the shoulder' bombing - since last summer." Such an exercise puts on display an American readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons against Iranian nuclear facilities. Whether the maneuvers have actually been carried out or not, even authoritative reports of them represent an extraordinarily irresponsible brandishing of the heretofore unthinkable weapon: To keep you from getting nukes, we will nuke you.

As if that were not irrational enough, the Bush administration chose this month, in the thick of its nuclear standoff with Tehran, to reveal plans for a new nuclear weapons manufacturing complex of its own - a major escalation of U.S. nuclear capacity. This represents a movement away from merely maintaining America's thousands of warheads to replacing them. The promise of new bombs to come, including the so-called bunker-buster under development, may be the final nail in the coffin of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which binds Washington to work for the elimination of nukes, not their enhancement.

Set the caldron of Iraq to boiling even hotter by daring Iran to join in against America. Justify Iran's impulse to obtain nuclear capacity by using America's own nuclear capacity as a thermoprod. How self-defeating can America's actions get?

Surely, something besides intelligent strategic theory is at work here. Yes. These are the policies of wounded people. Those of us who oppose them will yield to our own versions of anger and despair at our peril, and the world's. Fierce but reasoned opposition is more to the point than ever.

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