Condi Rice 298.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Israeli strike on Syria last month has become a Rorschach test of sorts for Bush administration policy makers, many of whom are viewing the incident in relation to how they think the US should proceed on diplomatic nonproliferation initiatives.
In the reported incident, Israeli intelligence allegedly found signs of an incipient Syrian nuclear program being built with help from North Korea, leading to an attack that eliminated the facility.
As detailed in The New York Times Wednesday, US Vice President Dick Cheney and hawkish skeptics of the current negotiations with North Korea over dismantling its nuclear program are pointing to the incident as reason to reconsider the diplomatic effort.
On the other hand US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her backers don't consider the case sufficiently severe to disrupt the Six-Party talks with North Korea, which have continued even after the Israel action.
The Times article followed reports over the weekend that Israel had delayed the offensive due to US displeasure at the prospect of the strike, much of it from the State Department.
While some Israel advocates have taken umbrage at the suggestion of doubt being shed on Israeli intelligence - which they reject as unwarranted - others say the debate bolsters Israel's position because it indicates the Israelis are willing to act alone when necessary.
"Recently there's been the notion that [Israelis] are so dependent on the United States that they cannot make national security decisions that reflect their own perceived interests," noted one Washington source who is close to American and Israeli officials.
"The fact that there was an internal debate in the administration and no clear green light, but only acquiescence, enhances the deterrence and the perceived ability of Israel to act independently of the United States." Former CIA and US Defense Department official Bruce Reidel said the issue wasn't whether Israeli intelligence per se is reliable, but rather the generally uncertain nature of any information about North Korea.
"North Korea is a black hole for intelligence," he said, since its closed nature makes human intelligence assets almost unheard of.
"We are heavily dependent on technical intelligence, and technical intelligence is always subject to a high degree of analysis and evaluation," said Reidel, now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "You have isolated data points and very little way of connecting them together." He said that leaves much of the intelligence gathered open to interpretation - and use by officials seeking to boost their agendas.
"The vice president's office will lean so far forward they'll fall of their face with their enthusiasm to use [technical intelligence] for military purposes" against places like Iraq and Iran, he said.
On the other hand, Reidel continued, the State Department would have "a very high standard of proof" for examining any such intelligence. He pointed to Rice's involvement with two "very visible" diplomatic initiatives - the negotiations with North Korea and the upcoming international peace meeting between Israel and Palestinians "both of which could become undone because of tensions between Israel and Syria." Though the larger fracture looms - and could have potent implications for Iran - one Washington observer believes the debate is over when it comes to North Korea.
"The fact is that this is a done deal," said the source, "and the administration would never would have let (Assistant Secretary of State) Chris Hill go and negotiate with the North Koreans after the Israeli strike, or sent the team of inspectors to North Korea this week to begin the disarmament process, if they were have second thoughts on moving ahead with it."
He added, "The few remaining neo-conservatives in the administration, or those like John Bolton who've left it, may not like the deal, but Rice wouldn't have closed it without the full support of Bush. This is one of the few successes so far they can point to, and the Israeli intelligence over a possible shipment of nuclear material to Syria wouldn't be enough to scuttle it." Bolton and other strong neo-conservative supporters of Israel in the US are indeed among those who have most strongly opposed the North Korean talks from the very start.
According to Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, an expert in nuclear proliferation issues, Israel itself has no interest in being part of the debate over North Korea.
"Israel is rightly concerned about the issue of possible proliferation from North Korea, especially to Syria or Iran, as they dismantle their nuclear infrastructure," he said. "The Israeli interest is not to abandon the Six-Party framework, but to press to have a firm agreement on ending North Korea exports as part of the package."
Bush administration officials don't like to talk on the record about how the Israeli air strike has factored into policy in North Korea, and Rice avoided the Syrian incident when meeting with a group of Jewish leaders last week, according to those familiar with the meeting.
But it was reported that Hill brought up the incident with the North Koreans. The State Department officially reiterates the importance of nonproliferation as a goal of the Six-Party talks.
"The Six-Party talks are a mechanism to address a number of problems, particularly the nuclear program, so we are working through this process in an effort to get North Korea to abandon all of its existing nuclear [activities]," a State Department official said. "The administration is committed to trying to make this process work. Proliferation is something that has to be dealt with."