In Korea and Arabia

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April 15, 2003 3:05 p.m.

In Korea and Arabia, the Bush administration is poised to make decisions that will tell us a lot about the policy it intends to pursue and just who’s calling the shots. In the post below, I note that the North Koreans have come toward the Bush administration position — but with several significant barbs that may nullify the effect of the opening. The president now has to decide whether he’s interested in talking or not. (NB: This is being presented as an administration victory — and, to an extent, it is. But we shouldn’t forget that the multilateral talks position is still a significant climb-down from the administration’s original stance.)

There’s a similarly telling moment with Syria. (I have a column coming out about this tomorrow. So I don’t want to say too much about it now.) I doubt very much that we’re about to move militarily against Syria. This strikes me as a brush-back pitch. It is critical to our efforts in Iraq that Syria not try to Lebanize Iraq. Those are the minimum ground rules. And we need to make that crystal clear to them right now.

Our military might looks extremely credible at the moment. Also, note that Syria is now surrounded by the United States and two of its allies — Turkey and Israel, Lebanon being effectively Finlandized and Jordan a minor military power.

The critical question is, how far do we press our advantage? Do we warn the Syrians off any interference with our work in Iraq and put them on notice about chemical weapons? Or do we press on our whole bill of particulars — cutting off support for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, opening up to some sort of chemical weapons inspections, closing down offices of terrorist organizations in Damascus, a more compliant stance toward peace with Israel, etc. The devil will be in the details. But those details will tell us a lot about whether we’re pursuing a minimalist or maximalist plan for remaking the Middle East.

On a related matter, there’s a lot of chatter about how much we may or may not be coordinating with Israel on all this. Here’s one good example that we’re not — or at least not that well, if we are. Because if we really were coordinating so closely with Israel we wouldn’t let anything like this happen that made it look like we were coordinating so closely.

Israel’s hawkish Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Israeli daily Maariv, “We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it is proper that it should be done through the Americans.” In various press reports I’ve seen this translated both as “through the Americans” and “by the Americans.” In the context, that subtle distinction in meaning is rather important. So I’d be curious to know more about how he phrased it in Hebrew. The long list of issues included

… removing the threat of Hezbollah in south Lebanon; distancing long-range rockets; moving Hezbollah away from the south, up to dismantling [Hezbollah]; stopping Iranian aid to Hezbollah via Syrian ports; and halting the granting of the cover of respectability to the terror headquarters of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad based in Damascus, from which they dispatch orders and funding to Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Now each of these would be great to have happen. But this reads like something out of the more conspiratorial wing of the Arab press: Israel comes up with a list of demands for Syria. Israel gives the list to the United States. The United States masses troops on Syria’s borders and forces the Syrians to comply with the list of Israel’s demands.

If nothing else we want to do a bit better on appearances.

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