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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

State v. 'Neocons' redux on Syria and North Korea

The New York Times claims this morning that there's a debate between the State Department - particularly Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice - and what's left of the White House 'neocons' - particularly Vice President Dick Cheney - over whether the intelligence that Israel showed to the US justified the strike on a Syrian WMD facility last month. You can probably guess which side is which.

Of course, the strike itself is water under the bridge at this point. The issue is whether the existence of a North Korean WMD facility in Syria ought to bring about a reassessment of the US attempt at rapprochement with the two rogue states:
The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.


Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.

It has long been known that North Korean scientists have aided Damascus in developing sophisticated ballistic missile technology, and there appears to be little debate that North Koreans frequently visited a site in the Syrian desert that Israeli jets attacked Sept. 6. Where officials disagree is whether the accumulated evidence points to a Syrian nuclear program that poses a significant threat to the Middle East.

Mr. Cheney and his allies have expressed unease at the decision last week by President Bush and Ms. Rice to proceed with an agreement to supply North Korea with economic aid in return for the North’s disabling its nuclear reactor. Those officials argued that the Israeli intelligence demonstrates that North Korea cannot be trusted. They also argue that the United States should be prepared to scuttle the agreement unless North Korea admits to its dealing with the Syrians.

During a breakfast meeting on Oct. 2 at the White House, Ms. Rice and her chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, made the case to President Bush that the United States faced a choice: to continue with the nuclear pact with North Korea as a way to bring the secretive country back into the diplomatic fold and give it the incentive to stop proliferating nuclear material; or to return to the administration’s previous strategy of isolation, which detractors say left North Korea to its own devices and led it to test a nuclear device last October.

Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, also attended the meeting, administration officials said.
I wonder if there is any scenario in which Rice could be convinced to drop the 'diplomatic approach' to Syria and North Korea. I doubt it. Because I doubt it, I discount what she says. Of course, both the Syrians and North Koreans are denying anything was there, but that makes the North Korean reaction to the strike awfully strange: If they had nothing there, why did they react? They are ten thousand miles away!

I found these comments by Bruce Riedel of Brookings - and formerly of the CIA and the National Security Council - quite on point:
Still, Mr. Riedel said Israel would not have launched the strike in Syria if it believed Damascus was merely developing more sophisticated ballistic missiles or chemical weapons.

“Those red lines were crossed 20 years ago,” he said. “You don’t risk general war in the Middle East over an extra 100 kilometers’ range on a missile system.”
He's right. Israel took a huge chance in making that strike and it's not something it would have done if the plant did not represent a new and dangerous escalation.

The Times also has a new anonymous theory as to what the facility was:
Another former intelligence official said Syria was attempting to develop so-called airburst capability for its ballistic missiles. Such technology would allow Syria to detonate warheads in the air to disperse the warhead’s material more widely.
That might fit with the July explosion when they were trying to load nerve gas onto a warhead. But I'm not sure it's a big enough step-up in capability to justify the risk Israel took in carrying out the strike.

At some point, President Bush has to decide if he's going to stick with his 2001 "Are you with us or with the terrorists" test, or whether he's going to go back to the Clinton policies of ignoring the actions of terror groups and rogue states. 2996 dead on 9-11 is just one of the many consequences of the Clinton policy. It should not be readopted.


At 11:38 AM, Blogger Soccer Dad said...

Reidel surprised me, he's been the NY Times Middle East expert flavor of the month recently -including, I think, an op-ed. I was expecting him to be more of an anti-neocon voice. But here he sounded reasonable.


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