The White House campaign to stampede this nation into war, to smash Iran's nuclear facilities before she acquires the capability to build an atom bomb, has been derailed, probably for the duration of the Bush presidency.
And the Bush policy -- to leave the military option on the table while pressing China, Russia and NATO to back tougher sanctions in the Security Council -- has been torpedoed.
Who are the sappers of the Bush policy? The leaders of the 16 intelligence agencies Bush commands. For even as he was raising the specter of "nuclear holocaust" and "World War III," those 16 agencies downgraded and virtually dismissed the threat, by declaring that Iran suspended its drive for nuclear weapons -- in 2003.
To have the intelligence community make a public declaration that undermines the foreign policy of a president, even as it calls his credibility into question, is unprecedented.
Nor is that the only astonishing aspect of the new National Intelligence Estimate that flatly contradicts the 2005 NIE, which had concluded that Iran was plowing ahead toward a nuclear weapon.
For if the intelligence agencies were 100 percent wrong about Iraq's WMD, the casus belli of today's war, and they have been 100 percent wrong for four years about Iran's drive for nuclear weapons, how can we trust them? How can we rely on them in formulating policy?
And if we cannot trust our intelligence agencies to distinguish disinformation from truth, and if we have blundered horribly once into war and almost blundered a second time, how can we justify the Bush policy of pre-emptive strikes and preventive war?
Other questions arise.
What did the president know, and when did he know it?
Was Bush aware that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program, years ago, when he was using his apocalyptic rhetoric about nuclear holocaust and World War III?
If so, that is indefensible.
And if the NIE is right today, why was it wrong again in 2005, two years after the intelligence community was wrong about Iraq's WMD? Why did it take us longer than World World II -- from 2003 to late 2007 -- to find out the truth about our putative enemy?
The NIE also reports that Iran probably lacks the capability to produce a nuclear weapon until between 2010 and 2015.
This implies that the uranium enrichment being done at Natanz is either not proceeding at the pace President Ahmadinejad claims, or the centrifuges are not working. For if Iran were actually running 3,000 centrifuges at full speed, and they were working properly, we have been told Iran could have enough fissile material for a rudimentary bomb by the end of next year.
What, then, is the real truth about Iran's nuclear program and its potential? And what was the nature of the military program that Iran supposedly stopped back in 2003?
The NIE also said that Iran is using a "cost-benefit" analysis in deciding whether to proceed with a nuclear weapons program.
This, however, is a direct challenge to the madman theory. That theory holds that if Iran builds a bomb, Ahmadinejad will use it against Israel or us, or give it to terrorists to use against Israel or us, to start the Armageddon that will bring back the 12th Imam.
But if Iran's regime is rational, which is how it has behaved, if not how it talks, we have an altogether different adversary we can deal with. For while possession of an atom bomb may give Iran a deterrent, it would also set in train a series of almost certain events that would do less to enhance the security of Iran than to imperil it permanently.
For, if Iran acquires an atomic weapon, Israel will put its nuclear arsenal of hundreds of warheads on a hair trigger. The United States would re-target nuclear weapons on Iran. Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would almost certainly acquire nuclear weapons or a nuclear capacity. How would any of that make Shia Iran safer in a Sunni world?
Finally, if Iran did suspend or terminate its nuclear weapons program in 2003, this suggests that the arrival of the U.S. army in Baghdad, and the capture of Saddam, concentrated the minds of the mullahs wonderfully. This suggests that those who say Iran, like Libya, had on offer a grand bargain -- to give up nuclear ambitions and end its aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, in return for an end to sanctions and the U.S. drive for regime change, and the normalization of relations -- may have been right.
Thus, what the NIE implies is that George Bush may have missed the opportunity to put himself in the history books alongside Nixon, who opened up China, and Reagan, who ended the Cold War with Russia.