The latest gambit by a floundering White House is that President Bush has decided to give not so much peace a chance, as he is adulthood. It could be a ruse; merely another elaborate fake-out like Bush's forgotten vow to seek a U.N. Security Council vote about Saddam Hussein's phantom WMDs in 2003, immediately before commencing the "shock and awe" bombing campaign.
But there are reasons to think it's real. "Senior officials" have been sent out to whisper to reporters these astonishing developments: Regarding the ongoing "crisis" with Iran, Bush has actually learned from experience, heeded opinions slightly at odds with his own (and Dick Cheney's), realized that threats weren't working, and allowed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to negotiate a face-saving compromise.
The United States and five other nations - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - have offered Iran both economic incentives and direct talks the Persians have long sought if it agrees to suspend uranium enrichment.
That's today's story, anyway. Deepening the irony is that Rice's partner in crime (sorry, in moderation) is reported to be German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Supposedly, the two women, one a certifiable European, persuaded Bush that attacking Iran militarily is not a real-world option, and that U.S. refusal to negotiate was only helping the Persians' very unpleasant government defy international worries about its suspected nuclear-weapons programs.
Although the White House and Rice publicly dismissed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rambling, eccentric 18-page open letter to Bush - 18 sentences would have been more appropriate - somebody evidently noticed its relatively conciliatory tone. No threats, and no depictions of the United States as "The Great Satan."
Not everybody in Washington believes in the new grown-up Bush. "I want to see the proof," said retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell's former chief of staff. "I can hope, as I imagine 60 to 70 percent of Americans are hoping, ... we are going to see some moderation and it's going to bear some fruit. But I've got to see the fruit, because I've seen this before."
Certain signs point the other way. Neoconservatives frantic to involve the United States in yet another glorious Middle Eastern crusade have stepped up their propaganda. Recently, Canada's National Post ran a column by one Amir Taheri claiming that Iran's government had passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow ID badges. Illustrated by a photo depicting Jews under Nazi rule forced to wear a Star of David, the story also appeared in Rupert Murdoch's New York Post.
Exposed as a hoax, the story was quickly retracted. Author Taheri, however, was subsequently invited to the Bush White House with others to share their "honest opinions" about Iran.
Editorial cartoons and columns continue to appear depicting Ahmadinejad as the new Hitler, based upon his reported threat to "wipe Israel off the map." The fact, however, appears to be that Iran's president never said that. According to Juan Cole, the University of Michigan professor whose "Informed Comment" Web site is must reading on the Muslim world, The New York Times badly mistranslated his speech. (Sound familiar?)
Anybody waiting for Iran to choose a government friendly to Israel will be waiting a long time. What Ahmadinejad actually said, though, was closer in spirit to "keep the faith" than "we will bury you." He compared the Palestinians' struggle to the late Ayatollah Khomeni's determination to overthrow the Shah of Iran.
Here's Cole's translation: "The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem must (vanish from) from the page of time." It's not a threat; it's more of a reminder that the Israeli regime could go the way of the Shah's.
Cole, who personally despises "everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeni," thinks it's nevertheless crucial to recognize that he hasn't called for Nazi-style extermination of Israel.
Nor has Ayatollah Khameni, the current "Supreme Leader," who holds the real power in the Islamic Republic. TV accounts of Khameni's recent speech stressed his prediction that attacking Iran would disrupt Western oil supplies. But he also argued at great length that "Iran is not a threat to any country" and doesn't seek nuclear weapons.
"We do not have any objectives or aspirations for which we will need to use a nuclear bomb," Khameni insisted. "We consider using nuclear weapons against Islamic rules. ... Unlike the Americans who want to rule the world with force, we do not claim to control the world and therefore do not need a nuclear bomb."
It would obviously be foolish to take the Ayatollah's word for it. But it would be downright crazy - a strategic blunder almost beyond imagining - to launch an unprovoked attack against a nation several times larger than neighboring Iraq on the basis of crude propaganda from zealots of our own.
Watch for the Persians to begin haggling; it's their national pastime.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a national magazine award winner.