President Nixon, a very good poker player, once defined the art of brinkmanship as persuading your opponent that you are insane and, unless appeased by pledges of surrender, quite capable of blowing up the planet.

            By these robust standards George Bush is doing a moderately competent job in suggesting that if balked by Iran on the matter of halting its nuclear program, he'll dump a couple of nukes on that country's relevant research sites, or tell Israel to do the job for him. In Washington, there are plenty of rational people in Congress, think tanks and the Pentagon who think he's capable of it.

            Col. Sam Gardner, who's taught at the National War College, recently sketched out the plan as it could unfold: Already the second naval carrier group has been deployed to the Gulf area, joined by naval mine-clearing ships. "As one of the last steps before a strike, we'll see USAF tankers moved to unusual places, like Bulgaria. These will be used to refuel the U.S.-based B-2 bombers on their strike missions into Iran. When that happens, we'll only be days away from a strike." A tripwire for escalation would be the U.N. Security Council Feb. 21 deadline for Iran to suspend "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA," the International Atomic Energy Agency.

            There's certainly disquiet in Congress, particularly after Bush's State of the Union address Jan. 17, where he reprised his notorious "Axis of Evil" address of January 2002, identifying Iran as the No. 1 troublemaker and fomenter of terror in the region.

            "Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran, in the absence of a direct threat, without Congressional approval?" the Virginia Democrat, Sen. James Webb recently asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice said she'd get back to him.

            The Bush administration is capable of almost any folly, but is it likely that it would bomb Iran's nuclear research labs? Would it really prod Israel into taking on the job?

            Israel, of course, has been making plenty of quite predictable hay out of President Ahmadinejad's crack about how "the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time." Of course the let's-stay-calm types say it was just a stale old one-liner from the Ayatollah Khomeini and please to note he used the word "regime," not "Israel." Plant that one in the graveyard of wimpy rationalizations. Along with the recent "holocaust conference," it's probably the biggest leg up for Israeli bond drives since the Yom Kippur war. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert quotes it on an almost daily basis.

            Aside from the rhetorical haymaking, the notion of Israel nuking Iran's N-plants is very far-fetched. Indeed, the military wisdom here is that as a practical enterprise, it can't, since among many technical limitations Israel's bombers would require refueling over hostile territory.

            Aside from this, Israel still won't officially admit to having a nuclear arsenal. It would be a stupefying jump, from that disingenuous posture to being the first power in the region to explode a nuclear device. The point of having a nuclear deterrent is to deter, not to use. Iran is well aware that in 1999 and 2004, Israelis bought Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of carrying nuclear-armed cruise missiles. As President Jacques Chirac asked in his recent press conference, what good it would do Iran to have a nuclear bomb, or even two. "Where would it fire that bomb? At Israel? It wouldn't have traveled 200 meters through the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed."

            So the job would fall to the U.S. Air Force, and there are certainly Air Force generals telling Bush it would be a snap, just as Curt LeMay, at that time head of the Strategic Air Command, told President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis that SAC could "reduce the Soviet Union to a smoldering irradiated ruin in three hours."

            But Air Force credibility is low at the moment. LeMay's heirs told Bush that "shock and awe" bombing in 2003 would prompt Saddam to run up the white flag. It didn't. U.S. ground forces carried the day. But there aren't any U.S. ground forces available to invade a country many times bigger than Iraq, filled with a large population mostly loyal to the regime.

            The problem is that brinkmanship suits everyone's book. Ahmadinejad, facing serious political problems, can posture about standing up to the Great Satan. Olmert can say Ahmadinejad wants to finish off Israel and kill all the Jews. Bush sees Iran as a terrific way of changing the subject from the mess in Iraq and putting the Democrats on the spot.

            The Democrats take the lead of their presidential hopefuls, who have no intention of being corralled by the Republicans as simps of Holocaust deniers who want to destroy Israel. These days, to be a player, any candidate for the U.S. presidency has to raise about $100 million, of which a large tranche will come from American Jews. Barack Obama and John Edwards call for swift withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. When it comes to Iran they roar in unison with Hillary Clinton that no option can be left off the table. In other words, if it comes to it, nuke 'em.

            Is there room for sanity here? The best hope will be for Iran to finish its testing cycle, declare mission accomplished and figure out some sort of face-saving halt in its program by Feb. 21. Can we hope for prudence from the White House? Who knows? Bush is a nutty guy. It was his insistence on democratic elections in Iraq that put the Shi'a in control. Now he's blaming Iran for trying to capitalize on the consequences. This is not a regime that thinks things through very sensibly.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.