Bush Could Usher in a Very Dangerous New Year
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The first two or three months of 2007 represent a dangerous opening for an escalation of war in the Middle East, as George W. Bush will be tempted to "double-down" his gamble in Iraq by joining with Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair to strike at Syria and Iran, intelligence sources say.
President Bush's goal would be to transcend the bloody quagmire bogging down U.S. forces in Iraq by achieving "regime change" in Syria and by destroying nuclear facilities in Iran, two blows intended to weaken Islamic militants in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
The Israeli army and air force would carry the brunt of any new fighting albeit with the support of beefed-up U.S. ground and naval forces in the Middle East, the sources said. Bush is now considering a "surge" in U.S. troop levels in Iraq from about 140,000 to as many as 170,000. He also has dispatched a second aircraft carrier group to the coast of Iran.
So far, however, Bush has confronted stiff opposition from the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff to the plan for raising troop levels in Iraq, partly because the generals don't think it makes sense to commit more troops without a specific military mission.
But it's unclear how much the generals know about the expanded-war option which has been discussed sometimes in one-on-one meetings among the principals -- Bush, Olmert and Blair -- according to intelligence sources.
Since the Nov. 7 congressional elections, the three leaders have conducted a round-robin of meetings that on the surface seem to have little purpose. Olmert met privately with Bush on Nov. 13; Blair visited the White House on Dec. 7; and Blair conferred with Olmert in Israel on Dec. 18.
All three leaders could salvage their reputations if a wider war broke out in the Middle East and then broke in their favor.
Bush and Blair spearheaded the March 2003 invasion of Iraq that has since turned into a disastrous occupation. In summer 2006, Olmert launched offensives against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, drawing international condemnation for the deaths of hundreds of civilians and domestic criticism for his poorly designed war plans.
The three leaders also find themselves cornered by political opponents. Bush's Republican Party lost control of both the House and Senate on Nov. 7; Blair succumbed to pressure from his own Labour Party and agreed to step down in spring 2007; and Olmert is suffering from widespread public disgust over the failed Lebanese war.
Yet, despite these reversals, the three leaders have rebuffed advice from more moderate advisers that they adopt less confrontational strategies and consider unconditional negotiations with their Muslim adversaries.
Most dramatically, Bush spurned a bipartisan Iraq Study Group plan that was co-authored by the Bush Family's long-time counselor, former Secretary of State James Baker.
Instead of heeding Baker's advice to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq and start talks with Iran and Syria, Bush rejected the notion of a "graceful exit" and then set unacceptable preconditions for talks with Iran and Syria.
In other words, Baker tossed a life preserver to Bush who threw it back.
Bush has continued to insist on "victory" in Iraq and has again ratcheted up his rhetoric. He now talks about waging a long war against Islamic "radicals and extremists," not just the original goal of defeating "terrorists with global reach."
At his news conference on Dec. 20, Bush cast this wider struggle against Islamists as a test of American manhood and perseverance by demonstrating to the enemy that "they can't run us out of the Middle East, that they can't intimidate America."
Bush suggested, too, that painful decisions lay ahead in the New Year.
"I'm not going to make predictions about what 2007 will look like in Iraq, except that it's going to require difficult choices and additional sacrifices, because the enemy is merciless and violent," Bush said.
Rather than scale back his neoconservative dream of transforming the Middle East, Bush argued for an expanded U.S. military to wage this long war.
"We must make sure that our military has the capability to stay in the fight for a long period of time," Bush said. "I'm not predicting any particular theater, but I am predicting that it's going to take a while for the ideology of liberty to finally triumph over the ideology of hate. ...
"We're in the beginning of a conflict between competing ideologies -- a conflict that will determine whether or not your children can live in a peace. A failure in the Middle East, for example, or failure in Iraq, or isolationism, will condemn a generation of young Americans to permanent threat from overseas."
So, rather than looking for a way out of the Iraq quagmire, Bush -- now waist deep in the muck -- is determined to press on.
Bush's dilemma, however, is that time is working against him. Not only are the American people increasingly angry about U.S. troops caught in the middle of a sectarian civil war in Iraq, but Bush's domestic and international political bases continue to erode.
Blair, who is widely derided in the United Kingdom as "Bush's poodle," is nearing the end of his tenure, and Bush's Republican Party is worried about Election 2008 if American soldiers are still dying in Iraq in two years.
Plus, few military analysts believe a temporary troop "surge" alone will stop the steady deterioration in Iraq. Bush acknowledged as much at his news conference.
