WASHINGTON -- Coinciding with the Bush administration's tough talk about Syria, a senior Israeli official Monday exposed a smoking gun. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Tel Aviv newspaper Maariv: "We have a long list of issues we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians, and it would be best done through the Americans."
Mofaz's Hebrew-language interview was not widely distributed in Washington, but a few members of Congress who learned of it were stunned by its audacity. With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon long having urged changing Iraq's regime by force of U.S. arms, his government now hopes to ride the emerging American imperium to regional reconstruction along Israeli lines.
That is the goal of prominent Pentagon civilian officials who see virtual identity between U.S. and Israeli interests. Sharon's hopes for his agenda are buoyed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's emergence. Vindicated by the spectacular success of American arms, Rumsfeld is the strongman of the Bush Cabinet who is directing the postwar transformation of the Middle East.
Gen. Mofaz, a career officer before becoming defense minister last October, is a plain-spoken paratrooper who has now revealed his country's grand design of riding American power to reach old goals. While Israel's military is the region's strongest, it has been unable to achieve Mofaz's long, unspecified wish list: removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, ending Syrian support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups and effective Syrian disarmament. The biggest political-military failure in Israel's brief history was its Lebanese intervention.
Israel's goals conceivably can be "done through the Americans" in the wake of the awesome U.S. military performance. Syria's Bashar Assad is unlikely to follow Saddam Hussein's suicidal course of confrontation with Washington. Not supplied militarily by Moscow since the end of the Cold War, Syria's armed forces look weaker than Iraq's.
The problem is how to justify pressuring Syria. If it was hard to prove Iraq a clear danger to the U.S., making the case for Syria is much tougher. After the fall of Baghdad, warnings to Damascus were based on unverified complaints that weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi leaders had crossed the porous Iraqi-Syrian border. "There is no evidence," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said last week, that such weapons were taken out of Iraq.
Syria for a decade or more has been building its own chemical weapons, apparently as a puny counterweight against Israel's nuclear arsenal. Actually, military experts do not consider them weapons of mass destruction. Nor does their possession violate international law since Syria has never signed the chemical weapons ban treaty.
But President Bush is not invoking international law, as he did when seeking United Nations sanction for military intervention in Iraq. "Syria just needs to cooperate with us," the president said Sunday, without citing international authority.
Secretary of State Colin Powell muffled war drums a little Tuesday, telling reporters: "There is no war plan right now to attack somewhere else." However, neither Bush nor Rumsfeld made any such assurance. Furthermore, the Joint Chiefs of Staff two weeks ago ordered the U.S. European Command to prepare a plan for Syria.
All this has frightened Syria and the entire Arab world. That was the intent of Rumsfeld but not Powell, who wants a postwar return to diplomacy by the president. Powell's principal asset is Bush's "road map" for coexisting Jewish and Palestinian states, a concept not popular with the Sharon government or its friends at the Pentagon. Arabs are skeptical, perceiving a road map that leads to fruitless, endless negotiations.
Nothing has so demonstrated to Arabs their political impotence than Rumsfeld's selection of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner as Iraq's interim military governor. Now a defense contractor, he helped develop the Arrow missile-defense system for Israel. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Garner visited Israel as guest of the hard-line Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and signed that organization's letter praising Sharon's treatment of Palestinians.
"Out of the 270 million Americans," said Syrian Deputy Ambassador Imad Moustapha on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, "you choose a military ruler to rule Iraq who is closely related to the extremist factions in Israel." That is the price of losing the clash of civilizations, when you appear to be the next target.