There are lessons to be learned from history, and we ignore them at our peril. This month Elliott Abrams posted a story in Commentary Magazine with a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the Israeli bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the story.
The story begins:
In the middle of May 2007, we received an urgent request to receive Mossad chief Meir Dagan at the White House. Olmert asked that he be allowed to show some material to Bush personally. We headed that off with a suggestion that he first reveal whatever he had to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and to me; I was then the deputy national-security adviser in charge of the Middle East portfolio on the National Security Council. Vice President Dick Cheney joined us in Hadley’s office for Dagan’s presentation. What Dagan had was astonishing and explosive: He showed us intelligence demonstrating that Syria was constructing a nuclear reactor whose design was supplied by North Korea, and doing so with North Korean technical assistance. Dagan left us with one stark message: All Israeli policymakers who saw the evidence agreed that the reactor had to go away.
The article then details the meetings that followed, the fact that the existence of the site was successfully kept a secret from the American media, and the options debated as to the solution to the problem.
A conclusion was reached:
The arguments for going to the IAEA and UN seemed so flimsy to me, despite the length and detail of the planning memos and scenarios to which they gave rise, that I did not much worry about them. Who could believe these organizations would act effectively? Who could believe we would not be sitting there five years later entangled in the same diplomatic dance over the Syrian program that we were in with respect to Iran?
In the end, our near-perfect policy process produced the wrong result. At a final session in the gracious Yellow Oval Room at the Residence, Bush came down on Rice’s side. We would go to Vienna, to the IAEA; he would call Olmert and tell him what the decision was. I was astounded and realized I had underestimated Rice’s influence even after all this time. The president had gone with Condi.
The Israeli attack on the reactor made President Bush’s plan obsolete:
…We knew the Israelis would strike sooner or later. They acted, in the end, when a leak about the reactor’s existence was imminent and Syria might then have gotten notice that Israel knew of its existence. That would have given Assad time to put civilians or nuclear fuel near the site. The Israelis did not seek, nor did they get, a green or red light from us. Nor did they announce their timing in advance; they told us as they were blowing up the site. Olmert called the president on September 6 with the news.
As I had sat in the Oval Office on July 13, listening to his conversation with Olmert, I had wondered how the president would react to the Israeli action. With anger? Or more pressure? None of it. He heard Olmert out calmly and acknowledged that Israel had a right to protect its national security. After hanging up, the president said something like “that guy has guts,” in an admiring tone. The incident was over; the differences over al-Kibar would obviously not affect Bush’s relationship with Olmert or his view of Israel.
So quickly did he accept the Olmert decision that I wondered then, and do still, if the president did not at some level anticipate and desire this result. He had sided with Condi and shown that she was still in charge of Middle East policy, but her “take it to the UN” plan had been blown up along with the reactor. He did not seem very regretful. What is more, he instructed us all to abandon the diplomatic plans and maintain absolute silence, ensuring that Israel could carry out its plan.
The paragraph below provides food for thought in our current dealings with the Arab world:
A very well-placed Arab diplomat later told us that the strike had left Assad deeply worried as to what was coming next. He had turned Syria into the main transit route for jihadis going to Iraq to kill American soldiers. From Libya or Indonesia, Pakistan or Egypt, they would fly to Damascus International Airport and be shepherded into Iraq. Assad was afraid that on the heels of the Israeli strike would come American action to punish him for all this involvement. But just weeks later, Assad received his invitation to send a Syrian delegation to that big international confab of Condi’s, the Annapolis Conference, and according to the Arab envoy, Assad relaxed immediately; he knew he would be OK. I had not wanted Syria invited to Annapolis because of its involvement in killing Americans in Iraq, but Condi had wanted complete Arab representation as a sign that comprehensive peace might be possible. It was only years later that I learned that Assad had instead interpreted the invitation just as I had: as a sign that the United States would not seriously threaten or punish him for what Syria was doing in Iraq.
Please read the entire article for ‘the rest of the story.’ After reading the entire article, I can’t help but think that pretty much everything American has done in the Arab world in order to make peace has had the opposite effect. I don’t think we understand the culture we are dealing with.