In September of 2007 the Israelis destroyed the Al Kibar nuclear plant in Syria that was under construction. It got a little press at the time, but many people have dashed this action from their memory.
Clifford May writes about this action in National Review in Cheney Got it Right on Syrian Nukes, 9/22/11.
In the end, after Bush decided not to act and diplomacy went nowhere, the Israelis took it upon themselves to destroy the reactor. The former advisers write: “Syria then spent months trying to sanitize the site and stonewall the IAEA — confirmation of its non-peaceful intentions. The Israeli attack in September 2007 was flawless, Syria and North Korea did not lash out, and a dire proliferation threat was eliminated for good. America and the world are safer for it.”
History will record that the CIA failed in this mission. Such failures have happened before and will happen again. That is to be expected, but this isn’t: After Bush’s decision not to take out the nuclear reactor, Woodward writes, the CIA officers responsible for providing the “low confidence” assessment “were pleased they had succeeded in avoiding the overreaching so evident in the Iraq WMD case. So they issued a very limited-circulation memorial coin. One side showed a map of Syria with a star at the site of the former reactor. On the other side the coin said, ‘No core/No war.’”
In other words, they considered it a victory that they had prevented Bush from acting. That is shameful. The CIA’s job is to provide the president with the intelligence he needs to make policy. The CIA’s job is not to substitute its policy preferences for those of the commander-in-chief — and then celebrate such power-grabs.
Foreign policy is difficult at best and often entails a choice of several bad alternatives. After the intelligence failures preceding Iraq and the absence of WMD stockpiles we expected to find, our intelligence was understandably reluctant to risk a second bad call.
The problem in politics is that bad decisions are memorialized and actions that truly prevent disasters are often quiet and forgotten. Fortunately in this case the reluctance to act on good but not infallible information was corrected by the Israelis. Recall that they also did this when they destroyed the Osirik reactor in Iraq in 1980.
Intelligence is fraught with fallibility, uncertainty and risk. Yet often the greatest risk is to take no risk until the information is infallible.