With apologies to Steve Clemons, maybe it’s the reality based SCUDs in Syria community—and not the nukes in Syria crowd—that’s getting “Judith Miller’d”.
Looking at an actual immediate security threat by North Korea and Syria that could justify a pre-emptive strike by Israel, my money’s always been on SCUDs not nukes.
But, based on the October 14 report by Sanger and Mazzetti in the New York Times citing multiple sources for the story that Washington was wrestling with reports from Israel of a partially constructed nuclear facility in Syria, I’m starting to sidle over to the “nukes not SCUDs ” side of the speculative fence.
Maybe strategic and political considerations—especially Israel’s relationship with the United States and America’s policy toward pre-emptive counterproliferation were the key issues at stake.
But whatever was there in Syria, in the public domain I think it was a lot of hype, hot air…and wishful thinking.
And I’ll bet a lot of it came from Uzi Arad.
Mossad veteran Uzi Arad, told NEWSWEEK: “I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone.”
Perhaps unfairly, I couldn’t help but hearing echoes of Mr. Arad’s statement in a report on the raid’s aftermath by NPR’s Mike Shuster:
…What I keep hearing from reliable and thoughtful experts on North Korea, they’ve been told by those allegedly in the know that if the intelligence could be revealed it would be astounding.
But now :
Uzi Arad, a former head of Mossad [to clarify, he was the Mossad’s head of research, not head of the whole shebang—ed] , Israel’s intelligence agency, and the national security adviser under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that he did not know for certain what Israel bombed in Syria but that a nuclear reactor was plausible.
Wuzzat, Uzi? That’s not stunning. Or astounding.
I had actually been following Uzi Arad with considerable interest, because he was the only person with well burnished insider—as opposed to political–credentials ready to go on record claiming to know the true story about the September 6 raid.
His boss, well-known loose cannon Benjamin Netanyahu, defied Israeli military censorship to confirm rumors of the raid on September 19, saying:
“I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute and I gave it my backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject.”
Israeli government opinion was incensed at the revelation, with the secretary general of the ruling Labor party, Eiten Cabel, weighing in with:
Bibi [Netanyahu] is the same Bibi. I haven no idea if it is foolishness, stupidity, the desire to jump on the bandwagon, the desire to be a partner, to steal credit – or something else. It is simply very dangerous. The man simply does not deserve to lead,” Cabel told Army Radio.
Then, in time for the October 1 issue of Newsweek, Arad pitched in with the teaser quoted above.
Now, what stake would the Uzi Arad have in the Syria story?
Arad is a bona fide hardliner.
He’s also the consummate intelligence insider, ex director of research for the Mossad, head of Israel’s most influential right wing think tank, architect and participant in various Israeli back channel initiatives vis a vis Syria and Iran, Bibi Netanyahu’s brain for security and foreign affairs, and, no doubt background briefer par excellence for journalists hoping to get the real skinny on goings-on in the Middle East.
Arad is assiduous in cultivating ties with the United States and NATO to advance Israel’s security.
His annual Herzliya conference—during which important Israeli security policy announcements such as Sharon’s disengagement plan are sometimes made—uses the rhetoric of the shared battle against Islamic extremism to provide a welcoming platform to ultrahawks Bernard Lewis and James Woolsey, and a venue for U.S. presidential hopefuls such as John McCain, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards to demonstrate by videoconference their commitment to Israel’s security.
Arad closely follows the development of Israel’s special relationship with the United States, perhaps too closely.
He weighed in on the case of Larry Franklin, AIPAC’s intelligence asset, self-appointed guardian of U.S.—Israeli cooperation within Doug Feith’s shop at the U.S. Department of Defense and, as of now as a result of a plea bargain, a convicted spy,
When the case first surfaced, Arad rather clumsily played the anti-Israel bias card :
Uzi Arad, a former senior official in the Mossad spy agency, said the allegations were leaked to hurt the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.
“They way it was reported, they pointed out in which office (Franklin) worked,” Arad told Israel Radio. “They pointed at people like Doug Feith or other defense officials who have long been under attack within the American bureaucracy.”
When the Franklin/AIPAC indictments came down, in a development that did not attract the attention it should have, it transpired that Arad had corresponded with Franklin, and met with him at the introduction of the chief intelligence officer of the Israeli embassy in Washington.
To my mind, Arad is a man with an agenda, but he’s also careful to protect his credibility and his mojo as one of Israel’s infallible shadow warriors.
So I didn’t think he’d lightly stake out a position backing the nuclear story, even obliquely as he did to Newsweek, if he believed there was a chance that he’d look like an uninformed alarmist.
