Sunday, September 30, 2007

More Speculation on North Korean Nukes in Syria Story

Via the Marmot’s Hole via Tom Coyner’s blog via Stratfor via God’s lips to our ears, interesting speculation that North Korea demonstrated its sincerity in denuclearization by revealing its list of buyers, presumably including Syria, to the United States, that Washington tipped off Tel Aviv, and Israel thereupon bombed the bejeezus out of some Nork-equipped nuclear facility in Syria.

I give this theory points for plausibility, as it would explain why the United States is not up in arms about purported North Korean nuclear proliferation to an anti-Israel Middle Eastern state—the ultimate red line of red lines.

I also like it because it would give credence to my own model of North Korean relations—that Kim Jung Il is trying to create a special relationship with the United States to increase his bargaining power vis a vis China.

However, Stratfor’s speculation is, I think, just that—speculation.

It seems an effort to adapt Libya’s denuclearization—during which it shopped the A.Q. Khan network to the IAEA, causing the good doctor some serious but apparently transitory embarrassment—as a template for the North Korean case.

But it’s not backed up by any sourcing, nor does it address the difficulties in squaring this version with the most categorical accounts of the mission, which all seem to agree that it was initiated by Israel, OK’d by the United States, and conducted after weeks of careful planning by Ehud Barak.

And it would be most surprising if U.S. hardliners would be unable to ferret out this secret and use the revelation of North Korean nukes in Syria—regardless of the mitigating factor of Dear Leader’s newly cooperative attitude—to torpedo the Six Party Agreement and the State Department moderates, and promote Syria to full Axis of Evil membership in the bargain.

Therefore, color me unconvinced for the time being.

I also take issue with Stratfor’s analysis:

More important will be the panic in China (if not also in South Korea, Japan and Russia) as it sees the United States and North Korea reshaping their relationship in spite of the other regional interests. This could strip Beijing of much of its negotiating leverage with Washington on other issues, leave Seoul off-balance as it tries to pursue its own path with regard to the upcoming inter-Korean summit and keep the outlying parties -- Moscow and Tokyo -- unsure of just what the United States will do next, or how that will affect Japan's attempts to take charge of shaping Northeast Asia and Russia's efforts to reassert itself in the region.

I don’t think China worries overmuch about Kim Jung Il falling into George W. Bush’s arms for some hot princeling-on-princeling action.

As long as North Korea is under the thumb of a Communist autocrat, even one enjoying an unlikely friendly relationship with Washington--and not conducting an uncontrolled experiment in political revolution that might result in the creation of an antagonistic front-line pro U.S. democracy on China’s northeastern border—Beijing will be satisfied.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Last Laugh v1.3444567 and v1.3444568

I inquired to Treasury concerning the fate of the petition to Treasury by Banco Delta Asia’s parent group to rescind the final rule directing U.S. financial institutions not to do business with BDA.

In its final rule, Treasury had advised that it didn’t matter how BDA tweaked its operations as long as Stanley Au remained chairman because Mr. Au, was, in Treasury’s view, too close to North Korea and potentially a recidivist ratbag.

(In May I provided a full rundown of the regulatory and legal rigamarole surrounding the rule, including a link to the text of the petition. It's available here.)

Treasury kindly advised:

FinCEN has responded to the petition and the final rule remains in place.


Well, maybe not.

Thanks to sharp-eyed commentator David, we learn from AFP:

The Macau bank, which had held millions of dollars in North Korea assets stalling a nuclear disarmament for months, can resume control of its operations, government officials said Friday.
Due to the "remarkable improvement" made in the bank’s management by the government, the Macau authorities said it will return control of BDA to chairman, Stanley Au, with effect from Saturday.

