Bush rebuffed Israeli request to bomb Syrian reactor
In his new memoir, "Decision Points," former president George W. Bush reveals new details about the Israeli attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor and the quest to end Iran's nuclear program -- revelations that suggest military action against Iran's program is still possible.
Here are some of the key themes:
1. Israel does what it wants.
In the book, Bush reports that after he received an intelligence report that Syria had secretly built a reactor with North Korean help, he received a request from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"George, I am asking you to bomb the compound," Olmert said. Bush said he would look at the intelligence and give him an answer.
Bombing the target successfully would be "no sweat" but "bombing a sovereign country with no warning or announced justification would create severe blowback," Bush writes. And the problem was that though the CIA had "high confidence" Syria had built a reactor, analysts could not confirm that Syria had a facility to turn spent fuel into plutonium for a weapon. So they had only "low confidence" that Syria had a nuclear weapons program.
Bush decided to publicly reveal the facility and use it as leverage to pressure Syria to dismantle it and end its support of terrorist groups. But when he told Olmert of his decision, the Israeli leader replied: "Your strategy is very disturbing to me."
Israel then destroyed the facility itself.
"Prime Minister Olmert's execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war," Bush writes. "The bombing demonstrated Israel's willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn't asked for a green light, and I hadn't given one. He had done what was necessary to protect Israel."
Most experts believe an attack on Iran would be testing the outer limits of Israel's capabilities. But Bush's account makes clear that Israel will act in its own interests when it believes the United States is not.
2. Bush was no fan of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.
The 2007 NIE earned international headlines when it declared with "high confidence" that in 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. Bush said he decided to declassify the NIE so the administration could "shape the news stories" before it leaked. Even so, the news ended any momentum for new sanctions against Iran.
In an effort at damage control, Bush traveled to the Middle East to reassure leaders that the United States was still committed to ending Iran's nuclear program. Bush writes that he told the Saudi ruling family that "I'm confident every one of you believes I wrote the NIE as a way to avoid taking action against Iran....You have to understand our system. The NIE was produced independently by our intelligence community. I am as angry about it as you are."
Bush writes that after the NIE, there was no way he could conduct a military strike on Iran even though he had ordered a study of how to conduct a strike. "After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?" He said he wondered if the analysts were trying to avoid the mistakes made on Iraq -- and hoped they were not trying to shape policy. "Whatever the explanation, the NIE had a big impact -- and not a good one," Bush writes.
3. Sometimes a threat of military force gets action.
Bush writes that when he learned in 2002 that intelligence indicated that North Korea was violating an agreement to halt its nuclear programs, he tried to enlist China's help. "If we combine together, we could make an impressive team," Bush told Chinese President Jiang Zemin during an October 2002 meeting at Bush's ranch at Crawford, Tex. But Jiang told Bush that North Korea was "my problem, not his," Bush says. Jiang added: "Exercising influence over North Korea is very complicated."
A few months later, Bush tried another argument: that if North Korea had nukes, he would not be able to stop Japan from developing its own nuclear weapons. That didn't work either. Finally, a month later, he told Jiang that he was considering a military strike against North Korea.
That got China's attention, and it agreed to chair six-nation talks -- now long dormant -- to halt Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
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