What’s Going On In Washington?

Bush’s Rush to Armageddon
By Robert Parry
January 8, 2007

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 now 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.

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