Update, September 16, 2007
I was hoping the North Korean nukes in Syria story was an opportunistic bit of Boltonian nonsense that would be put to rest with a bit of State Department pushback.
I found the subsequent statement from the State Department’s Andrew Semmel—who is apparently a non-doctrinaire arms control professional— to be reassuring unremarkable and the epitome of mush-mouthed Foggy Bottom ambiguity:
Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, did not identify the suppliers, but said North Koreans were in the country and that he could not exclude that the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan may have been involved.
He said it was not known if the contacts had produced any results. "Whether anything transpired remains to be seen," he said.
Semmel, who is in Italy for a meeting Saturday on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, said Syria was certainly on the U.S. "watch list."
"There are indicators that they do have something going on there," he said. "We do know that there are a number of foreign technicians that have been in Syria. We do know that there may have been contact between Syria and some secret suppliers for nuclear equipment. Whether anything transpired remains to be seen."
"So good foreign policy, good national security policy, would suggest that we pay very close attention to that," he said. "We're watching very closely. Obviously, the Israelis were watching very closely."
Asked if the suppliers could have been North Koreans, he said: "There are North Korean people there. There's no question about that. Just as there are a lot of North Koreans in Iraq and Iran."
Asked if the so-called Khan network, which supplied nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea, could have been involved, he said he "wouldn't exclude" it.
I was rather nonplussed and somewhat disturbed at the alacrity with which major media outlets were willing to run with this apparently low-key waffling as confirmation of dramatically heightened U.S. concern about Syrian nuclear programs.
And don’t ask me what he was communicating about Iraq.
I still think the story’s nonsense, but I wonder if State has lost the ability or desire to push back and instead is anxiously coasting along on the anti-Syrian wave, hoping against hope it will have an opportunity to jump off before the crash.
Especially if the State Department has given up on trying to defend diplomacy and multi-lateralism in the Middle East.
This account from the Telegraph gave me pause.
I also found it eerily reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war, where the earliest full-throated expression of neo-con intentions for the Middle East was found in the Telegraph and the London Times, and became a template for domestic U.S. coverage:
Now it has emerged that Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, who has been pushing for a diplomatic solution, is prepared to settle her differences with Vice-President Dick Cheney and sanction military action [against Iran].
Miss Rice's bottom line is that if the administration is to go to war again it must build the case over a period of months and win sufficient support on Capitol Hill.
The Sunday Telegraph has been told that Mr Bush has privately promised her that he would consult "meaningfully" with Congressional leaders of both parties before any military action against Iran on the understanding that Miss Rice would resign if this did not happen.
The nugget that long-suffering Condoleezza Rice will put up with another catastrophic war with the Middle East only if President Bush is able to “meaningfully” logroll the sheep in Congress is so snarkworthy, I don’t know whether to take it as a telling detail or a ludicrous joke.
So maybe the Syria nuke story is somehow part of the Iran war product that’s being rolled out, and State is going along.
Maybe it’s because Iran’s own nuclear program isn’t going to achieve weaponization for at least two years, and it would be rather peculiar for the U.S. to mount an attack against Iran before President Bush leaves office “because he doesn’t trust the incoming administration to do the right thing”.
So if there’s going to be an existential threat/casus belli/nuclear thing that justifies a high risk attack against Iran in the next 12 months, the nukes have to come from somewhere.
And that only leaves the North Koreans and A.Q. Khan, maybe via Syria...to kill three birds (Kim, Assad, and Ahmadinejad) with one stone.
Heck, maybe four. If John Bolton feels emboldened to run the table, he’ll probably allege that North Korea gave the nukes to Iraq, which hid them in Syria, who tried to sneak them to Iran.
We’ll soon see if American media and politics is ready to follow the implausible nuclear script again, and acquiesce to another Middle East war.
Below is the original post from Sept. 13:
Middle East security is far off the China Matters beat, but we have delved into Boltonian rhetoric on North Korea in some detail, as well as documenting the continued unwillingness of foreign policy hardliners to acquiesce to moderate control over North Korea policy and denuclearization process under the Six Party Agreement.
So I feel I can add a comment on the accusations made by John Bolton of North Korean—Syrian cooperation in some kind of nuclear program in the Wall Street Journal, and an article by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post linking these allegations to a highly provocative attack by Israeli jets against an as-yet unidentified target in Syria.
Josh Landis’s excellent expert blog, Syria Comment, was the first to link the attack on Syria with John Bolton’s WSJ op-ed, and is the first resource for this story, providing exhaustive coverage of the regional press and informed commentators on the issue.
The Washington Post North Korea—Syria article, although obviously a product of the sympathetic leaker-leakee relationship that pervades foreign policy coverage, by itself raises enough red flags that objective observers will detect the strong smell of fish .
The new information, particularly images received in the past 30 days, has been restricted to a few senior officials under the instructions of national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, leaving many in the intelligence community unaware of it or uncertain of its significance, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some cautioned that initial reports of suspicious activity are frequently reevaluated over time and were skeptical that North Korea and Syria, which have cooperated on missile technology, would have a joint venture in the nuclear arena.
Objectively, I think the North Korea—Syria nuke story is buncombe. Both Damascus and Pyongyang are energetically trying to normalize relations with the United States, and not provide the U.S. with a casus belli to destroy their countries.
I think it’s more likely that the story represents a cynical attempt by Bolton and the hardliners to foment a new crisis in a new part of the world in order to justify their policies and expand their power.
This new initiative is necessary, I believe, because the previous boogeyman—nuke-wielding North Korea—has disappeared from the mainstream Washington radar since the denuclearization agreement is basically chugging along as planned, despite hardline efforts to sabotage it through the BDA fiasco.
It’s time to change the terms of debate or, if you would, move the battle to more favorable ground.
Dragging Syria into the North Korea equation replaces a venue in which the United State currently displays no appetite for risky confrontation—North Asia—with an arena much more hospitable to the hardliners—the Middle East--in which the United States is desperately pursuing unilateral high risk policies targeting Iran and Syria in an attempt to gain traction in Iraq.
So the Boltonian hardliners can wrongfoot the State Department moderates by hinting that Foggy Bottom is being snookered by the perfidious North Koreans. At the same time, welcome grist is provided for the anti-Syria mill as the Bush administration is trying to forestall French-led rapprochement with Damascus.
If you want to drill down and get totally Machiavellian, you might say Bolton & Co. are offering the Bush administration a Faustian bargain:
We’ll whip up an anti-Syria nuke scare for you, dragging in the North Koreans. The cost: collapse of the Six Party Agreement...and disgrace of the State Department moderates.
As to parsing the nature and significance of the Israeli airstrike and possible collusion between hardliners in Israel and the U.S., thankfully, as an Asian affairs blog, China Matters doesn’t have to march through that minefield.
For that, there’s Syria Comment, whom I’ve added to the blogroll for our readers’ convenience...