Between Iraq and a Hard Place

Thursday, July 30, 1998

On June 7, 1981, Israel announced to the world that “under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.”

These words followed the preemptive strike a few hours earlier by nine Israeli jets against an almost-completed Iraqi nuclear reactor located twelve miles east of Baghdad. Without asking anybody’s permission, the Israelis destroyed the 75-megawatt, $275 million Osirak reactor because they claimed it could have been used to make atomic bombs to be directed against the Jewish state. The early Sunday morning bombing caused one fatality, a French technician, at the reactor site.

Israel’s 1981 preemptive strike against Iraq was heartily condemned in Washington and by the United Nations, even though U.S. sources disclosed, according to the Associated Press, that the facility might have been operational “within two weeks.” Yet, by taking out the Osirak reactor, Israel helped make possible the U.S.-U.N. victory in 1991 over Saddam Hussein. If on the eve of the Gulf War Saddam had been known to have nuclear weapons, would the U.S.-U.N. coalition forces have dared go to war? Would the coalition have risked megadeaths on behalf of the kingdom of Kuwait? Had Saddam used atomic weapons, would the Bush administration have dared use a retaliatory atomic response against the Iraqi people?

Fast-forward to February 1, 1998: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in Jerusalem that Israel had the right to retaliate if attacked by Iraqi missiles. And then she added significantly, “I think it is up to every nation to determine how to defend itself.” The Albright statement was a far cry from the Bush administration, which during the 1991 Gulf War pressed Israel not to respond to Iraqi-launched Scud missiles on Tel Aviv. At the time Israel agreed and did nothing.

As it celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, Israel faces the same dilemma today it faced in 1981—should it wait for Iraq’s anthrax missiles to land on Tel Aviv and only then retaliate with the approval of the Clinton administration? Or should Israel, assuming Israeli intelligence has located the Iraqi launchers, start bombing now without anyone’s permission as it once did so successfully against the Osirak reactor? (The nine Israeli jets returned to base without a scratch.)

Paradoxically, today’s Saddam Hussein seems a lot more secure than he was in 1979, when he was first elected president of Iraq. This tyrant is a survivor; he has outlasted the shah of Iran, Egypt’s Sadat, Israel’s Begin, Shamir, and Rabin, Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Bush, Russia’s Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Gorbachev. He has invaded two of his neighbors—Iran and Kuwait—without achieving anything yet suffering little in return. He has engaged in terrorism. He has wiped out any internal opposition with wholesale executions. What are the odds that he will survive President Clinton?

After seven years of U.N. sanctions, he is still in power, building presidential palaces no less, while the Iraqi economy totters and his people suffer. Even though he is still defying U.N. resolutions he was bound to uphold, he still has powerful allies, most notably Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, running interference for him. Even though in the Gulf War the allies dropped 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq, a small country about twice the size of Idaho, he survived military defeat thanks to President Bush, whom he later attempted to assassinate. And you can be sure that he is building, even perfecting, those weapons of mass destruction that, said the Israeli government, “under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop against our people.”

The unspoken question is what should Israel do if it wants to survive another half century? For the United States, Iraq is a military exercise—from the air. Earlier this year the United States was on the verge on conducting an air strike against Iraq. Yet Defense Secretary Cohen never told us what would happen if, after we bombed Iraq, Saddam Hussein, the great survivor, still remained in power. If 88,000 tons of TNT—176 million pounds—couldn’t get rid of Saddam, will a few carrier bombing runs off the USS George Washington do the trick?

So we’re back to the Israeli problem of survival. Suicide bombers are a limited threat to Israel. But biological and chemical weapons are something else again. Can Israel afford to wait until disease-laden missiles or poison gas containers begin to land on the streets of Tel Aviv?

Secretary Albright said Israel has the right to retaliate if attacked by Iraqi missiles. But if I read her correctly, she went much further when she said, “I think it is up to every nation to determine how to defend itself.” And if Israel decides that now better than later is the time to hit Iraq, is Mrs. Albright saying that such military action would meet with the approval of the United States?

We shall see.