Bush deputy national security adviser: Syrian crisis ‘would be even more dangerous’ had Israel not destroyed nuclear reactor in 2007
Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to President George. W. Bush, says the current turmoil in Syria could have been significantly more dangerous had Israel fallen in line with the Bush administration’s decision not to act militarily against Syria’s covert nuclear program in 2007.
“Israel took out the Syrian reactor in September 2007, five and a half years ago. Had it not done so that reactor would be active, and Syria might have moved forward toward a nuclear weapon — with additional Iranian and North Korean help,” Abrams, author of the recently released book “Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” told The Daily Caller in an interview.
“After all, the reactor itself was an exact copy of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyan. So in addition to our worries about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, we would be wondering if there are nuclear weapons, and how to secure a good deal of enriched uranium. The crisis would be even more dangerous.”
In his new book, Abrams, who is currently senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, take readers behind the scenes of the Bush administration’s handling of the surprise discovery in 2007 that Syria was building a nuclear reactor with the help of North Korea.
Israel brought the intelligence to the Bush administration in May of that year. After American intelligence confirmed the information, the Bush administration debated internally over what to do. President Bush ultimately decided not to act military but take the matter to the United Nations — though he left open the possibility of force if diplomacy failed.
Israel, however, thought the risk posed by the secret Syrian nuclear program was too threatening to its security to trust the international community to deal with it, and successfully acted unilaterally to destroy the reactor in September 2007.
In the aftermath of the strike, Israel and American officials remained mum on the operation, hoping that by not boasting about the strike, Syrian dictator Basher al-Assad would be able to save face and not be humiliated into retaliating. The strategy worked.
In fact, “[t]hat strike seems to have made the Syrians more, not less, desirous of talking to the Israelis because it made them afraid of American power,” Abrams writes in the book.
Abrams says there are lessons to be drawn about the Israeli strike on Syria’s nuclear program that pertain to the current debate in Washington over a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
“The lesson I draw is that predictions about an inevitable and gigantic Middle East war if anyone strikes the Iranian nuclear sites are unpersuasive,” Abrams said.
“Syria considered the possible gains and losses from striking back, and did not do so. Iran’s rulers will make the same calculations, and the options it faces ‘the day after’ are not very good. For one thing, the Syrians viewed the attack as a sign of Israeli and American strength, and that scared them; they did not want to respond in any way that might elicit a further attack. Iran might have the same reaction, because an attack would show we are not afraid of them — and might make them more afraid of us.”
But Abrams says he believes “we are some distance away” from when American and Israeli leaders will have to weigh whether a military strike to set back Iran’s nuclear program is necessary.
“Iran does not seem, for now, to be sprinting toward the bomb, because it does not want to force our hand or Israel’s,” he said. “They are moving forward steadily, not rushing. It is possible that 2013 is the year of decision, or that a decision could be put off into 2014.”
See TheDC’s full interview with Abrams about his book, the Middle East and his opposition to defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.
What will readers get from reading this book?
First, readers will get the inside story of our relations with Israel and the Palestinians for those 8 years [of the Bush administration]. They’ll be at the meetings, from the White House to the foreign ministries and palaces in the Middle East, on the phone calls between President Bush and foreign leaders, and see how our policies really developed. Second, they’ll see how our government really works — The State department, National Security Council, Pentagon, CIA, and how they work together or fail to do so. This is a story, not a textbook, so they will see all of this through moments of crisis, vignettes, and personalities.
What strengths did you observe in George W. Bush’s leadership style? What weaknesses did you observe?
One great strength was Bush’s appreciation that a leader — especially after a crisis like 9/11 — has to show strength, solidity, calm and belief in the country. He cannot show doubt and anguish; he has to keep his staff, his government, and the country believing that he is OK and the country is going to come through this well. His unfailing courtesy and good humor brought his own team through very tough times.
The main weakness I write about in the book is his reliance on a system that very often homogenized the views that were presented to him, instead of presenting disagreements among Cabinet members to him for resolution. Too often when there were disagreements over policy, there were efforts to find a consensus — when it seemed to me he should insist on knowing about the disagreement and why key officials did not see eye to eye.
You discuss in your book at length the debate over what to do about the Syrian nuclear reactor that was being built with the help of the North Koreans. Ultimately, President Bush decided not to launch a strike to destroy it but instead pursue a diplomatic effort to shut it down. If Israel did not act against the wishes of the U.S. to take out Syria’s nuclear reactor, what would the world be facing in Syria today?
