Rush to Armageddon
By Robert Parry
-- -- George W. Bush has purged senior military and
intelligence officials who were obstacles to a wider war
in the Middle East, broadening his options for both
escalating the conflict inside Iraq and expanding the
fighting to Iran and Syria with Israel’s help.
On Jan. 4, Bush ousted the
top two commanders in the Middle East, Generals John Abizaid and
George Casey, who had opposed a military escalation in Iraq, and
removed Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, who
had stood by intelligence estimates downplaying the near-term
threat from Iran’s nuclear program.
Most Washington observers
have treated Bush’s shake-up as either routine or part of his
desire for a new team to handle his planned “surge” of U.S.
troops in Iraq. But intelligence sources say the personnel
changes also fit with a scenario for attacking Iran’s nuclear
facilities and seeking violent regime change in Syria.
Bush appointed Admiral
William Fallon as the new chief of Central Command for the
Middle East despite the fact that Fallon, a former Navy fighter
pilot and currently head of the Pacific Command, will oversee
two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The choice of Fallon makes
more sense if Bush foresees a bigger role for two aircraft
carrier groups now poised off Iran’s coastline, such as support
for possible Israeli air strikes against Iran’s nuclear targets
or as a deterrent against any overt Iranian retaliation.
Though not considered a
Middle East expert, Fallon has moved in neoconservative circles,
for instance, attending
a 2001 awards ceremony at the Jewish Institute for National
Security Affairs, a think tank dedicated to explaining “the link
between American defense policy and the security of Israel.”
Bush’s personnel changes also
come as Israel is reported stepping up preparations for air
strikes, possibly including tactical nuclear bombs, to destroy
Iran’s nuclear facilities, such as the reactor at Natanz, south
of Tehran, where enriched uranium is produced.
The Sunday Times of London
reported on Jan. 7 that two Israeli air squadrons are training
for the mission and “if things go according to plan, a pilot
will first launch a conventional laser-guided bomb to blow a
shaft down through the layers of hardened concrete [at Natanz].
Other pilots will then be ready to drop low-yield one kiloton
nuclear weapons into the hole.”
The Sunday Times wrote that
Israel also would hit two other facilities – at Isfahan and Arak
– with conventional bombs. But the possible use of a nuclear
bomb at Natanz would represent the first nuclear attack since
the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan at
the end of World War II six decades ago.
While some observers believe
Israel may be leaking details of its plans as a way to frighten
Iran into accepting international controls on its nuclear
program, other sources indicate that Israel and the Bush
administration are seriously preparing for this wider Middle
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert has called the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb an
“existential threat” to Israel.
After the Sunday Times
article appeared, an
Israeli government spokesman denied that Israel has drawn up
secret plans to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. For its part,
Iran claims it only wants a nuclear program for producing
Whatever Iran’s intent,
Negroponte has said U.S. intelligence does not believe Iran
could produce a nuclear weapon until next decade.
Negroponte’s assessment in
April 2006 infuriated neoconservative hardliners who wanted a
worst-case scenario on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, much as they
pressed for an alarmist view on Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Unlike former CIA Director
George Tenet, who bent to Bush’s political needs on Iraq,
Negroponte stood behind the position of intelligence analysts
who cited Iran’s limited progress in refining uranium.
“Our assessment is that the
prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off,
and probably into the next decade,” Negroponte said in an
interview with NBC News.
Expressing a similarly tempered view in
a speech at the National Press Club, Negroponte said, “I
think it’s important that this issue be kept in perspective.”
Some neocons complained that
Negroponte was betraying the President.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., a
leading figure in the neoconservative Project for the New
American Century, called for Negroponte’s firing because of the
Iran assessment and his “abysmal personnel decisions” in hiring
senior intelligence analysts who were skeptics about Bush’s
Iraqi WMD claims.
an article for Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times,
Gaffney attacked Negroponte for giving top analytical jobs to
Thomas Fingar, who had served as assistant secretary of state
for intelligence and research, and Kenneth Brill, who was U.S.
ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which
debunked some of the U.S. and British claims about Iraq seeking
uranium ore from Africa.
Fingar’s Office of
Intelligence and Research had led the dissent against the Iraq
WMD case, especially over what turned out to be Bush’s false
claims that Iraq was developing a nuclear bomb.
“Given this background, is it
any wonder that Messrs. Negroponte, Fingar and Brill … gave us
the spectacle of absurdly declaring the Iranian regime to be
years away from having nuclear weapons?” wrote Gaffney, who was
a senior Pentagon official during the Reagan administration.
