"To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
So Winston Churchill is widely quoted. Those words, however, were spoken in 1954, decades after Churchill's voice had been the most bellicose for war in 1914 and 1939, the wars that bled and broke his beloved empire.
Yet, Churchill's quote frames well the main question on the mind of Washington, D.C.: Will President Bush effect the nuclear castration of Iran before he leaves office, or has he already excluded the war option?
One school contends that the White House has stared down the gun barrel at the prospect of war with Iran, and backed away. The costs and potential consequences -- thousands of Iranian dead, a Shia revolt against us in Iraq joined by Iranian "volunteers," the mining of the Straits of Hormuz, $200-a-barrel oil, Hezbollah strikes on Americans in Lebanon, terror attacks on our allies in the Gulf and on Americans in the United States -- are too high a price to pay for setting back the Iranian nuclear program a decade.
Another school argues thus: If Tehran survives the Bush era without dismantling its nuclear program, Bush will be a failed president. He declared in his 2002 State of the Union Address that no axis-of-evil nation would be allowed to acquire the world's worst weapons. Iran and North Korea will have both defied the Bush Doctrine. His legacy would then be one of impotency in Iran and North Korea, and two failed wars -- in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which will be in their sixth and eighth years.
Those who know him best say that George Bush is not a man to leave office with such a legacy. He will go to war first, even if no one goes along.
But before America faces this question, two others need answering.
Is Iran so close to a nuclear weapon that if we do not act now, it will be too late? Or do we have perhaps a decade before Iran has the capacity to build nuclear weapons?
Early this year, Israel was warning that if Iran was not stopped by March 2006, it would be too late. Iran would by then have acquired the knowledge and experience needed to build nuclear weapons.
The neoconservatives, too, have been demanding "Action this day!" and were stunned by Bush's statement at the United Nations that America does not oppose Iran's acquisition of peaceful nuclear power.
The other side argues that Iran is perhaps a decade away from being able to produce enough fissile material for a bomb, that the 164 centrifuges Tehran has are so primitive and few in number it will take years even to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.
While the International Atomic Energy Agency has not given Iran a clean bill of health, it has never concluded that Iran is working on a bomb.