The Washington Post's Walter Pincus has extracted some other items of interest from Robert Gates' book, Duty (noted earlier here). These include the forgotten fact that the Bush administration discussed withdrawing the "surge" in Iraq even as it was getting underway, much as the Obama administration would do more emphatically vis a vis Afghanistan. (Similarly, a withdrawal date from Iraq was set by Bush.)
Another Gates disclosure provides another lesson: information about Syria building in 2005 what turned out to be a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor capable of producing plutonium during the Bush administration.
Though the United States considered Syria a high-priority intelligence target, it was Israel that supplied the compelling evidence in spring 2007 about its nuclear activities. Gates, a former CIA director, said this represented “a significant failure on the part of the U.S. intelligence agencies” but “surprisingly, neither the president nor Congress made much of it. Given the stakes, they should have.”
Questions then arose about diplomatic options or whether to launch a surprise military action against Syria — conducted either by the United Statesor by Israel. At a June 17, 2007, meeting with Bush, Gates described his “preferred approach was to begin with diplomacy and reserve a military strike as a last resort.”
He proposed exposing what North Korea and Syria were doing in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, call for a freeze and international inspection but “not allow the reactor to become operational.”
Gates reported Bush was not going to do a surprise attack but he worried the president, who was “very pro-Israel . . . might just decide to let the Israelis take care of the reactor.”
Three days later, Gates urged Bush to tell Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, “if Israel went forward on its own militarily, he would be putting Israel’s entire relationship with the United States at risk.”
No word on who Gates might have parleyed with to intensify his reaction toward a breaking point.
Bush talked to Olmert on July 13, who said the reactor “represented an existential threat to Israel [and] that it could not trust diplomacy to fix,” Gates said.
The next day, Bush said he was impressed with Olmert’s “steadfastness” and, according to Gates, was “unwilling to preempt the prime minister through a diplomatic initiative or even to put much pressure on him.” He also noted there were others, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported Israel doing whatever it wanted.
Let's stay specific: whatever it wanted = "eliminating an `existential threat to Israel.' "
Writes Gates, “By not confronting Olmert, Bush effectively came down on Cheney’s side. By not giving the Israelis a red light, he gave them a green one” and on Sept. 6, 2007, the Israelis destroyed the reactor.
In his memoir, “Decision Points,” Bush wrote, “Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light, and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel.”
For Gates, however, though the Syrians did not react militarily to Israel’s attack, “we had condoned reaching for a gun before diplomacy could be brought to bear . . . This made me all the more nervous about an even bigger looking national security problem.” He meant Iran and its nuclear program.
But Iran was different. In May 2007, Israel made a military arms request “that if satisfied would greatly enhance their ability to strike Iranian nuclear sites.”
This is before the Syria strike of September 2007.
At a meeting two days later, Gates said he recommended “saying no to all the Israelis’ requests.” Bush “deflected the Israeli requests” but increased bilateral intelligence sharing.
Gates writes that his most effective argument was that an Israeli attack on Iran that overflew Iraq would endanger what the surge had achieved with Baghdad.
Bush then “emphatically said he would not put our gains in Iraq at risk,” according to Gates.
Aha. Another Bush soft spot.
Of course, if the elimination of Iran's nuclear war-making potential by our ally Israel is something that would have put "our gains in Iraq at risk," then that's another reason there were no "gains in Iraq" that we could reasonably or logically call our own. Ever. The belief that the world is more dangerous if Islamic Iran becomes a nuclear power should be a basic prerequisite of military alliance with the US, not a break-point if/when it were to come true. If Gates's argument was true -- and not just an easy Bush-button to push at the time -- we had nothing in common with Iraq, not even a common understanding idea of what constitutes regional security.
Did such a thought ever occur to Gates or anyone else in that "surging," "nation-building" Bush White House, maybe in the middle of a cold sweat late at night? Or was it always about keeping the facade in place just long enough to get a whack at posterity's plus-column -- never mind the cost.