Macau's encomium to the managers at BDA can, I think, be taken as a direct rebuke to the U.S. Treasury Department's muddled and/or demeaning justification for keeping the final rule in place even after both the bank and the Macau government had instituted remedial measures to tighten anti-moneylaundering controls in response to 18 months of high-profile bullying by Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence

After all, Treasury was saying the only reason that BDA couldn't resume normal transactions with U.S. financial institutions was that Stanley Au couldn't be trusted and, more to the point, the Macau Monetary Authority couldn't be trusted to keep an eye on him, either

And Treasury just reconfirmed that position by rejecting the BDA petition.

So Macau goes out of its way to declare what a "remarkable" job BDA and, by implication, the Macau Monetary Authority are doing.

Gotcha back!

I suppose the next step for BDA is to try to get a hearing in the U.S. courts on the grounds that the Treasury rule was capricious and arbitrary. Good luck with that.

I think that the mindless bray of Simpsons troglodyte Nelson Muntz (courtesy of Nancy Cartwright's website) will serve as the suitable epitaph for this fiasco, no matter how long it drags on or who finally gets the last laugh.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Waiting for Godot...Or This Year’s Big Lie

Further Parsing the North Korean Nuclear Weapons in Syria Allegations

Judging from a couple of items by Syria Comment, China Matters is entitled to a little preening.

Concerning the target of the September 6 Israeli raid on Syria, I wrote yesterday:

If I was going to come up with a plausible contrarian scenario for this whole enigma, I would say:

There are North Koreans in Syria and possibly a bunch of them got killed when Israel bombed a facility where they were working.

The facility could have been some Syrian nuclear facility or a hidey-hole for undeclared North Korean nuclear equipment (unlikely); a factory assembling illegally imported North Korean SCUDs (maybe); or a facility where the Norks were providing unsavory but possibly legal assistance to the Syrians in upgrading their home-made SCUDs (more likely).

Per Syria Comment, Raw Story reports:

Israel did not strike a nuclear weapons facility in Syria on Sept. 6, instead striking a cache of North Korean missiles, current and former intelligence officials say.

American intelligence sources familiar with key events leading up to the Israeli air raid tell RAW STORY that what the Syrians actually had were North Korean No-Dong missiles, possibly located at a site in either the city of Musalmiya in the northern part of Syria or further south around the city of Hama.

While reports have alleged the US provided intelligence to Israel or that Israel shared their intelligence with the US, sources interviewed for this article believe that neither is accurate.

By most accounts of intelligence officials, both former and current, Israel and the US both were well aware of the activities of North Korea and Syria and their attempts to chemically weaponize the No-Dong missile. It therefore remains unclear why an intricate story involving evidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program and/or enriched uranium was put out to press organizations.

Concerning the absence of official confirmation of the raid’s details and the intensifying campaign of leaks, I wrote:

It’s not credible that the U.S. government would sit on a genuine case of North Korean nuclear trafficking with Syria and let the story dribble out through anonymous sources just to keep the Six Party talks lurching along and give Chris Hill something to do.

Maybe there’s a hardliner plan to leak their story in so much detail that Washington and Tel Aviv’s credibility are put on the line, and the Bush administration will see no alternative except to succumb to the temptation to give this story some official legs—spurious or otherwise.

Syria Comment passes on the text of a John Bolton editorial in the Wall Street Journal, demanding that President Bush get behind the North Korean nukes in Syria story...or else!:

President Bush stands at a dispositive point regarding his personal legacy on North Korea. Until now, one could say with a straight face, if not entirely accurately, that implementing the Feb. 13 agreement was the State Department's responsibility. No longer. The Israeli strike and the possible Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation associated with it have presidential consequences. Further concessions to the North can now be laid only at the White House door, just as only the president can bring a tougher, more realistic attitude to the issue. That would be a real legacy.


From China Matters:

Maybe the remarkable official silence on the attack reflects a struggle in Washington as to whether to move on—or exploit the circumstances and ambiguity surrounding the raid in the most inflammatory way possible.

From Raw Story:

Some believe that the Office of the Vice President is continuing to battle any attempts at diplomacy made by the US State Department in an effort to ensure no alternative but a military solution to destabilize and strike Iran, using Syria's alleged nuclear weapons program and close relations with Iran as a possible pretext.

