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The New York Times reported yesterday that the still mysterious Israeli strike in Syria last month has sparked a raging debate in Washington's corridors of power. At the center is reported Israeli intelligence that North Korea was helping Syria develop nuclear weapons.
"The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea," the report states.
"By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach."
The report states that it is widely accepted that North Koreans were seen at the site Israel destroyed; indeed former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton told The Jerusalem Post soon after the air strike (in comments we were initially prevented from publishing by the Israeli military censor) that he wondered whether North Koreans had been killed there. The question is whether it was some sort of "standard" missile facility or a nuclear development program.
Foreign analysts believe it was very unlikely that Israel would strike at Syria, particular during a period of high tensions, "only" to destroy missiles, or even non-nuclear, unconventional weaponry. "Those red lines were crossed 20 years ago. You don't risk general war in the Middle East over an extra 100 kilometers' range on a missile system," said former CIA official Bruce Riedel.
In this context, Bolton has now said, "Opposing the Israeli strike to protect the [North Korea] talks would be a breathtaking repudiation of the administration's own national security strategy."
On Rice's side, her former adviser, Philip D. Zelikow, said, "You can't just make these decisions using the top of your spinal cord, you have to use the whole brain. What other policy are we going to pursue that we think would be better?"
Using their whole brains, much of Washington officialdom, it seems, quietly opposed the Israeli strike, seeing it as a wrench thrown in the cogs of diplomacy. But is it really so smart to see force and diplomacy as conflicting alternatives?
The terror-sponsoring states certainly do not. It is obvious that Iran and Syria see their support for terrorism as the central plank of their foreign policies. Terrorism is the door-opener for rogue states, the principal means by which they hope to protect their policies of oppression at home and project their power abroad. Terror is their way of bringing the West to the negotiating table and, in North Korea's case, opening the floodgates of foreign aid.
Does this mean the West should respond in kind? Of course not. But it is no less absurd to argue that force, or even the threat of force, has no place in Western policy.
The notion that "no option must be taken off the table" is the lip service paid to the recognition that force is theoretically integrated with Western diplomacy in a coherent policy. But, despite the multilateral invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iranian and Syrian regimes seem to be convinced that the best way to protect their aggressive way of life is more terrorism, not less. Their dream is to obtain the most fearsome terror tool of all, nuclear weapons.
The worst thing possible for any diplomatic effort would be if these regimes believed that the US and Israel were so bogged down in domestic troubles and so militarily chastened that any sort of force had, platitudes aside, been removed from the table. In this scenario, what possible reason would Teheran and Damascus have to moderate their behavior, rather than to accelerate the belligerency that has proven to be such a successful tactic?
Iran, Syria and North Korea must understand that when the West brands the combination of nuclear programs and terrorism "unacceptable" that this word has meaning. It can only have meaning if backed by a seamless continuum of effective collective Western self-defense, starting with draconian economic and diplomatic sanctions and extending through the credible threat of force.
There is nothing that makes the threat of force more credible than its use, so diplomats should be the first to congratulate Israel for taking concrete action to back the objectives of Western diplomacy. Just as we need to use all of our brains, in a world of serious and growing threats, the West needs to employ all the tools at its disposable in a wise and integrated manner.