At this critical moment when most Americans seek to extricate US forces from the fighting in Iraq as swiftly as possible, George W. Bush appears determined to construct a new rationale for intervention whose logical conclusion is not withdrawal but a wider war, possibly involving attacks on Iran later this year. Like an inveterate gambler who has lost every previous round and now faces insolvency, Bush seems poised to wager everything on one last throw of the dice. Before more lives are put at risk in this reckless bid, the flimsy props of Bush’s new rationale must be exposed to rigorous scrutiny and strict limits placed on his warmaking capacity.

The President’s new approach was unveiled in his January 10 speech on Iraq. After giving a lifeless, almost robotic rendition of his plan for an increase in US troop strength, Bush suddenly caught fire, turning his attention to the threat purportedly posed by Iran and Syria. Both, he claimed, are allowing insurgents to use their territory as launching pads for attacks on Iraq, but it is Iran that poses the greatest danger, by “providing material support” to Shiite gunmen in Baghdad. At a February 14 press conference he said that “when we find devices in [Iraq] that are hurting our troops, we’re going to do something about it, pure and simple.”

Since then, the Administration has stepped up its campaign against Iran, claiming that Iranian forces are providing equipment and know-how for the manufacture of advanced explosive devices to Shiite militias in Iraq. Though the evidence for such aid remains inconclusive, the White House appears determined to lay the blame for increased American casualties at Tehran’s door, thus providing a fresh pretext for escalation.

The Administration has also sought to entwine this new pretext in a larger strategic framework, claiming that the United States faces a coordinated threat from radical Shiite forces throughout the region. Al Qaeda no longer poses the only significant threat to US interests in the Middle East, Bush declared in his State of the Union address. “It has also become clear that we face an escalating danger from Shia extremists who are just as hostile to America.” Many of these extremists, he averred, “are known to take direction from the regime in Iran.”

And so a new “axis of evil” is being constructed in Washington: In place of the old axis of Saddam Hussein-cum-Al Qaeda, against which we went to war in the first place, we now confront a new alliance between rogue states and terrorist organizations, linking Tehran to Hezbollah and Shiite militias in Baghdad.

And, once again, the possibility that this evil network will acquire and share weapons of mass destruction may be used as the justification for “preventive” strikes against a hostile power. “The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” the Bush Administration avowed in the 2002 edition of its National Security Strategy report. Because it is too risky to sit by and allow rogue states like Iran to acquire WMD capabilities so they can pass them on to like-minded terrorists, the Administration insisted, “America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” This, in essence, was the rationale given for the invasion of Iraq. Even though it was later determined that the Iraqis had not acquired WMDs, there is no reason to assume that Bush has repudiated this precept.

Indeed, Bush has made it very clear in his comments on Iran that while he prefers to resolve the WMD issue through diplomacy, the deadline for a negotiated outcome will happen “sooner rather than later” and that “all options are on the table.” Has Bush, in fact, set a specific time limit on his patience? Although it is impossible to know, there are a number of indications that such a limit has been set, possibly for later this year. These include:

§ The deployment of a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region, along with an accompanying array of cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Several additional US and British naval minesweepers are also being sent to the Gulf–a clear indication that senior commanders anticipate Iranian efforts to block vital oil routes in response to any US airstrikes.

§ The decision to replace the outgoing head of the US Central Command–which oversees US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the surrounding region–with a Navy officer, Adm. William Fallon. It makes no sense to put Fallon, a former carrier group commander, in charge unless the next phase of combat in the region will emphasize air and naval operations against Iran.

§ The recent announcement of plans to double the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, providing a growing buffer to any Iranian effort to punish the United States by blocking oil exports from the Gulf.

It is possible, of course, that these moves are intended largely as bargaining ploys, to bludgeon the Iranians into abandoning their plans for enriching uranium. But since these moves are coupled with elaborate efforts to establish a rationale for escalation, they should be viewed as signs that Bush has indeed set a deadline–perhaps known only to himself and a few associates–for Iranian compliance. This being so, opponents of the war have a dual responsibility: to contest the strategic context for a wider war and to bar specific acts of escalation by the President.

As for the strategic context, many of the allegations raised by Bush are dubious at best and easily refuted. There simply is no evidence of a grand Shiite conspiracy against the United States, only of a centuries-long struggle by the oft-maligned Shiite population to be accorded greater respect within the Islamic world. Other issues, however, require closer scrutiny, and the best way to accomplish this is through a series of comprehensive hearings by the relevant committees of Congress, featuring testimony by well-informed witnesses from both within and outside the Administration. The witnesses should be required to address such questions as:

Iran’s nuclear capabilities

§ What is the evidence that Iran seeks a nuclear weapons capability, as distinct from nuclear enrichment for civilian purposes?

§ How far in their nuclear endeavors have the Iranians come?

§ What are the options for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis?

Iran’s role in Iraq

§ What is the evidence for Iranian military support of militant Shiite factions in Baghdad?

§ Can Tehran play a constructive role in Iraq as part of an overall settlement of outstanding issues (as proposed by the Iraq Study Group)?

The larger strategic equation in the Middle East

§ How does the resurgence of Shiite Islam truly affect US interests?

§ Should the United States help forge an anti-Shiite alliance in the region, or does peace between Israelis and Palestinians take precedence?

These are only some of the questions that must be answered fully and convincingly before Congress, or the American people, assent to any plan to widen the war in the Middle East. And until we receive such answers, Congress should adopt legislation banning the use of federal funds for any attacks on Iran or Syria without its prior authorization. This would separate the question of funding a wider war from the emotional issue of funding for the forces now in Iraq (which a majority of Senate Republicans seem to consider sacrosanct). Surely, if there is one thing most Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s the need to stop a reckless President from doubling his bet in the war and using the lives of US soldiers as playing chips.