So Well Done! China Matters! Prizes for everyone!

But seriously, a few more observations:

First, the cautious disclaimer: As Freud observed, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes apparently futile, suicidal cooperation in nuclear weaponry between cadet and full-fledged members of the Axis of Evil is just that.

Second, there seems to be a credible basis for the no nukes story, as the Raw Story report indicates. Some knowledgeable people are pushing back against the nuclear story.

As for the report that the North Korean missiles were “possibly located at a site in either the city of Musalmiya in the northern part of Syria or further south around the city of Hama”, that either means that the blabbers are intelligence officials no longer serving (and therefore lacking access to the satellite imagery that would indicate pretty conclusively which Syrian city is proud possessor of a brand new, smoking hole in the ground courtesy of the Israeli air force) or this geographic vagueness is an attempt to disguise the fact that serving officials are dishing to the media.

Third, Raw Story is a bona fide news organization, but it’s nowhere near top drawer (sorry). Maybe talking to Raw Story is a shot across the bow to the hardliners, a warning that the no-nukes story will get fed to the Washington Post and New York Times if the nuclear nonsense continues.

Fourth, if the nuclear story is untrue then somebody is (gulp) lying. The nuclear story, with its tale of Israeli commandoes, seized nuclear material, and anxious conferences between Washington and Tel Aviv is too categorical and detailed to be treated as the result of incomplete information and inference. If the nuke story is nothing more than The Big Lie, it’s a pretty bold move.

So far John Bolton doesn’t seem to be sure of independent corroboration for the nuke story.

But the important point here is that the truth is unimportant.

The only question is, will the Bush administration run with the story or not.

John Bolton wants an official endorsement of the story, regardless of whether it's true or false, by the Bush administration, so that the credibility and prestige of the United States are irrevocably invested in the nuke story, standards of evidence evaporate, and the only question is, are you with us or against us.

So what we’re really holding our breath for here is that Waiting for Godot moment.

Will President Bush follow Vice President Cheney’s lead and decide to push the Bolton line, in which case the principled moderates in the State Department will simply roll over again, suck it up, and grimly push the nuclear story even if it’s false?

Or will the President decide to let the nuclear story peter out unconfirmed?

And ratchet down tension in the Middle East just as he’s trying to foment an Iran-centered crisis?

And expose himself and his support from his remaining knuckledragger base to an escalating barrage of leaks and accusations--orchestrated by hardliners outside of his administration and beyond his control--that he wussed out on a North Korean nuclear provocation in the Middle East?

Hmmm. Don’t like the direction this thought experiment is heading.

My original post is here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Gathering Cloud—of Nuclear Allegations on North Korea and Syria

Certainly devotees of the “nothing to see here” school of purported North Korea—Syrian nuclear cooperation, of which I am a member, are being tested by the stream of reports and leaks coming out of Israel and Washington concerning the notorious September 6 bombing raid on Syria.

On September 22, The Sunday Times weighed in with a categorical assertion concerning the nuclear character of the Syrian facility, including the explosive allegation that Israeli commandos had seized nuclear material from the facility prior to the raid.

Washington...demanded clear evidence of nuclear-related activities before giving the operation its blessing. The task of the commandos was to provide it.

Today the site near Dayr az-Zawr lies in ruins after it was pounded by Israeli F15Is on September 6. Before the Israelis issued the order to strike, the commandos had secretly seized samples of nuclear material and taken them back into Israel for examination by scientists, the sources say. A laboratory confirmed that the unspecified material was North Korean in origin. America approved an attack.


That, to me, is one of the more questionable pieces of reportage about the raid.

Seems to me that nuclear material—if we are actually talking about “significant quantities of weapons-grade nuclear material” and not a lab sample or a nuclear gauge—is not left lying around high-security Syrian atomic bomb facilities for Israeli commandos to pick up, even if they are disguised in Syrian army uniforms.