"In order to do so ['the surge'], there must be a specific mission that can be accomplished with more troops," Bush said. "That's precisely what our commanders have said, as well as people who know a lot about military operations. And I agree with them that there's got to be a specific mission that can be accomplished with the addition of more troops before I agree on that strategy."
Though not making much sense as a way to quell the civil strife in Iraq, a U.S. military buildup could help protect American interests in Iraq if Israeli attacks on Syria and Iran touch off retaliation against U.S. and British targets.
For Bush, this idea of expanding the war outside Iraq also is not new. Since spring 2006, Bush reportedly has been weighing military options for bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, but he has encountered resistance from senior U.S. military officers.
As investigative reporter Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker, a number of senior U.S. officers were troubled by administration war planners who believed "bunker-busting" tactical nuclear weapons, known as B61-11s, were the only way to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities buried deep underground.
A former senior intelligence official told Hersh that the White House refused to remove the nuclear option from the plans despite objections from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Whenever anybody tries to get it out, they're shouted down," the ex-official said.
By late April 2006, however, the Joint Chiefs finally got the White House to agree that using nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, less than 200 miles south of Tehran, was politically unacceptable, Hersh reported.
"Bush and [Vice President Dick] Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning," one former senior intelligence official said.
But -- even with the nuclear option off the table -- senior U.S. military officials worried about the political and economic fallout from a massive bombing campaign against Iran. Hersh wrote:
"Inside the Pentagon, senior commanders have increasingly challenged the President's plans, according to active-duty and retired officers and officials. The generals and admirals have told the Administration that the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear program. They have also warned that an attack could lead to serious economic, political, and military consequences for the United States."
Hersh quoted a retired four-star general as saying, "The system is starting to sense the end of the road, and they don't want to be condemned by history. They want to be able to say, 'We stood up.' "
Beyond the dangers from Iran's nuclear program, the Bush administration views the growing Shiite crescent across the Middle East as a threat to U.S. influence.
Washington Post foreign policy analyst Robin Wright wrote that U.S. officials told her that "for the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East."
By summer 2006, Israeli sources were describing Bush's interest in finding a pretext to hit back at Syria and Iran. That opening came when border tensions with Hamas in Gaza and with Hezbollah in Lebanon led to the capture of three Israeli soldiers and a rapid Israeli escalation of the conflict into an air-and-ground campaign against Lebanon.
Bush and his neoconservative advisers saw the Israeli-Lebanese conflict as an opportunity to expand the fighting into Syria and achieve the long-sought "regime change" in Damascus, Israeli sources said.
One Israeli source told me that Bush's interest in spreading the war to Syria was considered "nuts" by some senior Israeli officials, although Prime Minister Olmert generally shared Bush's hard-line strategy against Islamic militants.
In an article on July 30, 2006. the Jerusalem Post also hinted at the Israeli rejection of Bush's suggestion of a wider war into Syria. "Defense officials told the Post ... that they were receiving indications from the US that America would be interested in seeing Israel attack Syria," the newspaper reported.
In August 2006, the Inter-Press Service provided additional details, reporting that the message was passed to Israel by Bush's deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who had been a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
"In a meeting with a very senior Israeli official, Abrams indicated that Washington would have no objection if Israel chose to extend the war beyond to its other northern neighbor, leaving the interlocutor in no doubt that the intended target was Syria," a source told the Inter-Press Service.
In December 2006, Meyray Wurmser, a leading U.S. neoconservative whose spouse is a Middle East adviser to Vice President Cheney, confirmed that neocons in and outside the Bush administration had hoped Israel would attack Syria as a means of undermining the insurgents in Iraq.
"If Syria had been defeated, the rebellion in Iraq would have ended," Wurmser said in an interview with Yitzhak Benhorin of the Ynet Web site. "A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hezbollah. ... If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran that it would have weakened it and (changed) the strategic map in the Middle East."
In early 2007, the revival of this neoconservative strategy of using the Israeli military to oust the Syrian government and to inflict damage on Iran's nuclear program may represent a last-ditch -- and high-risk -- gamble by Bush and the neocons to salvage their historic legacy.
If that is the case, then Bush will approve "the surge" in U.S. forces into Iraq, which likely will be followed by some provocation that can be blamed on Syria or Iran, thus justifying the expanded war.
Betting the lives of American soldiers and countless civilians across the Middle East, Bush will follow the age-old adage of gambling addicts: in for a dime, in for a dollar.