Reprinted from The Washington Times of July 7, 1999

The Heights of Folly?

Frank J. Gaffney Jr.

The full costs of President Clinton's latest diversion of the U.S. military into a distant and highly problematic peacekeeping operation have not yet been properly estimated, let alone paid for. It is a safe bet, however, that the tab for the Kosovo mission will turn out to be very high, costing the Pentagon billions of dollars that are desperately needed to restore its troops' combat readiness and provide for that needed in the future.

Given this backdrop, it is little wonder that the Clinton administration hopes that it can quietly get the United States committed to another, similarly open-ended peacekeeping mission - a mission that is, if anything, even more fraught with danger and potentially costly risks than that under way in the Balkans today.

For at least five years, the Clinton team has sought to lubricate negotiations between Israel and Syria, and increase the prospects that they would produce a peace agreement, by offering to assign U.S. troops the task of guarding the strategic plateau between the two countries known as the Golan Heights. The theory is that Israel would feel more comfortable relinquishing physical control of high ground that has long been recognized as critical to its security if U.S. forces were in place there. This theory appears about to be put to the test. Ehud Barak, who was finally installed yesterday as Israel's prime minister, has made it clear that he intends to make the completion of a treaty with Syria a top priority. In point of fact, the governing coalition he has painstakingly cobbled together appears to have only one common denominator: A determination to make peace with Israel's Arab neighbors on whatever terms are necessary.

In the case of Syria, that means paying the price long demanded by the Syrian despot, Hafez Assad - the surrender of the Golan Heights captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. In his inimitable fashion, Mr. Assad - long recognized as one of the most cunning and ruthless dictators in the Middle East - has responded by combining laudatory public comments about Mr. Barak with an arms-shopping spree in Moscow. There he hopes to purchase new fighter jets, tanks and other military hardware that might prove useful should he wish to launch future attacks on Israel once the Golan Heights are restored to Syrian control.

Those who favor Israeli territorial concessions to Syria often argue that a U.S. deployment on the Golan would mitigate against such a danger in several ways:

First, they suggest that U.S. peacekeepers would ensure Israel continues to receive the sort of early warning and other critical intelligence about Syrian military activities the Jewish state has collected from installations on the heights for the past 32 years.

Second, they have implied that U.S. forces would serve, at a minimum, as a trip wire that Syria would have to reckon with were it to decide again to mount an attack on Israel from this vantage point.

Third, some have even argued that the U.S. deployment could be sufficiently large and powerful to defend the plateau - and, therefore, the Galilean valley below it - against a determined Syrian attack. Unfortunately for the advocates of an American mission on the Golan, none of these propositions stand up to close scrutiny. In fact, in 1994, a blue-ribbon group sponsored by the Center for Security Policy carefully considered each argument for deploying U.S. troops on the Golan and found them to be seriously defective. (To see the full text of this study, visit the Center's web site at www.security-policy.org.) This group, whose 11 members included five four-star general officers (notably, former Chiefs of Naval Operations Admirals Carl Trost and Elmo Zumwalt and former Marine Corps Commandant Al Gray), determined that:

* If Israel withdraws on or from the Golan, it will be required to adopt measures to compensate to the extent possible for the military risks inherent in relinquishing the territory.

* It will have to consider invetment in more surveillance assets, higher sustained readiness for air and other forces, a larger standing army, and means and methods to increase the speed of military mobilization.

* All such measures entail large costs, political and societal as well as financial. A U.S. force deployment to the Golan will not significantly reduce those costs. One of the dangers of such a deployment is that it may create a false sense of security in Israel and discourage the investments necessary to address such risks. This would not serve U.S. interests, much less Israel's.

This last point is especially important. If Israel decides it wishes to assume the risks associated with making a peace agreement with a notoriously untrustworthy despot like Mr. Assad, that is its business. But the Jewish state must understand that those risks will be sharply increased, not kept the same - let alone mitigated - were U.S. forces to replace Israeli forces on the Golan.

The Center for Security Policy panel of top former military and civilian officials concluded that:

* There is no mission or rationale for a U.S. peacekeeping force on the Golan that would justify the resulting costs and risks.

* Indeed, the net effect could be negative for Israel's security and regional stability, while the consequences could include the loss of U.S. lives and, possibly, a credibility-damaging retreat of the U.S. forces under terrorist fire.

* In any event, such a deployment would increase the danger of direct U.S. involvement in a future Middle East war and undermine Israel's standing with the U.S. public as a self-reliant ally.

These facts demand that the question of deploying U.S. forces on the Golan Heights be subjected to rigorous public debate now, before such a deployment becomes an integral part of any Israeli-Syria deal. Otherwise, Congress is likely to be presented with another Clinton fait accompli, whereby any action to prevent an ill-advised commitment of U.S. troops is portrayed as a mortal threat to the "peace process" and, therefore, politically untenable.

The interests of a true regional peace will only be served if an agreement between Israel and Syria is forged on the basis of genuine mutual reconciliation and a shared commitment to peaceful coexistence. Absent such sentiments on the part of Hafez Assad, a Golan in Syrian hands will likely once again become a locus for conflict. It would be a double disservice if the commitment of U.S. forces has the effect of increasing the chances for such a conflict and of thrusting American troops into its midst.

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Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the director of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.



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