Israeli attack on Syria mirrors Iraq policy

Washington faces consequences of pre-emptive policy


October 15, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- It was President Bush who, a year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, rewrote America's national security strategy to warn any nation that might be thinking of trying to develop atomic weapons that it could find itself the target of a pre-emptive military strike.

But that was the fall of 2002, when the world looked very different than it does in the fall of 2007. Now, the case of Syria, which Israeli and American analysts suspect was trying to build a nuclear reactor, has become a prime example of what can happen when Bush's first-term instincts run headlong into second-term realties. Five years later, dealing with nations that may have nuclear weapons ambitions - but are also staying within the letter of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - looks a lot more complicated than it once did.

This time it was the Israelis who invoked Bush's doctrine, determining that what they believed was a nascent Syrian effort to build a nuclear reactor could not be tolerated. In a curious role reversal, some of Bush's own top advisers were urging restraint before Israel bombed the site Sept. 6, raising questions about whether the threat was too murky and too distant to warrant military action. Those are precisely the kinds of questions Bush's critics say should have been raised about Iraq.

It may be months or years before all the mysteries surrounding the attack on Syria become clear. The silence of the Middle Eastern countries that would normally condemn an Israeli attack suggested that they, too, were worried about what was happening in the Syrian desert. Then there is the question of whether, and how, North Korea might have been involved, because the reactor project seemed similar to the one Kim Jong Il's government had designed.

What has become clear is that the risks of taking pre-emptive action now look a lot greater to Bush than they did in 2003, when he declared that Iraq's efforts to build weapons of mass destruction justified military action. In the Syrian case, he has steadfastly refused to say anything. In the case of Iran - which has defied the United Nations for a year while it builds a nuclear infrastructure that Washington believes is designed to give it the capability to make bomb fuel - Bush publicly insists there is still plenty of time for diplomacy.

Michael Green, the former director for Asia at the National Security Council, suggested that Bush is acutely conscious that he has 15 months left, little time for accomplishments that could counterbalance Iraq. Israel's pre-emptive strike, he said, "could get in the way of his two biggest projects - getting on a path to stabilizing the Middle East, and getting North Korea to give up its weapons."

By contrast, Green said, the Israelis are thinking five or 10 years ahead. They saw a chance to thwart the Syrians and to fire a warning shot that the Iranians could not fail to notice.

That, of course, was part of the logic of Iraq in early 2003. In those days, Bush's aides spoke of the "demonstration effect" that toppling Saddam Hussein would have around the world. Under this theory, the North Koreans and the Iranians, among others, would see what happened in Iraq and reconsider their nuclear ambitions.

It did not turn out that way. North Korea evicted international nuclear inspectors, raced to produce enough fuel for eight to a dozen nuclear weapons and conducted a nuclear test, with limited success, a year ago. Iran raced ahead, too, building centrifuges that can enrich uranium.

With the American military stretched in Iraq, the credibility of any American threat to take pre-emptive action elsewhere in the Middle East - and to deal with the consequences - is questionable. Moreover, Bush has made no secret of his desire to leave office with some diplomatic victories.

Already, that has muted the talk about pre-emptive strikes; the president has been far more measured about Iran and Syria than Iraq. Getting a deal with North Korea to disgorge its own nuclear fuel and weapons may require looking past whatever North Korea might have sold to another country. And it may mean engaging the Syrians, even before they answer the question of what, exactly, they were building in the desert.

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