Gaffney also accused
Negroponte of giving promotions to “government officials in
sensitive positions who actively subvert the President’s
policies,” an apparent reference to Fingar and Brill. The
neocons have long resented U.S. intelligence assessments that
conflict with their policy prescriptions. [See Robert Parry's
Secrecy & Privilege.]
In his personnel shakeup,
Bush shifted Negroponte from his Cabinet-level position as DNI
to a sub-Cabinet post as deputy to Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice. To replace Negroponte, Bush nominated Navy
retired Vice Admiral John McConnell, who is viewed by
intelligence professionals as a low-profile technocrat, not a
strong independent figure.
A Freer Hand
Negroponte’s departure should
give Bush a freer hand if he decides to support attacks on
Iran’s nuclear facilities. Bush’s neocon advisers fear that if
Bush doesn’t act decisively in his remaining two years in
office, his successor may lack the political will to launch a
preemptive strike against Iran.
Bush reportedly has been
weighing his military options for bombing Iran’s nuclear
facilities since early 2006. But he has encountered resistance
from the top U.S. military brass, much as he has with his plans
to escalate U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
As investigative reporter
Seymour Hersh wrote in The New Yorker, a number of senior U.S.
military 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. [New
Yorker, April 17, 2006]
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. [New
Yorker, July 10, 2006]
But one way to get around the
opposition of the Joint Chiefs would be to delegate the bombing
operation to the Israelis. Given Israel’s powerful lobbying
operation in Washington and its strong ties to leading
Democrats, an Israeli-led attack might be more politically
palatable with the Congress.
Attacks on Iran and Syria
also would fit with Bush’s desire to counter the growing Shiite
influence across the Middle East, which was given an unintended
boost by Bush’s ouster of the Sunni-dominated government of
Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The original neocon plan for
the Iraq invasion was to use Iraq as a base to force regime
change in Syria and Iran, thus dealing strong blows to Hezbollah
in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
This regional transformation
supposedly would have protected Israel’s northern border and
strengthened Israel’s hand in dictating final peace terms to the
Palestinians. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq backfired,
descending into a sectarian civil war with Iraq’s pro-Iranian
Shiite majority gaining the upper hand.
In effect, by ousting Saddam
Hussein, Bush had eliminated the principal buffer who had been
holding the line against the radical Shiites in Iran since 1979.
By tipping the strategic balance to the Shiites, Bush also
unnerved the Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia.
By 2006, the dream of a
U.S.-orchestrated transformation of the Middle East had turned
into a nightmare of rising Shiite radicalism. To address this
unanticipated development, Bush began pondering how best to
throttle Shiite expansionism.
In summer 2006, 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.”
[Washington Post, July 16, 2006]
Bush’s advisers also blamed
the governments of Syria and Iran for supporting anti-U.S.
fighters in Iraq.
Yet lacking the military and
political capacity to expand the conflict beyond Iraq, the Bush
administration turned to Israel and its new Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert. By summer 2006, Israeli sources were describing Bush’s
interest in finding a pretext to take Syria and Iran down a
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
Bush and his neoconservative
advisers saw the Israeli-Lebanese conflict as an opening 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. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bush
Wants Wider War.”]
In an article on July 30,
2006. the Jerusalem Post also hinted at 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
In August 2006, the
Inter-Press Service added more 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
In December 2006, Meyray
Wurmser, a leading U.S. neoconservative whose spouse is a Middle
East adviser to Vice President Cheney, confirmed that neocons
inside and outside the Bush administration had hoped Israel
would attack Syria as a means of undermining the insurgents in
“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
But the Israeli summer
offensives in Gaza and Lebanon fell short of Olmert’s
objectives, instead generating international condemnation of Tel
Aviv for the large numbers of civilian casualties from Israel’s
Now, as two politically
wounded leaders, Bush and Olmert share an interest in trying to
salvage some success out of their military setbacks. So, they
are looking at possible moves that are much more dramatic than
minor adjustments to the status quo.
Democrats and some
Republicans are questioning why Bush wants to send 20,000 more
U.S. troops to Iraq and offer Iraqis some jobs programs, when
similar tactics have been tried unsuccessfully in the past.
Indeed, one source familiar
with high-level thinking in Washington and Tel Aviv said an
unstated reason for Bush’s troop “surge” is to bolster the
defenses of Baghdad’s Green Zone if a possible Israeli attack on
Iran prompts an uprising among Iraqi Shiites.
The two U.S. aircraft carrier
strike forces off Iran’s coast could provide further deterrence
against Iranian retaliation. But the conflict would almost
certainly spread anyway.
