Would the world be a better place right now if Syrian President Bashar Assad had nuclear weapons? Most reasonable people would say “no.” One of Western policymakers’ enduring nightmares is that unrest in a nuclear power like Pakistan might result in nuclear materiel being looted and trafficked, just as Libyan arms looted during that country’s civil war are now being trafficked worldwide. If Syria had nuclear weapons today, its developing civil war could easily result in precisely that nightmare proliferation scenario.
What brought the question to mind was the unnamed intelligence official quoted in Mark Perry’s latest anti-Israel slur at Foreign Policy, who said that while Israel is “supposed to be a strategic asset … There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.” For unless you think the world would be a better place if Syria had nukes right now, it’s pretty hard to argue Israel isn’t a strategic asset for America – not only because Israel is the one that destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007, but because, as the New York Times reported last month, Washington didn’t even know the North Korean-built reactor existed “until Meir Dagan, then the head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, visited President George W. Bush’s national security adviser and dropped photographs of the reactor on his coffee table.” Only then did U.S. intelligence conduct its own investigation and confirm it.
That the Mossad scooped the CIA on the Syrian reactor is no insult to the latter: Israel has good reason to devote far greater intelligence resources to Syria, a hostile next-door neighbor, than America does; it can also afford to concentrate primarily on its own neighborhood, whereas U.S. intelligence of necessity spans the globe. Hence, it makes sense for U.S. intelligence to devote fewer resources to Syria and rely on Israel to fill in the gaps.
But if Israel didn’t exist, America would have to devote extensive additional resources to Syria, and to all the other Middle Eastern countries on which Israel currently shares intelligence with it – or else risk waking up one day to discover that a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism, a key Iranian ally that served as a conduit for jihadists fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, had suddenly developed nuclear weapons.
Nor is intelligence the only contribution Israel makes to U.S. interests in the region: Precisely because it is more immediately threatened by its neighbors, Jerusalem is often willing to take action Washington would rather not take, but that serves American interests. Its 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor is a case in point: Washington opposed it at the time, but was grateful 10 years later, when its vital interest in keeping oil flowing through the Gulf led it to declare war on Iraq over the latter’s invasion of Kuwait.
Similarly, Bush didn’t want to take action against Syria’s reactor in 2007, being reluctant to open a front against a third Muslim country while already fighting
in Iraq and Afghanistan. But I suspect many American policymakers are sleeping easier today because that reactor is gone.