Nukes, Neo-Cons, and the Bush Who Cried Wolf
Part III: The Perils of a Pentagon or Israeli Response
By Steve Weissman
Thursday 09 December 2004
When Israeli F-16s knocked out Saddam Hussein's OSIRAK nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981, they struck a terrible blow. Supporters cheered another epic feat of Israeli daring, a sophisticated surgical strike to defend the embattled Jewish State. Others, more removed, saw less David than Goliath in an arrogant, pre-emptive attack to maintain Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
Within Israel, a few sage souls warned in advance what would follow. Shimon Peres, one of the architects of Israel's own "nuclear capability," saw far greater danger in his country's growing diplomatic isolation than in any future Iraqi bomb. He also predicted - correctly - that the raid would spur other Arab and Islamic nations to greater nuclear efforts.
"Desist from this thing," he wrote to Prime Minister Begin a month before the raid. Or Israel would be isolated "like a tree in the desert."
Strange as it might sound today, Peres placed his immediate faith in the French, who were building Saddam's reactor, much as they had earlier helped Israel develop its nuclear program. France had just elected a new president - Francois Mitterand, a friend of Peres - and one of the new Socialist government's first decisions was to rewrite their contract with Iraq, greatly restricting Saddam's access to the nuclear materials from which he could build a bomb.
Mitterand's new approach was far from foolproof, as a few of us wrote at the time. But Israel's destruction of the OSIRAK reactor worked no better. Within months, Saddam was moving to get a new reactor, again with help from the French, whom the Israeli attack had alienated.
What stopped Saddam's nuclear program was far less dramatic - sanctions and the everyday work of the United Nations weapons inspectors. The clincher came in the summer of 1995, when Saddam's son-in-law Hussein Kamel defected and fled to Jordan. He had served as Iraq's Minister of Military Industry, and revealed where inspectors could find what remained of Saddam's nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare programs.
Other than contributing to Israel's growing isolation, the main impact of the Israeli raid came in Washington, where Michael Ledeen, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other Neo-Conservatives took it as their leitmotif. If you have power, use it. And if you see a threat down the road, strike now. Don't wait. Pre-empt.
On first hearing, the idea had a certain appeal, especially when it came to atomic bombs. If foreign nations or individuals threatened to use one, who but a dedicated pacifist would oppose using force to stop them before they could? International law, a treasure of shared wisdom that has evolved over long centuries, accepts such prevention as legitimate self-defense. But, the law insists, the threat must be real and immediate, which the OSIRAK reactor was not, and the response to it no greater than required.
Here the Neo-Cons crossed the line from prevention, which the law allows, to pre-emption, which it forbids. Like the Israelis, they saw no need to wait for threats to become real and immediate. And, far more than the Israelis, they saw no need at all to limit their response. Far better, they argued, to strike sooner and with overwhelming force.
The Neo-Cons sold their pitch first to Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and then to President George W. Bush, who is proving now in Iraq how self-defeating pre-emption can be. It has turned off nearly half of American voters, scared away most of our traditional allies, and caused large majorities in Western Europe to see the United States as a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden.
But, no matter. Exhilarated by the prospect of still having their way with the world, many Neo-Cons are now pushing harder than ever to apply the same pre-emptive approach to Iran, whether by Israel or the U.S. The Neo-Con's goal, which Ledeen and others openly proclaim, is two-fold: to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and overthrow the Ayatollahs.
Never have the Neo-Cons had a dumber idea. While the Iranians are certainly closer to the bomb than Saddam ever was, an Israeli-style raid on their nuclear facilities would create far more problems than it could ever hope to solve.
Just for starters, Saddam had one major site at Tuwaitah, not far from Baghdad. The Iranians have several spread around the country, many of them deep underground.
The Israelis themselves would have to fly (and refuel) much farther over enemy territory to make the raids, and would have to use large bunker-buster bombs, which the Pentagon has just given them with enormous fanfare.
The Iranians would likely retaliate directly against Israel, and could fan a major revolt by their Shiite co-religionists against U.S. forces in Iraq. So far, Tehran has created no major obstacles to the American occupation or to the Allawi government that the U.S. put in office. If Israel or America struck Iran militarily, this could quickly change, making the Sunni Triangle seem like a day at Disney World.
Though less likely, Iranian troops could invade Southern Iraq, creating a major emergency for American forces, who have too few boots on the ground to handle the Iraqis, let alone the far more numerous Iranians.
Attacks on American targets would increase in Muslim countries, and the world would move even closer to the Clash of Civilizations that Osama bin Laden has tried so hard to provoke.
America would find itself even more isolated in the world, with less of the cooperation we need to fight bin Laden and the other terrorists, who - we were told - are what all this was supposed to be about.
Finally, the French, Germans, Russians, and Chinese would move even more quickly to see themselves as a necessary constraint on American power. And they would be absolutely right to do so.
The list goes on, but these are reason enough to reduce the level of violence in and around Iraq, not to escalate the war into Iran. Sadly, the Neo-Cons have never been known to listen to reason, while the faith-based president they serve takes his direction from God knows where.
It's enough to make an atheist want to pray.
 Steve Weissman and Herbert Krosney, "The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East" (New York: Times Books, 1981).
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.