Likely Hezbollah missile
strikes against Israel would offer another pretext for Israel to
invade Syria and finally oust Hezbollah’s allies in Damascus, as
the U.S. neocons had hope would happen in summer 2006, the
In the neoconservative
vision, this wider war would offer perhaps a last chance at
achieving the regional transformation that has been at the heart
of Bush’s strategy of “democratizing” the Middle East through
violence if necessary.
However, few Middle East
experts believe that Bush really would want the results of truly
democratic elections in the region because Islamic militants
would almost surely win resoundingly amid the anti-Americanism
that has grown even more intense since the hanging of Saddam
Hussein in late December.
An Israeli assault on Iran
could put the region’s remaining pro-American dictators in
jeopardy, too. In Pakistan, for instance, Islamic militants with
ties to al-Qaeda have been gaining strength and might try to
overthrow Gen. Pervez Musharraf, conceivably giving Islamic
terrorists control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
For some U.S. foreign policy
experts, this potential for disaster from a U.S.-backed Israeli
air strike on Iran is so terrifying that they ultimately don’t
believe Bush and Olmert would dare implement such the plan.
But Bush’s actions in the
past two months – reaffirming his determination to achieve
“victory” in Iraq – suggest that he wants nothing of the
“graceful exit” that might come from a de-escalation of the war.
Bush has dug in his heels
even as some senior administration officials have lost faith in
On Nov. 6, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld sent Bush a memo suggesting a “major adjustment”
in Iraq War policy that would include “an accelerated drawdown
of U.S. bases” from 55 to five by July 2007 with remaining U.S.
forces only committed to Iraqi areas that request them.
“Unless they [the local Iraqi
governments] cooperate fully, U.S. forces would leave their
province,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Proposing an option similar
to a plan enunciated by Democratic Rep. John Murtha, Rumsfeld
suggested that the commanders “withdraw U.S. forces from
vulnerable positions – cities, patrolling, etc. – and move U.S.
forces to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) status, operating from
within Iraq and Kuwait, to be available when Iraqi security
forces need assistance.”
And in what could be read as
an implicit criticism of Bush’s lofty rhetoric about
transforming Iraq and the Middle East, Rumsfeld said the
administration should “recast the U.S. military mission and the
U.S. goals (how we talk about them) – go minimalist.” [NYT,
Dec. 3, 2006]
On Nov. 8, two days after the
memo and one day after American voters elected Democratic
majorities in the House and Senate, Bush fired Rumsfeld. The
firing was widely interpreted as a sign that Bush was ready to
moderate his position on Iraq, but the evidence now suggests
that Bush got rid of Rumsfeld for going wobbly on the war.
On Dec. 6, when longtime Bush
family counselor James Baker issued a report by the bipartisan
Iraq Study Group urging a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, Bush
wasted little time in slapping it down.
Instead, Bush talked about
waging a long war against Islamic “radicals and extremists,” an
escalation from his original post-9/11 goal of defeating
“terrorists with global reach.”
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
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
“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.”
Since then, Bush has floated
the idea of a troop “surge” and replaced commanders who
disagreed with him. Bush also removed U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Zalmay Khalilzad, a Sunni Muslim generally considered a voice
for moderation in U.S. policy who privately objected to Bush’s
decision to press ahead with the hanging of Saddam Hussein.
There are even indications of
tension between Bush and Cheney, who like his old friend
Rumsfeld, appears to have grown disillusioned with the war.
In a little-noticed comment
on Jan. 4, Sen. Joseph Biden, the new chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, said Cheney and Rumsfeld “are
really smart guys who made a very, very, very, very bad bet, and
it blew up in their faces. Now, what do they do with it? I think
they have concluded they can’t fix it, so how do you keep it
stitched together without it completely unraveling?” [Washington
Post, Jan. 5, 2007]
But Bush does not appear to
share that goal of limiting the damage. Instead, he is looking
for ways to “double-down” his gamble in Iraq by joining with
Olmert – and possibly outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair
– in expanding the conflict.
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.
Sources say the three leaders
are frantically seeking options for turning around their
political fortunes as they face harsh judgments from history for
their bloody and risky adventures in the Middle East.
But there is also a clock
ticking. Blair, who now stands to go down in the annals of
British history as “Bush’s poodle,” is nearing the end of his
tenure, having agreed under pressure from his Labour Party to
step down in spring 2007.
So, if the Bush-Blair-Olmert
triumvirate has any hope of accomplishing the neoconservative
remaking of the Middle East, time is running out. Something
dramatic must happen soon.
That something looks like it
may include a rush to Armageddon.
broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the
Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy
& Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq,
can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History:
Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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