So I think there’s something nuclear, at least in the story Israel was pushing to Washington–if not in the Syrian desert.
What was Arad trying to accomplish by helping bring the Syria story into the public domain in the first place? And why did he apparently back down?
To step back for a moment, Uzi Arad’s primary bugbear is not Syria.
Arad sat in on last year’s “Track II” (non-governmental) discussions between Israeli and Syrian representatives, then bugged out when he apparently felt there wasn’t enough in Israel—Syria rapprochement for his country.
What Uzi Arad cares about today is Iran’s nuclear program.
One might argue that Arad’s concern is reactive, driven by the failure of previous policies he’s supported—and his unwillingness to accept that these policies were fundamentally flawed.
What might in retrospect be seen as the Big Mistake was the decision to take a bite of the fatal apple offered by the neocons, discard the framing of the Palestinian problem as the root of Israel’s difficulties with its neighbors, and, assured of unwavering U.S. support, escalate Israel’s confrontation with its antagonists to the regional level.
It appears that Arad saw the PNAC “Clean Break” strategy as a way out of the Palestine cul de sac by declaring that the problem wasn’t the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but those undemocratic and unnecessarily confrontational Islamic powers.
In recent years, even Ariel Sharon earned Arad’s opprobrium with the plan to disengage from Gaza, which seemed to imply that the Palestinian problem could be addressed by actions at the local level.
In the optimistic days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Arad obligingly endorsed the line that “democracies don’t attack democracies” and imposing democracy on the Middle East by gunpoint was going to make things all better.
Then, when things didn’t get all better and it was clear that Iraq’s struggling democracy was simply creating a power vacuum for Iran’s theocracy to fill, Arad switched to the Chicken Little thesis , arguing that the world was at risk from burgeoning Islamic extremism.
In recent months, he’s openly expressed his dismay at the turn of events in Iraq, which have significantly strengthened Iran in the region.
Ironically, the Clean Break strategy of regionalizing Israel’s security conflict in order to bring the decisive military weight of the United States to bear in the Middle East has not only backfired—it’s been turned on its head.
Now the United States and Israel are scrambling to contain Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas—forces that perhaps could have been dealt with separately in the past but now understand that coordinated action is key to their survival.
With the Iraq toothpaste terminally out of the tube, Arad apparently sees no endgame for his regional strategy but taking out Iran.
And, despite martial chestthumping, I think Israeli strategists accept that they are incapable of handling Iran themselves, and U.S. participation in a concerted military campaign to neutralize Iran by pounding it to an Iraqicized degree of helplessness is indispensable.
So by design, logic, or an unwillingness to acknowledge other options—like accepting a place under an explicit U.S. nuclear deterrent umbrella or rethinking the deal with the Palestinians—the hardliners are painting themselves into a rhetorical corner in which Israel faces an existential danger that can only be managed with U.S. military action against Iran.
With this context—and the New York Times article on Sunday—I’ve come to believe that Israel did indeed deliver a nuclear dossier to the United States in order to justify the September 6 raid.
And I believe the dossier wasn’t very good.
Certainly it didn’t depict an imminent or even presumptive threat justifying a pre-emptive strike.
Condi Rice apparently was unwilling to endorse the raid, calling upon the Israelis to confront Syria diplomatically with their evidence instead.
Since secret preliminary work on a nuclear reactor is apparently not illegal under the NPT, the Syrians would have been within their sovereign rights to tell the Israelis to get lost.
If the Israelis had pursued their claims about any Syrian nuclear program through conventional multilateral channels, the dispute would have been diplomatized, like the Iran matter—not exactly the outcome that the hardliners in the Israeli security establishment are looking for.
Arad’s views on ability of the Non-Proliferation Treaty system to protect Israel’s security are not ambiguous.
In the course of an article deploring Russia’s bad faith in continuing to provide nuclear technology to Iran while paying lip service to non-proliferation, he stated :
At the same time that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and enjoys the benefits of membership in the NPT regime and in the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran violates the NPT on a large scale, and everybody knows it, and nothing happens.
The bottom line is that Arad sees a Middle East filled with willing proliferators and eager customers, all taking advantage of an ineffectual anti-proliferation system.
The solutions are deterrence (Arad speaks darkly of a deterrence deficit which can only be ameliorated if Israel states its resolve to attack “everything and anything of value “in Iran in case of nuclear attack) and…
Well, in 2003 Arad wrote:
In a very few years, the Iranians may test a nuclear bomb, or they could follow a North Korean scenario and depart from the NPT.