As to whether North Korean nuclear material possesses a unique fingerprint distinguishable by Israeli intelligence, I’ll defer to the experts.

Direct evidence that North Koreans died during the raid is pretty thin:

The growing assumption that North Korea suffered direct casualties in the raid appears to be based largely on the regime’s unusually strident propaganda on an issue far from home. But there were also indications of conversations between Chinese and North Korean officials and intelligence reports reaching Asian governments that supported the same conclusion, diplomats said.

On closer examination, the other assertions of fact intended to give an aura of insider accuracy to the report—concerning spectacular WMD-related accidents involving Syrians and/or North Koreans—look more like the result of a dossier dump meant to enhance the credibility of a report still lacking first-hand corroboration:

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported last week that dozens of Iranian engineers and Syrians were killed in July attempting to load a chemical warhead containing mustard gas onto a Scud missile. The Scuds and warheads are of North Korean design and possibly manufacture, and there are recent reports that North Koreans were helping the Syrians to attach airburst chemical weapons to warheads.


The outlines of a long-term arms relationship between the North Koreans and the Syrians are now being reexamined by intelligence experts in several capitals. Diplomats in Pyongyang have said they believe reports that about a dozen Syrian technicians were killed in a massive explosion and railway crash in North Korea on April 22, 2004.

Teams of military personnel wearing protective suits were seen removing debris from the section of the train in which the Syrians were travelling, according to a report quoting military sources that appeared in a Japanese newspaper. Their bodies were flown home by a Syrian military cargo plane that was spotted shortly after the explosion at Pyongyang airport.

Other leaked assertions in the western media, by adding detail, undercut the story instead of bolstering it.

Like that freighter that arrived at a Syrian port three days before the raid, maybe carrying some nuclear stuff as the Washington Post's sources speculated .

Well, if it arrived three days before the raid, not much time for months of anxious back and forth between Tel Aviv and Washington, and a commando raid.

Which gives me the idea that the various sources for the raid are throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.

Anyway, the net is spread to North Korea—and China:

China abruptly postponed a session of the nuclear disarmament talks last week because it feared America might confront the North Koreans over their weapons deals with Syria, according to sources close to the Chinese foreign ministry. Negotiations have been rescheduled for this Thursday in Beijing after assurances were given that all sides wished them to be “constructive”.

Christopher Hill, the US State Department negotiator, is said to have persuaded the White House that the talks offered a realistic chance to accomplish a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-1953 Korean war, in which more than 50,000 Americans died. A peace deal of that magnitude would be a coup for Bush – but only if the North Koreans genuinely abandon their nuclear programmes.

From my perspective, the Chinese might ask for a postponement, whether or not they think the report is true, to make sure the U.S. wasn’t planning to drop a Boltonian bomb on the talks and terminally disrupt them.

Once you subtract the immaterial and unconfirmed elements from the story, we’re basically looking at a commercial for the Sayeret Matkal commandos and Israel’s most recent military savior, Ehud Barak:

The operation was personally directed by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, who is said to have been largely preoccupied with it since taking up his post on June 18.

It was the ideal mission for Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier and legendary former commander of the Sayeret Matkal, which shares the motto “Who Dares Wins” with Britain’s SAS and specialises in intelligence-gathering deep behind enemy lines.
Barak’s return to government after making a fortune in private business was critical to the Israeli operation. Military experts believe it could not have taken place under Amir Peretz, the defence minister who was forced from the post after last year’s ill-fated war in Lebanon. “Barak gave Olmert the confidence needed for such a dangerous operation,” said one insider.

If I was going to come up with a plausible contrarian scenario for this whole enigma, I would say:

There are North Koreans in Syria and possibly a bunch of them got killed when Israel bombed a facility where they were working.

