The potentially transforming events in the 2008 campaign are matters of war and peace. Both may be in play between now and November, in ways that add extra volatility to the presidential race. Let's start with war: The United States is already fighting two of them, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But judging from recent statements by administration officials, there is also a small, but growing, chance of conflict with Iran.
The administration is signaling the Iranians that they need to stop supplying and training Shiite militias in Iraq -- or run the risk of U.S. retaliation. The Maliki government in Baghdad, worried about the danger of escalation, is passing this message to Tehran, but so far the only consequence has been that the Iranians have broken off talks in Baghdad that were aimed at stabilizing the situation.
Saber rattling from the Bush White House may seem almost routine, but pay attention to the comment last week by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Iran is not going away. We need to be strong and really in the deterrent mode, to not be very predictable."
The risk of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation is growing in part because Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Middle East are so eager for it. "Behind closed doors, we are praying that the Iranians will make a mistake so that you will have a reason to attack," one Saudi told me this week. Another prominent Arab official said he hopes the United States will strike Iranian training camps just over the border from Iraq.
How would a U.S.-Iran confrontation play out in the campaign? Obviously, that depends on how you read the American political mood. Usually, we assume that the nation rallies around the party of war, but that's less certain in this case. America is war-weary, and it mistrusts President Bush. So a military skirmish with Iran might backfire, adding to public dissent -- much as happened with the Nixon administration's attack on Viet Cong sanctuaries in Cambodia in 1970.
Adding to the combustible mix is Hillary Clinton's hawkish position on Iran, which has support from the center-right of the party even if she drops out. Her rhetorical threat to "totally obliterate" Iran if it launched a nuclear attack against Israel was sharper than anything that has come out of the Bush White House. The anti-Iran stance from centrist Democrats blunts John McCain's appeal as the tough-guy candidate. But it complicates the Democrats' argument for withdrawing U.S. troops rapidly from Iraq, since the main beneficiary of such a move would be Tehran.
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