Restraint

RESTRAINT…. The New York Times‘ David Sanger has a fascinating item today, reporting on a secret request from the Israeli government last year for “specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex.” Bush declined, thanks in part to the sound counsel of his Defense Secretary.

The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama. […]

The interviews also suggest that while Mr. Bush was extensively briefed on options for an overt American attack on Iran’s facilities, he never instructed the Pentagon to move beyond contingency planning, even during the final year of his presidency, contrary to what some critics have suggested.

The interviews also indicate that Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran’s nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America’s 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.

The piece is worth reading in its entirety — it paints a picture of Israel pressuring Bush to support a confrontation, but the president becoming convinced that a strike would prove counterproductive. Of particular interest was not just Israel’s request for bunker-busting bombs, but also for permission to fly over Iraq to strike Iran.

Mr. Bush deflected the first two requests, pushing the issue off, but “we said ‘hell no’ to the overflights,” one of his top aides said. At the White House and the Pentagon, there was widespread concern that a political uproar in Iraq about the use of its American-controlled airspace could result in the expulsion of American forces from the country. […]

Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a dry run for an attack on the enrichment plant at Natanz. When the exercise was analyzed at the Pentagon, officials concluded that the distances flown almost exactly equaled the distance between Israel and the Iranian nuclear site.

“This really spooked a lot of people,” one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over Iraq without American permission. In that case, would the American military be ordered to shoot them down? If the United States did not interfere to stop an Israeli attack, would the Bush administration be accused of being complicit in it?

It’s hard to overstate how fortunate we are that all of this occurred after Donald Rumsfeld left the Pentagon.