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February 18, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. This was supposed to be a week in which the nation focused on domestic issues, while taking some pleasure in the progress being made in Iraq, and the improving relations between Palestinian and Israeli leaders, but events overseas have a way of not cooperating.

Headlines this week were full of bad news. The bombing in Lebanon prompted the U.S. again to focus again on Syria's role in supporting violence against Iraq and Israel. North Korea's claim about having the bomb and Iran's threat to protect its nuclear facilities directed attention once again to the limitations on American power.

Here to discuss all of this are Dan Henninger a columnist and deputy editor of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL editorial page, Bret Stevens, a member of the editorial board who has reported extensively from the Middle east, and Rob Pollock, a senior editorial page writer who reports on national security issues.

Dan, the president had a press conference this week to announce John Negroponte as his new intelligence director. Except for a question or two on social security, everything was focused on national security, foreign affairs. Is this what we're going to see for the next four years out of this administration, that the president has to focus on these subjects?

Dan Henninger: I would say so Paul. I think it was inevitable. I think this is the way to think about what's going on: let's take Iraq off the table -- pretend Iraq never existed. Even without that issue, Iran was moving inexorably towards acquiring nuclear weapons. The North Koreans were doing the same. AQ Khan's network had been up and running, selling nuclear technology around the world for years before any of this began. The Chinese have an interest in this. The Russians are now engaged. These tectonic plates were shifting before George Bush became president. They're now coming to a head, and, given the subject -- the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction -- it's become the 800 kiloton gorilla in the room. You cannot avoid it.

PAUL GIGOT: Before we get to these specific cases, Bret, this does compromise the president's ability to sell his domestic agenda, though, right? I mean, he can't make the case on Social Security as he had hoped to be doing.

BRET STEPHENS: I don't know. I think the president can walk and chew gum at the same time. Look, the president can't avoid these kinds of issues. As Dan rightly said, these have been moving for a very long time, and I think what we've discovered as we go into Iraq is that the problem is just much larger than we imagined. Obviously, I think a strong case can be made that Iraq was the place to begin. But as soon as there was an election in Iraq, as soon as there was a possibility that democracy was going to work in the Middle East, it was inevitable that countries like Iran and Syria were gonna get their backs up and they were going to start making moves against it, and the assassination of Rafik Harriri, whoever is behind it -- it seems like the Syrians -- I think was the first counterstrike there.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, let's take Syria. The president said it's out of step with the sweep of democracy in the Mideast. He recalled the United States ambassador. A lot of our sources tell us that Syria is playing a big role in helping the insurgency in Iraq. Are we headed, that is, is the United States headed towards a confrontation with Syria?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, I must admit that I'm pleasantly surprised at how tough we're being with Syria all of a sudden. Remember that this is a country to which the secretary of state --the first secretary of state for Clinton, Warren Christopher -- made two dozen visits trying to convince them to do the right thing on the Middle East peace process.


ROB POLLOCK: That was unsuccessful, I think it's finally been realized, and I'm glad we're moving in a different direction.

PAUL GIGOT: Do you think we're moving towards a real confrontation? I mean, we've had these false steps before. Remember, since the fall of Baghdad, not a lot has happened. Is there anything we can do to change Syrian behavior?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, I think we're moving away from some of the phony tough talk. I think if you look at the record over the last few years, every so often the Syrians misbehave and someone at the State Department says, "We're going to send a stern message to Damascus." But the moment you tell Damascus, "Hey, we're sending a stern message to you," it means nothing else is going to happen. Now I think something really is changing.

Now remember, back in the late 1990s, Turkey had a problem with Syria -- it was harboring the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

PAUL GIGOT: The anti-Turk insurgence group...

BRET STEPHENS: ... terrorist group, right. And the Turks from time to time would do what we were formerly doing and issue a complaint to Damascus and say, "Hey, we don't like this." Well, in late 1998 they said "Hey, we've had enough of this," and they started mobilizing for a war against Syria. Then they got the message. They expelled Ocalan, and Ocalan was in a Turkish jail within a year's time. I don't know if we're moving towards a confrontation exactly, but we are moving away from this kind of phony diplomacy -- this combination of sort-of-tough talk, but really cooperation we've been using before.

DAN HENNINGER: Well, the stakes are very high for Syria, and they're very high for Iran because of Iraq. They can't afford to have happen to them, they don't think, what's going on in Iraq. I would, to be a little bit provocative, suggest that the Iraqis are becoming the new Israelis of the Middle East.

PAUL GIGOT: Wait -- what. How do you mean that?

DAN HENNINGER: Because, they're surrounded by Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. none of these places, though I might qualify Saudi Arabia, have a big interest in Iraq becoming a democracy. It's just as Israel was never in the interest of anyone of becoming a viable country there. So they're going to start pressuring -- I mean, twenty-some Iraqis die every single day of the week now, and it's because of the arms and money that have been sent over there by Syria and Iran to keep the insurgency going.

