It has taken seven months, but it appears that the Bush administration has finally buckled under Congressional pressure and is ready to give US lawmakers a full briefing on the September 6 IDF bombing raid against the North Korean-built nuclear installation in Syria. Sunday it was reported that Congress has forced the administration's hand on the issue by making its approval of the administration's intelligence budget contingent on receiving a full briefing on the raid.
Israel, which initially was upset with the administration's insistence on silencing all discussion of the Sept. 6 operation, is now reportedly unhappy with the administration's decision to release its details. The administration is expected to provide the information at Congressional hearings later in the month and Israeli Defense Ministry officials are beside themselves.
Defense officials fear that the revelation of Syria's rogue activities will push Syrian dictator Bashar Assad over the edge. They caution that today, in the aftermath of terror-master Imad Mughniyeh's assassination in Syria in February, and with heightened tensions along Israel's borders with Lebanon and Syria, Assad may view the exposure of his nuclear proliferation activities as an invitation to throw caution to the wind. He may embrace his exposure as a full-fledged member in the North Korean-Iranian-Syrian axis of nuclear proliferating, terror-sponsoring states and take actions commensurate with his status.
Both the Defense Ministry's concerns about the consequences of exposing the Israeli operation and Congress's demand that the details of the raid be revealed demonstrate important lessons about the constraints and imperatives that fighting long, complicated wars place on policymakers in democratic societies.
ISRAEL'S POSITION reflects a conflict between immediate and long-term interests. Israel has an immediate interest in dissuading Syria from attacking either directly or through any of Syria's multiple terror proxies. It also has an interest in protecting intelligence sources and methods which may be compromised by a disclosure of the operation.
Israeli politicians have no need to inform the Israeli public of the nature of the raid because among the Israeli public, there is a consensus regarding the nature of the threat that Syria poses to the country. Israelis understand that Syria cannot be permitted to acquire certain arsenals and they understand that some things are better left unreported. The Israeli public's relative sophistication on the issue did not spring from nowhere. Syria has been in a declared state of war against Israel for 60 years. And every time that Israelis have permitted ourselves to believe that Syria might be interested in ending that state of war, through their own actions the Syrians have been quick to dispel the notion.
While Israel's immediate interests are understandable, in the medium and long terms, given the rogue nature of the Syrian regime, its strategic alliance with Iran and its strategic collaboration with North Korea, Israel has its own strategic interest in exposing Syria and building an operational alliance with the US to defeat Syria and Iran in the war that they wage with North Korean assistance against Israel and the US. That medium- and long-term interest ought to outweigh immediate concerns. And the outcry in the Defense Ministry should simply be understood as an expression of dismay at the inevitable cost of building alliances.
The standoff between the administration and Congress on the nature of the Sept. 6 raid is illustrative of the second lesson for policymakers that the Syrian operation manifests. It goes to the heart of the need for policymakers in democratic societies to be open with their publics about the identity of their adversaries and of the nature of the war being waged against them in order to form a consensus about the nature of those adversaries and the need to combat them like the consensus that already exists in Israel about Syria.
SINCE SEPTEMBER, Congressional leaders have given three main justifications for their need to understand what happened on Sept. 6. First, they have argued that lawmakers and the American public have a right to understand the significance of the target in light of what it says about North Korean nuclear proliferation activities.
Last year, the US signed an agreement with North Korea. North Korea pledged to disable its nuclear installation at Yongbyon and to give a full accounting of its other nuclear installations, its nuclear arsenal and materials and its nuclear proliferation activities. The US in exchange agreed to lift financial sanctions against Pyongyang, normalize relations between Washington and Pyongyang, remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, and provide economic assistance to North Korea. The US is still awaiting North Korean compliance. A disclosure of the nature of the target of Israel's Sept. 6 operation in Syria, Congress argues, is essential for assessing the reasonableness of the US's current North Korean policy.
Moreover, Congressional leaders – and most prominently among them, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Peter Hokstra – have argued that by failing to give a full accounting of the IDF raid, the administration is preventing lawmakers and the US public from making an educated assessment of the nature of the threat that Syria poses to US national security interests. Syria actively promotes war in Iraq by training Iraq-bound fighters on its soil and acting as the major transit point to Iraq for jihadists. Syria is the headquarters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and several other Islamic terror groups. It is Hizbullah's logistical backbone. While all of these actions are sufficient to place Syria squarely in the camp of US enemies, its apparent nuclear proliferation with Iran and North Korea requires a reclassification of the threat posed by Syria from nuisance to strategic threat.
Finally, American lawmakers have argued that understanding the Israeli operation is essential for understanding the nature of the Iranian-Syrian-North Korean alliance. By preventing the release of details on the raid, the administration is denying Congress and the American public the ability to understand the rationale and the modes of operation of arguably the greatest threat to US national security. How can Congress support an ally like Israel if it doesn't understand why what Israel does promotes US national security interests? And how can Congress support US actions in the war if it isn't aware of the nature of the axis fighting the US?
WHAT IS most striking about the Bush administration's unwillingness to reveal the nature of the Israeli raid to Congress is how it seems to upset the administration's own war efforts in Iraq. Working together, under Iranian control, for the past five years Syria and Iran have been the major forces behind the war in Iraq. Jihadists of both the Sunni and Shiite variety enter Iraq from Syria and Iran. They receive training in both countries. They receive direction and orders from Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
And yet, rather than make clear to Congress and to the US public that the war in Iraq is not an Iraqi war per se but a key battleground in a regional war in which Iran and Syria have combined forces on multiple fronts in a bid to defeat the US and its allies, the Bush administration obfuscates that central truth. For the past five years, key administration officials have repeated the bizarre claim that Iran and Syria share the US's interest in bringing stability to Iraq and that responsibility for ending the war rests solely on the shoulders of Iraq's government rather than on the shoulders of the foreign governments who are waging the war.
The administration itself then holds a major portion of responsibility for the fact that five years after US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, the majority of Americans believes that the US doesn't h
ave an interest in what happens in post-Saddam Iraq and should simply remove its forces from the country at the first opportunity. If the administration was less concerned about obfuscating Syrian and Iranian centrality in the war, there can be little doubt that more Americans would understand why it is essential that the US not allow Iraq to fall into their hands. Indeed, a larger number of Americans would understand that Iran and Syria are waging this proxy war against coalition forces and Iraqis in a bid to advance their goal of regional dominance.
Notably the US official who has been most consistent in highlighting Iran's central role in Iraq is US Commander in Iraq General David Petreaus. Petreaus and his officers, whose job it is to win the war in Iraq, apparently understand what the administration has spent the past five years ignoring. They understand that to secure the public support necessary to fight a long war, they need to tell the American public what the war is about, who the US is fighting and what is at stake.
Last week the Iranians rejected yet another European-American offer to appease them in a North Korean-styled deal in exchange for a pause in their uranium-enrichment activities. The Iranians also introduced a new set of advanced centrifuges to their Natanz nuclear installation which are apparently better equipped to enrich uranium to weapons grade than the current 3,000 centrifuges now operating at the facility. The Iranians also promised that on Tuesday April 8 – a day they have designated their celebration of nuclear power day – they will provide more "good news" about their atomic program.
So as it wages war against the US in Iraq and against Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, supported by its Syrian and North Korean allies, Iran moves brazenly and swiftly forward in its bid to acquire nuclear weapons. And as it moves, it drags the US and Israel ever closer to a great war. The question is how can the US be expected to handle the coming conflagration when it demurs from explaining its eminently more manageable current situation either to itself or to its public?
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post.