Former President George W. Bush is lucky that when discussing a 2007 strike on a Syrian nuclear facility in his new memoir, "Decision Points," he did not have to endure the scrutiny of Israel's military censor, of the Defense Ministry's official secret-keeper or of a ministerial committee. He could print what he pleased.
What Bush published did not relate to the core of the matter (double entendre intended), but to his policy toward it. Yet what he described goes beyond what happened three years ago between him and Ehud Olmert. It relates to decision-making in every administration - and thus has implications for how the current American and Israeli leaders might handle future problems.
Bush voiced disappointment in the Israel Defense Forces' performance against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 (though he does not say, at least according to the excerpts released so far, that while he gave Israel unlimited time for action in Lebanon, he tied its hands by vetoing its plan to strike Lebanon's infrastructure ).
Less than a year later, Olmert conveyed both intelligence and a request: The Syrians have a North Korean military nuclear facility, and Israel wants the United States to bomb it.
Bush was already embroiled in two wars in the Middle East. And here Olmert was asking him to attack a second Arab country, and a third Muslim one, in an operation that would help Israel directly but the U.S. only indirectly. As angry as America was at Syria for assisting its enemies in Iraq and undermining Lebanon's government, this was a bit much.
The president is not omnipotent - not against Congress (especially when controlled by the other party ), and not even within the executive branch. Bush needed CIA approval, and then-CIA chief Michael Hayden withheld it: Yes, it was a reactor, but it could not yet manufacture a nuclear weapon.
Bush's militant vice president, Dick Cheney, was still at his side, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had been replaced by Robert Gates, who called for dialogue with Syria and Iran. Moreover, the intelligence agencies were working hard to block a potential strike on Iran by publishing lenient reports about its progress toward nuclearization.
After Barack Obama's election, Bush's aides told The New York Times that he had refused another Olmert request, for bunker-busters that Israel could use to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead, the Times reported, Bush approved secret sabotage missions against these facilities.
Gates (who is still defense secretary ) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen say they have no disagreement with Israel regarding Iran's nuclear program, but the timetable is not urgent. Senior administration officials are also concerned that an American or Israeli attack could seriously harm Americans in the region and friendly nations in the Persian Gulf.
Bush's book should thus be read as a lesson for the future: The Americans cannot appear to be doing Israel's bidding. Precise intelligence is necessary. And whatever can be done secretly is better than what explodes thunderously.
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