Bush deputy national security adviser: Syrian crisis ‘would be even more dangerous’ had Israel not destroyed nuclear reactor in 2007

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.