The facility could have been some Syrian nuclear facility or a hidey-hole for undeclared North Korean nuclear equipment (unlikely); a factory assembling illegally imported North Korean SCUDs (maybe); or a facility where the Norks were providing unsavory but possibly legal assistance to the Syrians in upgrading their home-made SCUDs (more likely).

The Israelis flatten it to show the world that the IDF is back, baby! after the Lebanon humiliation, and that any attempt by the Syrian government to alleviate its military difficulties with foreign assistance will be met with overwhelming force.

The Bush administration backs the idea in order to teach the Syrians and the North Koreans a lesson.

The raid is scheduled to occur after the North Koreans are hooked on the Six Party Agreement and unlikely to withdraw in outrage even though some of their technicians got blown to smithereens.

The nuclear allegations are chaff, sending a message to the North Koreans that the U.S. and Israel can cook up a story of North Korean nuclear misbehavior on demand if Kim Jung Il gets too uppity.

This last point may appear too cynical and Machiavellian, but I think it’s difficult to underestimate the Bush administration’s single-minded pursuit of leverage and its fundamental discomfort with being simply one of equals in the Six-Party process.

What better way to regain the whip hand in the Six-Party process than to threaten Russia and China with the collapse of the Six Party talks with an out-of-left-field (or Syria) allegation of North Korean malfeasance if things don’t go our way?

In any case, the leak-based reporting is becoming too detailed and categorical to ignore.

And that’s dangerous.

It’s not credible that the U.S. government would sit on a genuine case of North Korean nuclear trafficking with Syria and let the story dribble out through anonymous sources just to keep the Six Party talks lurching along and give Chris Hill something to do.

Maybe there’s a hardliner plan to leak their story in so much detail that Washington and Tel Aviv’s credibility are put on the line, and the Bush administration will see no alternative except to succumb to the temptation to give this story some official legs—spurious or otherwise.

Maybe the remarkable official silence on the attack reflects a struggle in Washington as to whether to move on—or exploit the circumstances and ambiguity surrounding the raid in the most inflammatory way possible.

If the North Korean nuke meme spreads to the U.S. media from the alarmist U.K. press, I guess we’ll have our answer.

Certainly, hardliners are feeding the anticipation that other shoes will drop.

According to Netanyahu’s top aide:

Mossad veteran Uzi Arad, told NEWSWEEK: "I do know what happened, and when it comes out it will stun everyone."

Well, that’s enough Fisking for now.

We’ll all have to wait and see.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Return to Failure

Is China the True Target of Financial Sanctions Against Iran?

Those with long memories—that go back, say, three months—will remember the last time the U.S. Treasury Department tried to bend an Axis of Evil member to its will through targeted financial sanctions.

Failure was the outcome.

Now the United States is trying for a do-over with Iran and, though the techniques—particularly for handling China—may be more sophisticated, I’m afraid the result will be the same.

As amply reported in this blog, Stuart Levey’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence repurposed Patriot Act Section 311 investigations away from their intended goal of perfecting the international anti-money laundering regime to attacks on the quite possibly legitimate assets of geopolitical targets and—something that got surprisingly short shrift from the international press—the assets and businesses of allies and neutrals who did not share the necessary enthusiasm for our strategic goals.

The previous intended victim of ad hoc financial sanctions secretly coordinated by the United States outside of the U.N. sanctions regime was supposed to be North Korea.

The whole effort imploded messily when sanctions endorsed piecemeal by Japan, Australia, and a few other countries—but not China or Russia—failed to do anything except encourage Pyongyang to accelerate its development of a nuclear deterrent.

The flagship enterprise of US financial sanctions—the two-year Patriot Act Section 311 investigation of Banco Delta Asia in Macau—collapsed when the State Department abandoned the BDA allegations, which stood revealed as an embarrassing farrago of cherrypicking, chestthumping, and cynical innuendo.

Even so, it took four agonizing months to get a recalcitrant Treasury Department to acquiesce to an unfreezing of the North Korean funds in BDA, even though the investigation could have been terminated and its measures rescinded overnight by a decision from Treasury.

