Bombing the Syrian reactor

Elliott Abrams is the Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His CFR blog is Pressure Points. He served, most recently, on the staff of the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration commencing in June 2001, first as a deputy assistant to the president and later as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy.

We recently featured a column by Abrams based on his new book, Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Given his positions during the Bush administration, the book is an insider’s account of the subject captured in the subtitle.

Commentary draws on the book for the extraordinary excerpt “Bombing the Syrian reactor: The inside story.” I recommend it to your attention. It is utterly compelling reading.

Here are a few of the takeaways from the article:

In May 2007 Israeli intelligence discovered the construction of the reactor (built to North Korean specifications) as it neared completion in a remote location. Israeli intelligence concluded without any doubt that its purposes were military. Prime Minister Olmert sought to share the intelligence with President Bush. In the event, Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan met with senior administration officials including Vice President Cheney to share the intelligence. Dagan reported in confidence: “All Israeli policymakers who saw the evidence agreed that the reactor had to go away.”

Bush and his national security team performed their own independent assessment. In Abrams’s telling, as I understand it, they did not disagree with the assessment of Israeli intelligence. (The CIA, however, had a more, ah, nuanced reading of the situation. It expressed high confidence that the site was a nuclear reactor, but low confidence that Syria had a nuclear weapons program.)

The senior officials of the Bush administration considered military versus (ridiculous) diplomatic options involving the IAEA and the UN to deal with the reactor. Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates opposed bombing the reactor. Indeed, Gates wanted Bush to prevent Israel from bombing the reactor, urging Bush to threaten Israel that its relationship with the United States was at stake. Only Vice President Cheney supported a military strike. Bush opted for Rice’s proposed diplomatic approach backed by the threat of force.

When Bush conveyed the administration’s conclusion to Prime Minister Olmert, Abrams reports:

I wondered how Olmert would react and believed I could predict his response: He would say, “Wait, give me some time to think about this, to consult my team, to reflect, and I will call you tomorrow.” I was quite wrong. He reacted immediately and forcefully. George, he said, this leaves me surprised and disappointed. And I cannot accept it. We told you from the first day, when Dagan came to Washington, and I’ve told you since then whenever we discussed it, that the reactor had to go away. Israel cannot live with a Syrian nuclear reactor; we will not accept it. It would change the entire region and our national security cannot accept it. You are telling me you will not act; so, we will act. The timing is another matter, and we will not do anything precipitous.

Abrams adds:

This is not the account President Bush gives in his memoir, in which he writes that Olmert initially said, “George, I’m asking you to bomb the compound.” Someday transcripts of their conversation will be available, but Bush’s recollection does not comport with mine.

Israel successfully struck the reactor in September 2007. It’s a story from which one can draw many conclusions. Here is Abrams’s final, inarguable conclusion:

[T]his incident is a reminder that there is no substitute for military strength and the will to use it. Think of how much more dangerous to the entire region the Syrian civil war would be today if Assad had a nuclear reactor, and even perhaps nuclear weapons, in hand. Israel was right to bomb that reactor before construction was completed, and President Bush was right to support its decision to do so. Israel was also right in rejecting fears that the incident would lead to a larger war and in believing that it, and the United States, would be better off after this assertion of leadership and determination. That lesson must be on the minds of Israeli, and American, leaders in 2013.

If you have any interest in the subject, the excerpt of Abrams’s book published by Commentary and placed online is really must reading.

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