Secretaries Gates and Rice argued strenuously for the diplomatic option. Gates also argued for preventing Israel from bombing the reactor and urged putting the whole relationship between the United States and Israel on the line. His language recalled the “agonizing reappraisal” of relations Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had threatened for Europe in 1953 if the Europeans failed to take certain defense measures: They simply had to do what we demanded or there would be hell to pay.
I thought I understood why Gates did not want the United States to bomb Syria: America was a steward of wars in two Islamic countries already, so striking a third one seemed terribly unattractive to him. Why he was almost equally insistent that we prevent Israel from bombing it was never comprehensible to me, nor was Rice’s similar position. It seemed clear to me that if we could not prevent Syria from undertaking a nuclear-weapons program, our entire position in the Middle East would be weakened, just as it was being weakened by our inability to stop the Iranian program. If there were too many risks and potential complications from striking Syria ourselves, we should not only allow but encourage Israel to do it; a Syrian nuclear program in addition to Iran’s should be flatly unacceptable to the United States.
I tried to think my way through Rice’s reasoning, but came up with only one theory. She had simultaneously been expressing opposition to a new program of increased military aid to Israel. This indicated to me that she had an underlying strategy: She did not want Israel feeling stronger. Rather, she wanted Israel, and especially Prime Minister Olmert, to feel more dependent on the United States. That way she would be able to push forward with plans for an international conference on Israeli-Palestinian issues and for final-status talks leading to the creation of a Palestinian state before the end of the second Bush term.
I hoped this was not her intention, because it seemed to me that such designs were sure to fail. An Israel that was facing Hamas in Gaza and now two hostile nuclear programs, in Iran and just across the border in Syria, would never take the risks she was asking it to take. I thought we had learned that lesson with Ariel Sharon as Bill Clinton had learned it with Yitzhak Rabin: Wrap your arms around Israel if you want it to take more risks, so it feels more secure, not less.
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