At the time I speculated that the only reason for all this melodrama was to preserve Patriot Act Section 311 investigations’ aura of unilateral, unstoppable, and irreversible menace for the purpose of maintaining their credibility and intimidating power in the case of Iran.

Judging from the recent spate of articles in McClatchy and the Telegraph touting the purported successes of the somewhat secret financial war against Iran, I think I’m right.

But this time there’s a difference.

In 2005/2006 the North Korea effort was hijacked by regime-change hardliners typified by John Bolton, who sought to destroy Kim Jung Il’s regime by cutting off the flow of foreign exchange that they believed was vital to Kim to purchase the loyalty of his generals.

The only way to achieve a complete financial blockade was to obtain the cooperation of Beijing.

The hardline approach to the China issue was predictable, less than subtle, and completely ineffective.

The State Department’s point man for the anti-Nork effort at that time, David Asher, stated that the purpose of the move against BDA was to intimidate Chinese banks handling North Korean funds with the threat of being cut off from the US financial markets as BDA had been—“to kill the monkey in order to scare the chickens”, in Mr. Asher’s immortal phrase.

Well, the Chinese didn’t capitulate...and it turned out that the Bush administration was not interested in playing chicken with the Chinese over the fate of the world financial system, and did not sanction a further attack on Chinese banks.

So nothing was achieved except alarming and irritating the Chinese—and, oh yes, the North Koreans detonated a nuclear bomb and the sanctions regime fell apart.

However, it appears that U.S. policymakers haven’t drawn the lesson that coerced multilateralism is not only ineffective, it is counterproductive and, actually, a bad idea.

In fact, the Bush administration, that motherlode of bad ideas, apparently believes there are no bad ideas—only bad execution.

So on to Iran.

And this time it’s personal!

No,not Bush vs. Ahmadinejad.

Condi vs. Dick!

I think that this time Condi Rice has taken on the challenge of showing that she can do extra-UN unilaterally directed financial sanctions smarter, better, and more effectively than John Bolton, Vice President Cheney’s bespoke cat’s paw—and, in a high risk maneuver, she has staked the success of the diplomatic track in confronting Iran on showing results from the financial embargo.

Condi probably believes she has the acumen to enmesh China in our financial sanctions regime and persuade Beijing to abandon its support of Iran in the UN Security Council.

People who pay attention to the Iran sanctions regime have noted that pressuring European and Japanese banks to cease transactions with Iranian entities have simply pushed the business into China’s and Russia’s hands.

As Warren Strobel wrote for McClatchy:

Yet in some cases, when Western companies and banks move out of Iran, Chinese or other Asian firms simply move in and take the business.

And if we were dealing with the same reckless enthusiasts who controlled foreign policy in 2005-06, that self-defeating outcome would probably be the end of it.

But I give Condoleezza Rice and Stuart Levey more credit than that.

They’re smarter, and they also have the experience of the North Korea debacle to instruct them.

This time their menace is somewhat silken, in fact inchoate, compared with the full-bore frothing that characterized the anti-North Korea effort. From McClatchy:

The financial war began in earnest a year ago, when Treasury Department teams began briefing foreign governments and banks on intelligence the U.S. government had gathered on Iran. Among the findings was that the Central Bank of Iran was trying to conceal its role in financial transactions in which it was involved, a practice on which banks look askance, said the senior Treasury official.

“That’s just as suspicious as it sounds,” he said.


Compare that to the incendiary accusations against Kim Jung Il used to justify the North Korea financial embargo. The Evil Dwarf of Pyongyang was accused of running a Soprano State, raping our currency with his vile Supernotes, peddling fake Viagra and phony smokes, and ruthlessly trafficking in forbidden rhino horn. Efforts were made to shut down any access by any North Korean entity to any bank anywhere, apparently on pretty flimsy pretexts in some cases.

