EDITORIAL: From yellow cake to cement

From yellow cake to cement

The Israeli government has learned that Bashar Al-Assad recently bought significant quantities of cement from North Korea.”

OK. Maybe this line won’t make it into the president’s next State of the Union speech, but we should be in no doubt that once again the neocons are on the loose and in response the Washington Post and New York Times have dutifully put on their dunce caps. The Post reports:

… a prominent U.S. expert on the Middle East, who has interviewed Israeli participants in a mysterious raid over Syria last week, reported that the attack appears to have been linked to the arrival three days earlier of a ship carrying material from North Korea labeled as cement.

The expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid compromising his sources, said the target of the attack appears to have been a northern Syrian facility that was labeled an agricultural research center on the Euphrates River, close to the Turkish border. Israel has kept a close eye on the facility, believing that Syria was using it to extract uranium from phosphates.

The expert said it is not clear what the ship was carrying, but the emerging consensus in Israel was that it delivered nuclear equipment. The ship arrived Sept. 3 in the Syrian port of Tartus; the attack occurred Sept. 6 under such strict operational security that the pilots flying air cover for the attack aircraft did not know details of the mission.

Meanwhile the Times reflects on the diplomatic conundrum that now faces the U.S. now faces:

The speculation about possible North Korean activities inside Syria is heightening the Bush administration’s concern about the future of its diplomatic efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. The Bush administration’s top negotiator for North Korea, Christopher R. Hill, said that the United States still planned to go ahead with an agreement for food and fuel aid to North Korea in exchange for its decision to dismantle its nuclear program.

“We’ve always been concerned about the issue of proliferation,” Mr. Hill told reporters during a news conference at the State Department. “To me, this simply is an important reminder of the need to accelerate the process which we’ve already engaged in, to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

He declined to say whether the United States had sought a specific explanation from North Korean officials, and added that the issue “does not change the goal of what we’re aiming for.”

Christopher Hill, ever the consummate diplomat, presents the purported threat as an opportunity for energizing his own efforts. In private he’s probably calling for the insurgents in Washington and Tel Aviv to be put in restraints. Nuclear expert, Joseph Cirincione, on the other hand requires no restraint and has no desire to mince his words:

This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined “White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection.” This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.

Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted “intelligence” to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.

If there is another political element here that is utterly familiar, it is the use of silence to fuel fear and speculation. As Helene Cooper writes elsewhere in the New York Times:

… a belief has been growing in Iran, which administration officials have pointedly not tried to stem, that the Bush administration is considering military strikes against Iran. An Israeli airstrike in Syria last week kicked up a flurry of speculation in the Iranian press that Israel, in alliance with the United States, was really trying to send a message to Iran that it could strike Iranian nuclear facilities if it chose to.

The Israeli government’s official silence about the Syrian airstrike has further fueled those fears in Iran, American, Israeli and European officials said.

“If I were the Iranians, what I’d be freaked out about is that the other Arab states didn’t protest” the Israeli airstrike in Syria, said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The Arab world nonreaction is a signal to Iran, that Arabs aren’t happy with Iran’s power and influence, so if the Israelis want to go and intimidate and violate the airspace of another Arab state that’s an ally of Iran, the other Arab states aren’t going to do anything.”

An Arab signal to Iran? Perhaps, but it seems just as likely this is fear-induced paralysis while witnessing that the United States and Israel appear to have learned nothing from their failures in Iraq and Lebanon.

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