The same logic the Americans applied to Iraq applies to Iran. Will the Americans carry their policy to its ultimate logical conclusion? Can the U.S. do it alone? Does it have enough support? Does it have the strength? Because if the Iraqi threat is resolved by its being disarmed but Iran is left unattended, we will have done very little for Middle Eastern stability and for nonproliferation.
Back to Syria, and that thing in the desert that Arad was so worked up about.
From what’s been leaked we can conclude that the Israelis saw something in Syria that they declared, either through sophisticated analysis, an excess of caution and paranoia, or cynical calculation, to be something nuclear that they wanted to blow up and the White House without a great deal of enthusiasm, let them do it.
My take on the situation:
Israel’s concerns—both Likud and Labor–are focused on regional security doctrine, the relationship with Washington, and the potential confrontation with Iran.
What Syria actually did or did not have in the desert was of secondary importance, and certainly was not an imminent threat.
Israel wanted to use its Syria findings to paint for Washington a picture of the Middle East with the proliferation genie out of the bottle and Israel threatened by Islamic nuclear reactors operated by duplicitous regimes in Iran and Syria and percolating with potential for covert weapons programs.
These programs would all be legal or quasi-legal, with their owners gaming the IAEA and hiding behind the NPT, stroking the Europeans, relying on Chinese and Russian diplomatic cover in the Security Council, acquiring forbidden nuclear technology from venal, immoral, and indifferent Russians, North Koreans, and Pakistanis, and creeping inexorably toward weaponization.
Since the next inhabitant of the White House may well be a Democrat who doesn’t share the current administration’s taste for military solutions and might instead chase the mirage of negotiation through the deserts of the Middle East, Israel’s security apparatus wanted to highlight a new potential nuclear threat, Syria, to bolster the argument that President Bush has to Do Something Now—at least support the raid verbally if not militarily and reassert the principle of pre-emptive counterproliferation outside of the structure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty as U.S. policy
Otherwise, Israel’s security could be fatally compromised by the inaction and confusion of Bush’s successors when one or two Islamic states would tiptoe up to the red line, then bolt the NPT and re-emerge a few months later—like North Korea—as nuclear powers ready to reach an accommodation with the United States, but not necessarily renounce their hostility toward Israel.
Maybe the dossier wasn’t very strong.
Maybe the purported nuclear facility was something that the Syrians and North Koreans were working on a few years back. Maybe it was abandoned. Maybe it was something else. Maybe it was just a hole in the ground. Maybe the dossier showed some satellite photographs, embellished with a bunch of tangential intel and worst-case thinking designed as grist for Dick Cheney’s paranoid mill. Maybe the most hypable threat was fear, as yet unsupported by actual developments, that Iran would put its obliging ally, Syria, into the nuke business.
But, in the context of the Bush administration’s long-standing commitment to counter-proliferation, pre-emption, and the Big-Picture regional approach, and with Dick Cheney apparently on board, the White House would be unlikely to withhold its support for the Israeli position.
So far so good.
But it turns out that the key foreign policy conflict in Washington isn’t between “bomb Syria and/or Iran” and “don’t bomb Syria and/or Iran”.
It’s between proceeding with the same policy of regional escalation that led us into Iraq or discreetly dialing back to the old Palestine-centric approach to solving Israel’s security problem—something I’d call creeping Bakerism.
And if the Palestinian issue is accepted in Washington as the true root of Israel’s problems, then the Iranian issue can be handled separately, as a wary negotiation and accommodation between the world’s only hyperpower and an important regional Islamic player.
Indeed, an analysis by Trita Parsi (via Rootless Cosmopolitan ) of Netanyahu and Arad’s previous attempt at rapprochement with Iran that I found quite persuasive ended with this comment:
Iran’s dismissal of Israel’s conciliatory signals convinced the Netanyahu government that just like in the Iran Contra affair, Tehran only wanted to mend fences with the U.S. and had no real interest in rebuilding its ties with Israel.
Therein, of course, lay the real threat from Iran.
The Israelis saw danger in a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, believing this would inevitably see the U.S. sacrifice some of its support for Israel in order to find a larger accommodation with Iran, in pursuit of U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Iran would become emboldened and the U.S. would no longer seek to contain its growth. The balance of power would shift from Israel towards Iran and the Jewish State would no longer be able rely on Washington to control Tehran. “The Great Satan will make up with Iran and forget about Israel,” Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University in Israel noted.
Israel’s relative regional importance to the U.S. would decline with a warming of ties between Washington and Tehran.
