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After Iraq, does U.S. have other targets?

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2003

Given the enmity between Israel and its Arab neighbors, it's not surprising that many in the Arab world think attacking Iraq is just the first step in a U.S.-Israeli plot to control the entire Middle East.

What is surprising is that a senior U.S. official would fuel such an explosive idea at such a sensitive time. Yet that could well be the effect of recent remarks by John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

As reported in Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, Bolton told Israeli officials Monday that he has "no doubt America will attack Iraq and that it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterward."

Bolton made his comments in private talks -- reporters learned of them from other sources -- and it's not known if he elaborated on how America would "deal" with those nations. But there's little doubt his message, however incomplete, unsettled officials in Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang.

Let's leave aside North Korea, as it is a non-Arab, non-Mideast country that almost everyone agrees poses a major danger to world peace. Iran and Syria are also threats, but they are much greater threats to Israel than they are to the United States or any other nation. Singling them out only reinforces the notion that American military ventures in the Middle East are as much to help the Jewish state as they are to protect American interests.

"This kind of talk is extremely dangerous and extremely undiplomatic," said John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World, a Washington, D.C., arms control organization.

"It reminds me of the World War II slogan, 'Loose lips sink ships.' In this case, loose lips can damage our whole effort in the Middle East, including trying to build international support for war in Iraq and producing a Middle East settlement."

Bolton's remarks were also surprising in that they seemed out of synch with those of his White House bosses. In recent months, the administration has shown signs of softening its stance toward both Syria and Iran, whose support, however tacit, would be helpful as the United States prepares to attack their neighbor, Iraq.

A year after he included Iran in the "axis of evil," President Bush's most recent State of the Union speech took note of the prodemocracy forces at work in that country.

"In Iran, we continue to see a government that represses its people, pursues weapons of mass destruction and supports terror," Bush said. "We also see Iranian citizens risking intimidation and death as they speak out for liberty and human rights and democracy. Iranians, like all people, have a right to choose their own government and determine their own destiny -- and the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom."

As for Syria, the administration has praised it for cooperating in the war on terror. Last year, Syria reportedly tipped off the CIA to a planned attack against U.S. personnel somewhere in the Persian Gulf. It also has arrested al-Qaida members and provided intelligence on al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists groups.

Moreover, Syria has a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council and voted for Resolution 1441 ordering Iraq to disarm.

For Bolton to include Syria among possible post-Iraq targets "is incredibly bad timing and poor thinking," Isaacs said. "There are several different struggles going on, including the war on terror where we're seeking as much support as we can, including intelligence help and arresting terrorists spread around the world."

Bolton, popular with the Republican right, has long been a controversial figure. As a young lawyer, he helped a political action committee connected with Sen. Jesse Helms skirt federal election laws, resulting in a $10,000 fine, the Legal Times reported. His knowledge of election law landed him on the Bush legal team during the 2000 Florida recount debacle.

Bolton's nomination for the arms control job was widely seen as a reward for his help in Florida. "I do not believe Mr. Bolton has the vision or the experience necessary for this position," Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a confirmation hearing.

Dubbed the administration's "hatchet man" at the State Department, Bolton withdrew U.S. support for an International Criminal Court and announced that America is prepared to use nuclear force even against aggressors who do not pose a nuclear threat.

He also surprised everyone, including his boss, Colin Powell, when he claimed, with no evidence, that Cuba was developing biological weapons.

Bolton, who is traveling, could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and State Department offices were closed because of snow. According to the Jerusalem Post, his visit to Israel included talks about Iran's nuclear program and Israeli claims that Syria is hiding weapons of of mass destruction transported from Iraq.

The United States has been unable to confirm such transfers independently, the Post said. And Iran, unlike Israel, has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and insists it is building nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes.

There is no doubt that both Syria and Iran have supported terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, responsible for deadly attacks against Israel as well as U.S. forces in Lebanon. But to talk about "dealing" with Syria and Iran in the same breath as attacking Iraq only fuels the dangerous perception that the United States -- and its close ally Israel -- are seeking hegemony over the entire region.

Bolton "doesn't realize the difference between being a think-tank official and a high government official who should be watching what he says," Isaacs said. "The rest of the world pays attention to his words even if nobody in this country does."

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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