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 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 Eastern war.

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 energy.

Negroponte’s Heresy

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.

In 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.

A Nightmare

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 notch.

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 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 reported.

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 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 inside 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.”

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 bombing raids.

Wounded Leaders

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 source said.

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.

Losing Faith

Bush has dug in his heels even as some senior administration officials have lost faith in his strategy.

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.”

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.”

Escalation

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.

 

Robert Parry 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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