The events of the last two months between the two edges of Asia, Korea to the east and Syria to the west, are gradually being deciphered, according to the international press, like a fascinating detective story. The Washington Post yesterday reported the latest detail in the series of clues: The Israel Air Force targeted a suspected nuclear center in Syria that came from North Korea.
Since the mid-1990s, the United States has sought to make the Korean Peninsula a nuclear-free zone. If North Korea obtained nuclear arms, then South Korea would not long withstand pressure from its Washington ally to refrain from a similar move. Nuclear nonproliferation means not acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place or disarmament should they already exist. To that end, the Clinton administration signed both Koreas to the Agreed Framework, which provided for compensation to North Korea for suspending its nuclear program.
In 2002, North Korea withdrew from this agreement, as well as from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The foreign inspectors assigned to the reactor in Yongbyon were sent away, the walls around the reactor's production facilities were torn down and within five weeks plutonium was once again being produced. The Americans suspected that uranium was being enriched at other facilities, and that North Korea planned to import, and later perhaps even to manufacture, components, materials and nuclear technology, in particular centrifuges, from the private network of the Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Even before that, North Korea hastened to announce it was in possession of at least one nuclear bomb. American officials dismissed the claim but did not dare to test their assumption, in contrast to U.S. action with regard to Iraq. The U.S. intelligence community believed that Baghdad was in the early stages of renewing its nuclear program, but President George W. Bush was quick to attack before Saddam Hussein had the chance to obtain nuclear weapons.
The take-home lesson for the third axis in Bush's "Axis of Evil," Iran, was that the most dangerous and vulnerable stage was the homestretch. The fait accompli was the decisive factor. As soon as a state acquired the bomb, the deterrent effect was on its side. No one would dare attack for fear of a nuclear response and for fear of the fate of civilian populations near active nuclear facilities.
According to American declarations, the lesson learned in Tehran was understood in Damascus as well. Within the Bush administration, a bitter disagreement has been raging since the start of the decade over the progress of Syria?s nuclear program. Former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, a Bush political appointee, represents the suspicious camp. In the opposing camp are State Department and CIA officials, burned by their over-cautious analyses on Iraq. They were skeptical about the intelligence that implicated Syria, should giving it too much weight serve the militaristic agenda of the disenfranchised Cheney-Rumsfeld faction.
In October 2006, after North Korea claimed it had conducted a nuclear test, Bush called for renewed effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, warning that North Korea's transfer of nuclear weapons or materiel to Syria, Iran or terror organizations would be seen as a "grave threat." It was a blind prophecy. The reports in the American press over the past week and Bolton's accusations lend the impression that North Korea was indeed willing to smuggle nuclear technology beyond its borders to evade new inspections and because Syria was interested in acquiring an off-the-shelf product.
One may assume that a Syrian nuclear program would be opposed by states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which would be pushed into a proliferation race by a sudden Syrian announcement of success in that sphere. Bush, who sounded the alarm a year ago, has avoided responding publicly for 10 days now to reports of a Syrian-North Korean nuclear connection. He does not want to divert attention from the congressional debate on continued U.S. military presence in Iraq, nor to increase the strain on the Korean nonproliferation talks scheduled for completion in the autumn of 2008. By then, the extent of Bush?s determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms will also become clear.
The show in Syria, according to The Washington Post, is likely to be the trailer for a long, complicated American performance in Iran. The lesson that should be learned, particularly in the Middle East, is that it is too soon to eulogize Bush. Maligned, his wings clipped, he still has the power to set fateful measures into motion.
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