PAUL GIGOT: The power of that lesson, the election lesson in Iraq, has really seemed to have redounded elsewhere in the Middle East, and I'm thinking in particular of Lebanon, because one of the reasons we had this bombing of Rafik Hariri was because he was attempting to lead, and be part of an anti-Syrian movement inside Lebanon.

ROB POLLOCK: It's amazing. I sat in on an interview between an unnamed U.S. government official and an unnamed Lebanese journalist recently, and this person was basically begging the United States to invade and liberate Lebanon.

PAUL GIGOT: Not going to happen...

ROB POLLOCK: No, not going to happen, but is it incredible. And finally, we're starting to realize how weak that regime is, or that occupation is. The funeral for Hariri basically turned into an anti-Syrian demonstration in Lebanon. just a little bit of pushing, and there could be a complete upheaval in that country, for the good.

BRET STEPHENS: And this is actually one area... you know President Bush is going to Europe this coming week. You know this is one area in which, believe it or not, France and the United States agree. They've co-sponsored resolution 1559, urging, insisting that the Syrians get out of Lebanon. Rafik Hariri was a personal friend of Jacques Chirac. There is actually a possibility here for some real transatlantic cooperation -- to say, "Hey, enough is enough." And even though we don't have as many carrots or sticks vis-a-vis Syria in terms of trade, the Europeans really do. So this is one are where some transatlantic cooperation could make a big difference.

PAUL GIGOT: And I would argue that there is some domestic bipartisanship here. you've seen Barbara Boxer, the Democrat from California, Elliot Engel, a House Democrat from New York talking about getting tougher on Syria, so there might be some coalescing here where the president has more leverage. But let's talk about Iran a bit, Dan.

Iran and Syria announced something. The Iranians said, "We've got to think together, work together against a U.S. presence in the Middle East." Are they also feeling the heat in Tehran?

DAN HENNINGER: Oh, I think they are. They've always had a restive population, and I think the Iranians are very good at trying to protect themselves, and it was just in the past 24 hours, that the Russian government announced that it was going to sell uranium to them, and the idea is that they're going to use the uranium in the reactors. The Russians are trying to convince us it'll be okay, because all of the reprocessed fuel goes straight back to Russia. This is absolutely no help whatsoever in trying to get the Iranian nuclear program under control. But Iran will do deals with the devil -- they'll do deals with anyone they need to in order to keep their power intact.

PAUL GIGOT: I assume that Russian sale will be on the agenda in the president's mission to Europe next week.

DAN HENNINGER: He's talking to Putin in Slovakia next week.

PAUL GIGOT: Intriguingly this week, the president was asked about Israel, and about whether or not the Israelis might want to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. And the president didn't say, "Oh, I oppose that." He said, "You know if I were in Israel, I'd be worried about Iran attacking me." And there's been some interpretation, including in a newspaper called THE NEW YORK SUN, a New York newspaper, that maybe that was the green light, from the president's point of view, for Israel to attack if they feel that diplomacy hasn't worked in a few months. How do you react?

ROB POLLOCK: It sure sounded like a green light to me. In fact, it sounded like probably the second green light. Before that we had Vice President Dick Cheney on the Imus Show saying more or less the same thing, that the Israelis may decide to act against the Iranian program, and well, the world will have to just clean it up.

PAUL GIGOT: Bret, do you agree?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, of course that's right, I mean --

PAUL GIGOT: Because, that's important, that means that really could happen in the next four years. This is big news if that's true.

BRET STEPHENS: I wonder if the Israelis have the capability to take out Iran's nuclear facilities. But, it is certainly sending a diplomatic message to the Iranians that we're considering all our options. If you remember in the last few months, we seem to be stepping back from military options. Condoleezza Rice said, "Well, there are no military plans on the table right now." She said this in London a couple of weeks ago. Now I think the administration might be taking another look and saying, 'hold on. Iran is the world's leading sponsor of terrorism. Do we want it to be the tenth nuclear state?'

PAUL GIGOT: Dan, we don't have much time, but I do want to touch briefly on North Korea. And that is the response that the United States had to their announcement that they had nuclear weapons was much different. It was restrained. It didn't call for any U.N. action. It didn't directly threaten North Korea. Instead it seems to be behind the scenes working with China and South Korea to try to get them to prod North Korea. Is that because the United States has less leverage in Korea?

DAN HENNINGER: No, I think it's because they have a process underway that's a little bit more substantial. Not only China, but in the last 24 hours, the foreign and defense ministers of Japan were in Washington, meeting with Condoleezza Rice and Don Rumsfeld. The Korean peninsula was on the agenda. Also, a very high Communist Party official from China has gone to North Korea to talk to them about their program.

I think pressure is beginning to move back in the other direction. If you've got Japan engaged, then some of the most serious players are finally engaging over the North Korean issue.

PAUL GIGOT: So that too is going to percolate before the next couple of years are done. Okay, I'm going to leave it at that, guys. Thanks. Next subject.