Slowly, however, information is beginning to leak out. The New York Times reported yesterday, in apparent confirmation of numerous rumors that had been swirling around, that the target of the airstrike was a nascent nuclear reactor, most likely provided to Syria by North Korea. The Times is reporting that there had been debate within the Bush administration about how to respond to the reactor, but that "there wasn’t a lot of debate about the evidence."
Why would there by any debate? Because if it comes out, in the middle of talks surrounding North Korea's own nuclear program, that North Korea has providing a nuclear reactor to Syria, the case for negotiating with North Korea would be eviscerated. The talks would inevitably collapse, it would be nearly impossible to continue any diplomatic processes, and military strikes, an option which is about as bad as doing nothing, would be the only options left on the table.
Apparently, this is the source of the division with the Bush Administration. The hard-liners, led by VP Cheney and supported by those like former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, supported the strike and argue that the evidence pointing to the reactor:
Meanwhile SecState Rice and SecDef Gates both opposed the strike, perhaps out of fear that it would cascade into a collapse of the agreement with North Korea.
should lead the United States to reconsider delicate negotiations with North Korea over ending its nuclear program, as well as America’s diplomatic strategy toward Syria, which has been invited to join Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., next month.
Mr. Cheney in particular, officials say, has also cited the indications that North Korea aided Syria to question the Bush administration’s agreement to supply the North with large amounts of fuel oil. During Mr. Bush’s first term, Mr. Cheney was among the advocates of a strategy to squeeze the North Korean government in hopes that it would collapse, and the administration cut off oil shipments set up under an agreement between North Korea and the Clinton administration, saying the North had cheated on that accord.
It strikes me that both sides are wrong. Cheney and Bolton oppose the North Korea deal in and of itself and very well might like to use the strike as a pretense for scuttling the deal. So, Rice and Gates are right to worry about preserving the deal with North Korea: it's clearly the only option for dealing with North Korea's nuclear program at the moment. But ignoring the reactor entirely may have been even worse.
The balance of power in the Middle East is a precarious one. Israel has, by far, the dominant military power, and has a nuclear arsenal of its own. But Israel has also long adhered to a policy of strategic ambiguity by refusing to discuss or confirm its nuclear capability, largely so that its Arab neighbors would not feel compelled to proliferate themselves, an act that Egypt, Jordan, and until now, Syria, have demonstrated little interest in doing. But a Syrian nuclear program would pose a grave threat to regional stability. And even though the reactor may have been in the very early stages -- "it would have been years before the Syrians could have used the reactor to produce the spent nuclear fuel that could, through a series of additional steps, be reprocessed into bomb-grade plutonium" according to the Times -- allowing it to progress would have increased pressure on other Arab nations to proliferate, as well as undercut Israel's deterrent capability.
Perhaps the best gauge for the need for Israel's strike is the reaction from the other Middle East, Arab, and Islamic states. Or rather the lack of reaction. For there was none. The deafening silence that emanated from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran was extremely telling. Normally, an Israeli airstrike, and especially an unprovoked one, would be met by a chorus of condemnations and anti-Israel UN resolutions. But no one other than Syria and North Korea has said a word in protest of Israel's actions. No one wants to see a nuclear-armed Syria.
So, once again, Israel has performed a valuable role in ensuring non-proliferation in the Middle East. Now it's up to the diplomats to ensure that this doesn't undermine the progress in North Korea.