By Jim Lobe | 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.
Rumours 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 U.N. 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 U.S. commander in Iraq who has overseen the past year’s ‘surge’ of U.S. troops, to take over the U.S. 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 neo-conservatives, 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 U.S. forces in Basra and Baghdad, describing them as ‘the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq’.
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 Rice.
That faction, which had been almost entirely marginalised 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 de-nuclearisation 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 programme 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 process.
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 materialise.
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 favour 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 neo-conservative hawks, they consider him a fellow-realist who shares the conviction that war with Iran would be a major strategic error.