Former CIA Director Calls for Tougher Policy on Syria

By Marc Perelman

Published November 07, 2003, issue of November 07, 2003.
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Washington should send an American aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast, summon strongman Bashar al-Assad aboard, chide him vigorously for sponsoring terrorism, meddling in Iraq and pursuing weapons of mass destruction — and take special care to confront him over Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

So says the CIA’s former director.

“Besides terror-related activities, there is one thing the Syrians are obviously completely guilty of, and that is occupying Lebanon,” James Woolsey told the Forward in a wide-ranging interview last week in New York. “I don’t understand why we don’t go after them on this, condemn them at the United Nations, embargo them, everything…. Lack of legitimacy matters a lot to dictators, and there is no legitimacy whatsoever to its occupation of Lebanon.”

Woolsey, who served as President Clinton’s CIA director from 1993 to 1995, still advises the American government, sitting on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board as well as on advisory boards of the CIA and the Navy. A tough policy with Syria is necessary, he said, because even though Syria is cooperating with American intelligence on Al Qaeda, such cooperation does not outweigh the Arab nation’s role in harboring terrorist groups, allowing infiltration of militants into Iraq and possibly sheltering Iraqi weapons and money.

Woolsey said the United States should eschew military intervention in Syria for now because American forces are stretched thin in Iraq. But strongly worded diplomacy toward Syria would raise American credibility, he averred.

“We turned Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait around pretty quickly, but we sit here like bumps on a wall for a long time acquiescing [in regard to] the Syrian occupation of Lebanon,” he said. “The next time we meet with them, nobody should go calling on them. We should show up on an aircraft carrier of the Syrian coast and summon Bashar al-Assad to the aircraft carrier.… This is the Middle East.”

Asked why the Lebanese issue always comes last on the laundry list of American demands of Syria, Woolsey placed the blame on a bureaucratic inclination not to rock the boat and expressed hope that the inclination would be overcome.

Woolsey, whose hawkish views have endeared him to neoconservatives despite his service to Clinton — he said he left because he had no access to the president — said he is even more worried about Iran than about Syria because of the Islamic republic’s strides in producing nuclear weapons.

Still, he pointed out, Iran, unlike Syria, has an active opposition that the United States should be careful not to drive into the arms of the mullahs.

If Tehran’s nuclear program can be slowed down substantially by more effective monitoring, a window of opportunity might open for a domestic-induced regime change, he said.

“We have a chance to see political change before the mullahs get nuclear weapons,” he said. “I hope it is not too late.… The mullahs with a nuclear weapon would be empowered for a long time.”

He said he could think of “several very useful things we could do in terms of covert actions” but would not talk about them publicly.

Woolsey, a vice president at the well-connected law firm Booz Allen Hamilton, has been a fierce supporter of the intervention in Iraq and one of the main advocates of the hotly contested view that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were cooperating. After the September 11 attacks, the administration sent him on a mission to gather evidence about such links. He has refused to disclose his findings, but maintains a Saddam-Al Qaeda connection exists despite growing skepticism even within the administration.

Woolsey said the problems of finding weapons of mass destruction and of warding off attacks in Iraq today stem partly from the decision not to cooperate with the exile Iraqi opposition, especially the Iraqi National Congress.

“There was a reluctance to work with the Iraqi resistance…. and I think it was a mistake,” he said. “You may not like some individuals, but trying to understand what happens inside Iraq without working with the Iraqi diaspora would be like trying to understand what happens in Cuba without talking to the Cuban exiles in Miami…. It was both an intelligence and an operational failure.”

That failure, Woolsey added, can be pinned on the State Department and the CIA, which have expressed serious misgivings about the reliability and political clout of the congress’s leader, Ahmed Chalabi.

Woolsey took the administration line on weapons of mass destruction, however, insisting that he had not seen any systematic distortion of intelligence on Iraq and urging patience in the hunt for weapons, given that the country is the size of California and the United States has limited human-intelligence assets there.

When pressed, Woolsey offered that the United States, based on Saddam’s past behavior, may have overestimated his willingness to stockpile large quantities of weapons of mass-destruction. Some weapons may have been destroyed when the war started and others smuggled into Syria, as was suggested publicly last week by a senior American official.

“The only way to change the Middle East is what we do in Iraq and Afghanistan, by bringing about a democratic state governed by the rule of law,” he said. “We have to make those work…. So we have to move very briskly about reconstruction aid and build up our military.”

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