So, after nine months of courting Tehran, Netanyahu gave up and reverted back to the Peres-Rabin policy of vilifying Iran and seeking its international isolation.
Today, Israel is facing a similar situation, but with one big difference. Iran is far more powerful than it was in 1996, while the power of the U.S. to impose its will in the Middle East has diminished considerably. The difficulties confronting the U.S. in Iraq and technological progress in Iran’s nuclear program may compel Washington to recognize that its best interests lie in a grand bargain with Tehran. But the general view in Israel today is the notion that such negotiations must be prevented, because all potential outcomes of a U.S.-Iran negotiation are perceived to be less optimal for Israel than the status quo of intense U.S.-Iran enmity that threatens to boil over into a military clash.
It’s precisely to prevent such engagement between Washington and Tehran that Netanyahu and company are pressing the 1938[Hitler vs. the West—ed.] analogy.
The North Korea deal might not be good news for Israel—because it offered a possible template for Iran, as the Chinese pointed out (at last— an Asian link! ).
In the overseas edition of the People’s Daily — the ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece — China’s former ambassador to Iran said six-party negotiations hosted by Beijing set an example for engaging Tehran, which is pressing ahead with nuclear development that Western powers say could give it weapons capability.
After North Korea agreed on October 3 to disable key nuclear facilities and declare all atomic activities by the end of 2007, President George W. Bush also held up North Korea as a possible example for concessions by Iran.
But Ambassador Hua Liming drew a lesson very different from Bush’s. He suggested that ending the Iran nuclear standoff required that Washington negotiate directly with Iran, even if Tehran continues uranium enrichment the United Nations has told it to halt.
Of course, the primary and negative lesson for Israel would be how North Korea used the bomb to enhance its geopolitical credentials and enter into meaningful negotiations with the United States, leaving Japan—which can be called with only slight exaggeration our Israel in the Pacific—holding the short end of the stick both in the concrete matter of the abductees and in the perceptual matter of Japan being somebody in the region worth listening to.
It’s probably no coincidence that the orchestrated hysterics concerning the Walt—Mearsheimer book occurred at a time of growing Israeli concern that U.S. policy might revealing a realist-driven divergence between U.S. and Israeli priorities in the Middle East (Arad’s rather opaque takedown of Walt—Mearsheimer can be read here).
Add to that the moderates’ determined efforts to breathe some life into the Middle East Peace Process, and I think there was probably a certain amount of palpable desperation for the Israeli security establishment in pushing the Syria dossier.
With the Bush administration settling into lame-duck status, moderates pulling back from broad and destabilizing regional goals in the Middle East, and a Democratic administration with a significant anti-war base looming on the horizon, it would have taken something “astounding” and “stunning” to get the United States to reaffirm its commitment to pre-emption.
In the event, Israel’s effort to drive the Middle East policy debate and discredit the moderates by positing a hot, actionable nuclear link between North Korea and Syria apparently fizzled, thanks to a weak dossier and/or U.S. unwillingness to take that particular path.
It looks like significant elements in foreign policy Washington have had a bellyful of regional escalation and saw reduced risks and costs in decoupling Iran and Israel and pursuing the moderate line that would has borne some fruit vis a vis North Korea.
Seeing Olmert losing the debate in Washington, perhaps Netanyahu and Arad tried to rally their forces—or just score some political points–by taking the Syria story public, to the dismay and fury of the Labor government.
But any hopes that the U.S. government—or at least hardliner allies inside and outside the administration—would raise a howl of outrage and the world would truly be “stunned” by the discrediting of the moderates, compromise of the Six Party Agreement, and a muscular statement of the principle of counterproliferation against Syria—and by implication against Iran—were dashed.
Iinstead the State Department, backed no doubt by the Defense Department and the uniformed services, quietly but firmly pushed back.
Feith, Joseph, Bolton, Wurmser all gone, and stream of leaks, invective, and allegations that normally nourish hardliner initiatives dried up. Even John Bolton’s op-eds sound more befuddled than intimidating.
Israel was left out on a limb, and went off on its lonesome to try and vindicate its questionable intelligence judgment with a raid that yielded a new hole in the ground but precious few security or geopolitical benefits.
Maybe the U.S. State Department moderates further quashed the nuclear story by peddling a fake SCUD angle that was picked up by people like me, who found (and still find) the idea of some significant ongoing clandestine nuclear cooperation between Syria and North Korea extremely unlikely.
And, contacted by the New York Times to put some meat on his story that would “stun everyone”, Uzi Arad discreetly looked at the unfavorable disposition of forces and beat a retreat.