Israel took out the Syrian reactor in September 2007, five and a half years ago. Had it not done so that reactor would be active, and Syria might have moved forward toward a nuclear weapon — with additional Iranian and North Korean help. After all, the reactor itself was an exact copy of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyan. So in addition to our worries about Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, we would be wondering if there are nuclear weapons, and how to secure a good deal of enriched uranium. The crisis would be even more dangerous.
You note that Israel’s strategy of destroying the Syrian nuclear site and then not talking about it worked in so far as it allowed the Syrian regime to quietly accept the attack and not retaliate. In fact, you write that the attack may have actually made the Syrians more desirous of talking to Israel. Are there any lessons we can draw from that on dealing with the Iran and its nuclear program?
The lesson I draw is that predictions about an inevitable and gigantic Middle East war if anyone strikes the Iranian nuclear sites are unpersuasive. Syria considered the possible gains and losses from striking back, and did not do so. Iran’s rulers will make the same calculations, and the options it faces “the day after” are not very good. For one thing, the Syrians viewed the attack as a sign of Israeli and American strength, and that scared them; they did not want to respond in any way that might elicit a further attack. Iran might have the same reaction, because an attack would show we are not afraid of them — and might make them more afraid of us.
Speaking of Iran, do you foresee an attack on their nuclear installations, either by the U.S. or Israel, in the near future? Or are we still some distance away from the point where American and Israeli leaders will have to make that weighty decision?
I think we are some distance away. Iran does not seem, for now, to be sprinting toward the bomb, because it does not want to force our hand or Israel’s. They are moving forward steadily, not rushing. It is possible that 2013 is the year of decision, or that a decision could be put off into 2014.
You write that Condi Rice expressed to you and others at one point during her tenure as secretary of state that she viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of the Jim Crow South. That’s pretty shocking. Can you explain that?
Yes, she spoke occasionally of the humiliations suffered by blacks in the Jim Crow South, and analogized them to the humiliations suffered by Palestinians especially at checkpoints in the West Bank, and more generally under the Israeli occupation. She did not view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict trough that lens, but did see the occupation that way sometimes.
One of Rice’s big initiatives, which you opposed, was the Annapolis “Meeting” organized at the end of the Bush administration in a last ditch effort to advance a Arab-Israel peace deal. How did anyone in the administration imagine that a peace deal could be achieved with Mahmoud Abbas when he didn’t even hold sway over all of the territory that would make up an eventual Palestinian state, like the entirety of Gaza?
I think the idea was that a deal could be signed with Abbas and then implemented in the West Bank. If it was well implemented, and life really improved in the West Bank politically and economically, people in Gaza would demand that they too be able to share in the improvements. I did not think Abbas would ever sign any deal, no matter how generous, because he feared the criticism from Hamas and others over the compromises any deal would necessarily entail.
Is there an anecdote or story from the book that you are particularly fond of?
There are many, but here’s one. In November 2003 the peace process seemed entirely stuck, defeated by [then-Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was going to be in Rome on an official visit, so I was dispatched there for a secret meeting with him to ask if he saw any way forward. I flew to Rome and walked over to Sharon’s hotel, the Cavalieri Hilton, and one of his closest aides met me in the parking lot and escorted me through Italian and Israeli security and up to Sharon’s suite. As soon as Sharon appeared we sat down in the dining room of his suite. I anticipated getting a terrific Italian meal, presumably specially catered for him by the best restaurant on the premises. Instead a Sharon staffer brought us a platter covered by slabs of meat. Sharon immediately dug in, pulling over to his side of the table a large piece of pink meat and cutting a huge slice. It sure looked like ham to me, a food I did not eat and assumed Sharon could not, either. So I asked him: “what meat, exactly, is that?” As he brandished a large fork full, he replied “Elliott, sometimes it is better not to ask.”
You were one of the strongest critics of the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, going as far as to say you believed him to be an anti-Semite. Do you have any regrets going there? How confident are you in that assessment today? How confident do you think one needs to be to level such a serious charge against a man?
I said some of his remarks made him seem like an anti-Semite. As I explained in articles I wrote, the test was not whether he makes crude remarks but whether he sees organized political activity by the Jewish community on behalf of Israel as legitimate or not. His own comments suggested he did not, and on the record statements from some Nebraska Jewish leaders gave the same impression.
What three books most shaped your understanding of the Middle East?