North Korea & Syria: Photos Fuel Foreign Policy Failures

by Laura Snedeker

Just as the United States' relationships with North Korea and Syria were improving, the Bush administration came in and dashed the hopes of peace negotiators.

Last week, the administration released photographs supposedly taken inside a nuclear reactor in Syria that an Israeli airstrike destroyed in September. Among other things, the photographs supposedly provide evidence for the administration’s claim that North Korea is supplying Syria with nuclear weapons technology and expertise.

The Bush administration claims that it held onto the photographs to prevent Syria from launching retaliatory strikes against Israel and sparking a wider war in the Middle East. Yet officials chose to release the photographs amid the specter of peace negotiations between the two countries. Turkey’s prime minister told reporters that he hoped to bring officials from both sides to the table, and both Syrian and Israeli officials expressed interest in direct talks in the future.

The administration consistently undermines its own and others’ efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East. President George W. Bush invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House last week ahead of a planned trip to the region, while chastising former President Jimmy Carter for visiting Syria to talk with the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian party in control of the Gaza Strip. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the State Department warned Carter that his trip would cause confusion because the Bush administration has refused to deal with Hamas, calling them a terrorist group.

The release of the photographs also comes at the same time as improved negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea. Top negotiator Christopher Hill said last week that there had been “very extensive” discussions that focused on North Korea’s failure to declare its nuclear weapons programs and to report on the transfer of nuclear technology to other countries. The State Department has agreed to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for meeting those conditions.

We will probably never know what was in the Syrian military facility or whether North Korean scientists were involved. The Syrian government cleared the area after the Israeli airstrike and built a new building in the exact same location. None of the parties involved are trustworthy when it comes to issues surrounding nuclear weapons. But most disturbing is the Bush administration’s familiar tactic of twisting the facts to suit the policies, which they used with great skill in making the case against Iraq. Senior intelligence officials privately said they had “low confidence” in Syria’s ability to build nuclear weapons, and reports that some of the pictures were taken before 2002 cast further doubt on the validity of the argument.

The media are responsible for questioning the Bush administration’s motives even if Congress fails to do so, but so far they have shied away from making any comparisons with the case against Iraq, from the pictures of alleged reactor sites to dubious or outdated intelligence. The media should be asking what the administration gains from releasing the photographs. The negative consequences of angering North Korea and intensifying the tensions between Israel and Syria outweigh by far the benefits of getting either country to own up to its nuclear ambitions. Even if the allegations are true, there is little that aggressive posturing and propagandizing can accomplish.

The chances of America going to war with Syria are small, but maintaining enough fear among Americans to persuade them to agree to curtailing their civil liberties and continuing to fight the so-called “War on Terror” requires the creation of new threats. Whether this administration and its ideological supporters are successful is a measure not only of their determination to shape the world, but of the willingness of the American public and the media to go along with them.

(The photo is one of those released by the CIA to Congress. The photo shows what the CIA has called a reactor building. The photo is a still from a CIA video and is in the public domain. To see the full CIA video, please go here.)

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