Let's pretend for a minute that you are the president of the United States, and that this is 2012. An aide walks into the Oval Office and lays on your desk a memorandum from the CIA. It reports that, according to a trusted agent in Iran, the mullahs have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. What's more, they have managed to conceal one such weapon in each of three American cities -- Washington, New York and Los Angeles -- and in 12 hours will announce an intention to detonate them simultaneously if the United States interferes with an attack Iran plans to launch against Saudi Arabia 24 hours from right now.
What to do? A phone call to the Iranian embassy elicits a strenuous denial, and it seems clear that the staff there knows nothing about the alleged plot. Similar inquiries by our embassy in Teheran result in similar denials, which of course may or may not be true. It is now -- maybe -- just 23 hours to Armageddon.
Now, the first and foremost obligation of any president of the United States is to defend its more than 300 million people against such an attack. And the only hope of fending off this one -- if the report is true -- is to launch immediately a nuclear counterattack on Iran that would (we hope) destroy those responsible for the plan, and prevent orders from being issued to carry it out.
But is the report true? It is based on the account of a single agent whose reports have been reasonably accurate in the past, but of course there is no assurance that he is right this time. If he is wrong, and the president nonetheless orders a nuclear attack on Iran, the United States will be seen by a horrified world as having gratuitously obliterated a sovereign nation. In such circumstances, impeachment would be only one of the lesser consequences. There would almost certainly be an international trial, before the United Nations, and the miscreant president would be subjected to penalties that can only be imagined.
Now, quarrel all you wish with my hypothesis. By all means substitute your own. But it certainly possible that a president may someday be faced with a crisis in which he or she must choose, on the basis of uncertain information, whether to risk a deadly attack on the United States or to order, pre-emptively, a counterattack with deadly consequences for the nation in question. That is a dilemma that is built into the very nature of the presidency, and there is no avoiding it.
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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