Are the latest accusations and tough language
leveled against Iran, Syria, and North Korea evidence of a resurgence by the
remaining hawks in the administration of President George W. Bush hoping for
a final confrontation against one or more members of the revised "axis
of evil" before his term next January?
That's the big question here this week, particularly following Thursday's long-awaited
intelligence briefings to Congress about alleged North Korean involvement in
the construction of a "covert nuclear reactor" in Syria that was destroyed
in a raid by Israeli warplanes in September last year.
According to some interpretations, the briefing's timing and content appeared
deliberately designed to raise tensions between Washington, on the one hand,
and Pyongyang and Damascus, on the other, potentially derailing ongoing long-running
negotiations between the State Department and North Korea and Turkish-mediated
peace feelers between Israel and Syria.
That Vice President Dick Cheney, whose opposition to engaging both North Korea
and Syria and support for "regime change" in both countries is both
well known and of long standing, had pushed hard for the briefing to take place
has added to speculation that a major power play by the hawks to reverse the
diplomacy that has dominated Bush's second term is underway.
Rumors that the State Department's point man on North Korea, Assistant Secretary
of State Christopher Hill whose latest accord with Pyongyang negotiated
in Singapore earlier this month has been the target of fierce right-wing attacks
led by Cheney chum, former UN Amb. John Bolton has told associates that
he will resign next month have added to concerns that the hawks have regained
the initiative, at least on that front.
Add the promotion of Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq who has
overseen the past year's "surge" of US troops, to take over the
US Central Command (Centcom) this summer, as well as the increasingly harsh
charges against Iran's alleged interference in Iraq that have been coming out
of the Pentagon in recent days.
All these developments are seen by some as an answer to the prayers of neoconservatives,
in particular, who had largely given up hopes that Bush could be persuaded to
attack Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office.
In his testimony about the surge earlier this month, Petraeus had repeatedly
blamed allegedly Iranian-sponsored and directed Shi'a "Special Groups"
for attacking Iraqi government and US forces in Basra and Baghdad, describing
them as "the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic
And on Friday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen,
who has generally resisted Iran-bashing, conceded that he was "extremely
concerned" about Iran's "increasingly lethal and malign influence"
in Iraq, as well as in other parts of the region.
At the same time, Pentagon officials announced that it will brief reporters
next week on newly discovered arms caches in Iraq which they said proved that
Iran has not abided by pledges made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Iraqi
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last fall to curb any cross-border weapons shipments.
Indeed, there appears little question that the rhetoric here has become considerably
harsher in recent weeks. The shift became particularly evident in February,
when the former Centcom commander and the man whom Petraeus will replace, Adm.
William "Fox" Fallon, abruptly announced his resignation following
the publication of a profile in Esquire magazine that depicted him as
opposing key administration policies and as the one man standing between Bush
and war with Iran.
The blunt-spoken admiral had pushed for diplomatic engagement with Iran and
aggressively supported efforts to engage North Korea while serving as head of
the Pacific Command (Pacom) earlier in the decade. He was in many ways the point
man for the "realist" faction in the administration led by Pentagon
chief Robert Gates and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Secretary of State Condoleezza
That faction, which had been almost entirely marginalized by the hawks after
the 9/11 attacks at least insofar as the Middle East and North Korea
were concerned has gradually clawed its way back into influence, largely
at the hawks' expense, during Bush's second term.
But the latest turn of events has raised the question of whether the hawks
have reversed the tide or, at the very least, regained enough influence to stymie
additional efforts by the realists to reduce tensions with Iran and Syria and
keep advancing the denuclearization process with North Korea and the Six-Party
Talks, however haltingly.
While few question that the rhetoric has indeed clearly hardened, it remains
unclear how much or even whether the most recent developments will translate
into major policy changes.
On North Korea, for example, much will depend both on the reaction by Pyongyang
to Thursday's briefing and on the results of a State Department mission yet
to be reported to follow up on the Singapore accord negotiated by Hill.
If the two key issues on which Hill has been attacked by the hawks his
failure to get a North Korean accounting for an its alleged uranium-enrichment
program and its involvement with the Syrian plant are adequately addressed
in the view of at least some of the critics, the process is likely to go forward.
Indeed, some in the administration itself have argued that the briefing was
designed to clear the air on the second issue, and thus set the stage for Congressional
appropriation of money needed to provide Pyongyang with energy and food supplies
and aid in dismantling its nuclear facilities and thus advancing the Six-Party
Some analysts believe that Cheney and his associates had hoped and Hill
had feared that the briefing itself would provoke such a belligerent
reaction from Pyongyang, which has denied supplying Syria with any nuclear-related
assistance, that it would effectively torpedo the process. But those hopes have
yet to materialize.
As for Syria, which has denied even building a nuclear plant, President Bashar
al-Assad's disclosure this week that Turkey has been mediating between Jerusalem
and Damascus for more than a year and had been told by the Israelis that they
were prepared to return the Golan Heights appeared designed to help insulate
it from the anticipated outrage caused by the briefing. The fact that neither
Turkey nor Israel denied Assad's account makes it that much more credible.
And while the administration's hawks clearly hoped that the briefing would
further isolate and embarrass Damascus, most analysts agree that, given Bush's
own strong hostility toward Syria due to its alleged intervention in Lebanon
and Iraq, even the realists had long ago given up on the prospect of improving
bilateral ties during his administration.
Finally, despite harsher rhetoric against Iran, observers here note that it
falls short of the kind of threats that Bush and Cheney were making against
Tehran as recently as last fall. Moreover, as recently as a week ago, Mullen
reiterated Fallon's exhortations in favor of dialogue with Iran, noting at the
right-wing Heritage Foundation, no less: "We've done that in the past with
our enemies. We should be able to do that (with Iran) as well."
Indeed, some analysts believe that Petraeus' promotion to Centcom was actually
engineered by Gates and Mullen not only because he is likely to enjoy exceptional
influence with Bush, but also because, despite his championship by neoconservative
hawks, they consider him a fellow-realist who shares the conviction that war
with Iran would be a major strategic error.
(Inter Press Service)