In a passage that's even more intriguing now than it was three years ago, Hersh reported that, in the fall of 2002, Gen. Hassan Khalil, head of Syrian military intelligence, told Washington that, in exchange for reopened relationships, Syria would impose restrictions on the political and military actions of Hezbollah.
A huge interagency feud broke out over what to do about the Syrian offer. The State Department and the CIA, which particularly valued Syria's intelligence pipeline, favored pursuing the talks. The civilian leaders in the Pentagon opposed the move; they were in the midst of planning the invasion of Iraq, and "regime change" in Syria was next on their to-do list.
The debate was soon moot. Once the war in Iraq began, Assad stopped the flow. Yet there he was, a few months later, telling Hersh that he was willing to turn the spigot back on again—to no response from the Bush administration.
It's unclear—Hersh noted as much in his article—where resumed talks might have led. Would Assad really have lowered the hammer on Hezbollah? If he had refused to do so, how far could the United States have pursued the relationship?
Still, the episode clearly shows—as does Pakistan's recent cooperation with MI5 and Scotland Yard—that the concept of morality in international relations is more complex than President Bush sometimes seems to recognize. Consider this: Had the CIA won the internal debate on whether to deal with Syria, is it possible that the current war between Israel and Hezbollah might never have taken place? How many compromises of "principle" would that have been worth?