Whatever else the release of the 16-agency National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian bomb may be, it is certainly a reasonable measure of inside-the-Beltway Bush administration decline. Whether that release represented "a pre-emptive strike against the White House by intelligence agencies and military chiefs," an intelligence "mini-coup" against the administration, part of a longer-term set of moves meant to undermine plans for air strikes against Iran that involved a potential resignation threat from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a "near mutiny" by the Joint Chiefs, or an attempt by the administration itself to "salvage negotiations with Iran" or shift its own Iran policy, or none of — or some combination of — the above, one thing can be said: Such an NIE would not have been written, no less released, at almost any previous moment in the last seven years. (Witness the 2005 version of the same that opted for an active Iranian program to produce nuclear weapons.)

Imagine an NIE back in 2005 that, as Dilip Hiro wrote recently, "contradicts the image of an inward-looking, irrational, theocratic leadership ruling Iran oppressively that Washington has been projecting for a long time. It says: ‘Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Teheran’s decisions are judged by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.’"

The Iranians as rational, cost-benefit calculators? Only the near collapse of presidential and vice-presidential polling figures, and the endless policy failures that proceeded and accompanied those numbers; only the arrival of Robert Gates as secretary of defense and a representative of the "reality-based community," only the weakening of the neocons and their purge inside the Pentagon, only the increasing isolation of the Vice President’s "office"–only, that is, decline inside the Beltway–could account for such a conclusion or such a release.

Whatever the realities of the Iranian nuclear program, this NIE certainly reflected the shifting realities of power in Washington in the winter of 2007. In a zero-sum game in the capital’s corridors in which, for years, every other power center was the loser, the hardliners suddenly find themselves with their backs to the wall when it comes to the most compelling of their dreams of global domination. (Never forget the pre-invasion neocon quip: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.")

Now, as Jim Lobe points out, we probably know why the Vice President and others suddenly began to change the subject last summer from the Iranian nuclear program to Iranian IEDs being smuggled into Iraq for use against American forces. And why, in August, according to the Washington Post’s Dan Froomkin, the President "stopped making explicit assertions about the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program… and started more vaguely accusing them of seeking the knowledge necessary to make such a weapon." They knew what was coming.

Enough power evidently remained in the hands of Vice President Cheney and associates that the final NIE was delayed at least three times, according to Congressional sources speaking to the Los Angeles Times. The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh claims that "the vice-president has kept his foot on the neck of that report… The intelligence we learned about yesterday has been circulating inside this government at the highest levels for the last year — and probably longer." Still, it’s now out and that is a yardstick of something.

In a recent essay at Tomdispatch.com, Dilip Hiro offers a striking way of measuring a more significant decline–not of the Bush moment in Washington, but of imperial America which, not so long ago, was engaged in a planetary superpower zero-sum game with the Soviet Union, but now finds itself on the losing end of an ever more humiliating zero-sum game with Iran, a relatively minor regional power. If you needed the slightest proof of this, just consider how, on Wednesday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad termed the release of the NIE a "declaration of victory" for Iran’s nuclear program. And he has reason to crow. After all, as the headline of the latest Robert Scheer column at Truthdig.org indicates, when it came to the latest stare-down at the nuclear OK Corral between the President of the planetary "hyperpower" and the president of a relatively weak regional power: "It Turns Out Ahmadinejad Was the Truthful One."