Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Bomb Shells

[posted by Callimachus]

U.S. officials put their cards on the table Sunday in Baghdad. Two tables, actually, but instead of aces and deuces they laid down artillery shells, ID cards and shards of ammo culled from Iraq. It was an inside straight that pointed straight inside Iran.

So they said. The evidence presented at the press briefing was long on accusations, short on explanations. Once upon a time, that might have been enough for a lot of people. But now members of Congress from both parties, the U.S. public and world leaders treat White House claims like two-week old sushi.

Even Juan Cole wouldn't be surprised to learn that Iran, or elements in it, was supplying weapons to some Iraqi insurgents, or even that its leadership was directly involved in attacks against Iraqi and U.S. troops. But all of this is unnervingly like the prologue to the invasion of Iraq. Even when the White House got it right (Saddam was sniffing for yellowcake in Niger), it got it wrong. And nobody wants to go down that path again.

How sad that we find ourselves in a situation where the Iranian Foreign Ministry can say, as it has this week, "The United States has a long history of fabricating evidence," and for many people here and around the world that will be all the truth they care to hear.

The evidence put on display Sunday will be checked out, as far as possible, by non-government observers and the media. Bloggers already are on the job. Does Iran really use Latin script and U.S. dating styles on its artillery shells? Does it even manufacture shells in such calibers? The official version of what it all means naturally will be subject to intense scrutiny -- as it should be, and as it ought to have been in 2002.

People will rightly ask whether some other explanation is possible for what the U.S. displayed. Someone is sure to "question the timing." There will be a lot of unnecessary snarkiness. But you know what? I'm glad. Reasonable skeptics and devil's advocates are the immune system of a democracy. Doubt is not dissent, and offering proof is an elementary courtesy.

Congress should hold hearings; officials should be questioned. If certain evidence is too sensitive to be shown to the whole world, reliable, informed people outside the government should be invited in and shown it privately.

And those clamoring for full answers and complete disclosure will have to remember that even if they get them, intelligence will never be a sure thing. Zealous inquiry may give you a better guess as to whether Iran deliberately is killing large numbers of Americans in Iraq, but chances are the certainty either way never will be 100 percent.

You'll still have to choose to do something about it. Or do nothing. Which also is a choice, and might be the worst of them.