The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Secret Strike (and the consequences of failure)


September 18, 2007

Something is brewing in the Middle East that merits close attention, because the more we learn about it, the more intriguing it becomes. It also brings home some chickens to roost, so to speak, for earlier Bush Administration foreign policy failures.

Last week, Israel launched a highly secret air-strike deep into Syria. Despite the fact that Israel and Syria share a border (the direct route), the squadron of Israeli F-15’s flew over the Med, through Turkey (a very close Israeli military ally), and dropped significant ordinance onto a Syrian target. The entire operation has been cloaked in secrecy–Syria didn’t denounce the attack for over 12 hours after it happened, and has been unusually quiet about the entire incident. Israel has said nothing, and the US is also tight-lipped. The loudest condemnations have come from North Korea, recently rumored to be cooperating with Syria on nuclear issues.

The current speculation, per the NYT, is that Israel hit a nascent North Korean supplied nuclear facility in Syria. This speculation is fueled by China’s abrupt cancellation of talks over North Korea’s nuclear program–a program they had just agreed (with the US) to give up.

So, what are we to make of all this? It was clearly a very aggressive move by Israel, but what is most interesting, to me, about it, is the muted response by Syria and the rest of the Arab world. Syria and Israel are taking this very seriously–there are reports that both are mobilizing their armed forces and reserves along the border. But the public statements have been muted–more so on the Israeli side (total silence) than on Syria (who did formally protest to the UN).

Its the North Korea connection that I find most fascinating. North Korea and Syria have a longstanding relationship buying and selling weapons. Its the nuclear aspect that is troubling–in part that Syria was taking steps to proliferate, and in part that North Korea was willing to facilitate that proliferation.

It also highlights the consequences of several years of failure of the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy. Coming into office back in 2001, there was an opportunity to re-engage North Korea and reach a nuclear deal. The Bush Administration opted for confrontation and containment, and while isolated, North Korea tested several new ballistic missiles and, most significantly, tested a nuclear device, entering the nuclear club. Only after all of this, did the Administration relent and re-engage in meaningful diplomacy, reaching a deal whereby North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program and subject itself to inspections.

And now this. Hard-liners such as John Bolten, a staunch opponent of any talks with North Korea both while at the State Department and while outside of government, will point to this as proof-positive that North Korea can’t be trusted, that any deal with them isn’t worth the paper its printed on, that North Korea is cheating.

But consider the alternative scenario–had the US engaged in meaningful nuclear diplomacy in 2002, giving Charles Prichard the same brief as Christopher Hill now has, its quite possible that a situation such as this could have been avoided. With nuclear inspectors in North Korea, there would have been a much better accounting of the DPRK nuclear program. Had this happened earlier, the recent breakthroughs that allowed North Korea to test a weapon would not have happened. And, in a functioning deal with the US, North Korea would probably have been less likely to risk upsetting that deal by working with the Syrians.

How much of this idle speculation looks at the situation with rose-colored glasses? Perhaps some. But not all. Indeed, had the Bush Administration placed nuclear proliferation and North Korea at the top of its national security priority list instead of, say, Iraq, back in 2002, most of the antecedent conditions that led to this raid could have been avoided.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.