Let’s assume that subtlety, stronger dossiers, and a more incremental approach to chipping away at Iran’s access to the world’s financial system is going on today.


My speculation is this:

The U.S. isn’t threatening China directly this time.

Instead we are seeking to assemble a coalition of willing and coerced European and Asian partners to present China with a united front.

The next step in isolating Iran will be to have the European and Japanese banks go to China and tell Beijing they can’t risk doing business with Chinese banks if there is any fear of Iranian taint—because the US government is threatening to land on them like a ton of bricks.

So the Chinese had better decide whether they want to continue to do business with fine, enormous banks like UBS, HSBC, and Deutsche Bank (who have already severed Iran ties, probably under U.S. pressure)—not to mention all those US banks required under US law not to handle Iranian business—or do they want to risk it for the sake of creepy little Iran?

Better to back off and back the harsher U.N. Security Council sanctions the U.S. is now attempting to orchestrate.

I’m sure that Condi Rice is working the diplomatic channels as well, telling the Chinese as well as a Beltway journalist or two that success of her financial sanctions strategy is the only thing that stands between the world and another Dick Cheney—perpetrated military outrage in the Middle East.

That, I think, would be a futile and dangerous game for Secretary Rice to play.

For the United States, which prior to 9/11 had not witnessed a large scale hostile foreign action on its soil since Pearl Harbor, is used to dishing out violence, not taking it in.

War in the homeland is an existential catastrophe and a terrifying journey into an unknown territory of fear, confusion, self-doubt, and danger.

Countries like China and Iran, on the other hand, have living memories of numerous battles within their boundaries that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives

A brief review of the “Forgotten Gulf War”in the 1980s (Iraqi aggression, 8 years, 500,000+ Iranian casualties, chemical warfare, missile attacks on Teheran) and the Chinese Anti-Japanese War (Japanese aggression, 8 years, 19 million Chinese fatalities, total war against civilians in some areas) might provide some useful perspective for our policymakers.

To countries like Iran and China, war is catastrophic and terrible—but sometimes it is unavoidable and often it is survivable.

That means that the clocks don’t stop and the world doesn’t end when the first bomb falls.

It means victims and bystanders start thinking about the post-battle challenges—and opportunities—before they occur.

Does Beijing want to permanently alienate the Iranians by going along with a US financial embargo and sanctions regime?

Or does it want to be the steadfast ally who extends a helping humanitarian, economic, and diplomatic hand to the enraged Iranians as they dig out of the rubble of the attack?

I wouldn’t bet on the first option, Condi.

Hopefully she has another plan to forestall a military attack if the financial sanctions campaign recapitulates its North Korean failure. Like engagement, maybe?

But it doesn’t look like the debate has been framed that way. McClatchy, again:

More broadly, nations from Cuba to Myanmar have managed to survive under economic assault, manipulating sanctions to blame outside forces and rally support from their people.

Another obstacle is here at home, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faces stiff opposition from hard-liners led by Cheney. The Cheney camp argues that diplomacy and pressure are doomed to fail to stop Iran from going nuclear.

So, in response to a potential weaponization of Iranian nuclear assets that will occur, if ever, years after the Bush administration leaves office, we’ve got a false choice between a sanctions policy that failed against North Korea, and an aggressive military strategy that failed in Iraq.

Remind me, what are we paying these people for?

As a P.S., I realize I haven’t addressed the issue of addressing Russian intransigence on Iran.

“Russia is hiding behind China” is the current administration meme , which I don’t find a particularly persuasive piece of wishful thinking.

It would seem that the U.S. strategy is to peel China away from Iran and hope that Russia has no stomach for standing alone in the Security Council to defend Teheran’s nuclear program.

Good luck with that. I think that the increasingly assertive Russians are less interested than ever in dancing the diplomatic quadrille with the United States.

Maybe there’s a Russian affairs blog out there willing to pitch in on the question of Vladimir Putin feels the need to “hide” behind Hu Jintao.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Nuclear Red Herring

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 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...