"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.
Where does this leave America? With grave questions, the answers to which should be given not by George Bush alone, but by the American people through their representatives in the Congress.
Lest we forget, it is not President Bush who decides on war or peace. The Congress is entrusted with that power in the Constitution. The Founding Fathers wanted a clear separation between the commander in chief who would fight the war and the legislators who would declare it. They had had their fill of royal wars.
Congress, when this election is over, should return to Washington to conduct hearings on how close Iran is to a nuclear capacity, and place that information before the nation. We do not need any more cherry-picked and stove-piped intelligence to take us to war. But the critical question that needs to be taken up in congressional and public debate is this:
Even if Tehran is seeking a nuclear capacity, should the United States wage war to stop her? Is a nuclear-armed Iran more of an intolerable threat than was a nuclear-armed Stalin or Mao, both of whom America outlasted without war?
Today, Republicans and Democrats are competing in calling Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a Hitler who will complete the Holocaust, a terrorist with whom we cannot deal. But the Iran he leads has not started a war since its revolution, 27 years ago, and knows that if it attacked America, it will invite annihilation as a nation.
Bismarck called pre-emptive war committing suicide out of fear of death -- not a bad description of what we did in invading Iraq.
Today, President Bush does not have the constitutional authority to launch pre-emptive war. Congress should remind him of that, and demand that he come to them to make the case and get a declaration of war, before he undertakes yet another war -- on Iran.
Before any air strikes are launched on Iran's nuclear facilities, every American leader should be made to take a public stand for or against war. No more of these "If-only-I-had-known" and "We-were-misled" copouts.