Everyone now agrees it was right to attack Iraq pre-emptively.
BY L. GORDON CROVITZ
Tuesday, June 1, 2004
A familiar news story: A hard-line government uses its powerful military to launch a unilateral pre-emptive strike. The United Nations and Europe are horrified, along with most of the American media. They condemn the strike and brush off claims that it was justified as an act of self-defense against an unpredictable tyrant.
So was it a terrible mistake, a lamentable error of judgment? Not at all. History now smiles on Israel's elimination of Saddam's nearly completed weapon of mass destruction more than 20 years ago.
In June 1981, eight Israeli jets flew at 100 feet across Jordan and Saudi Arabia, evading detection to destroy the French nuclear reactor at Osirak, just outside Baghdad. The raid followed years of failed diplomacy: Saddam's French, German and Belgian suppliers had refused to let anything disrupt their lucrative role in his oil-for-nukes program.
Until now, no one had told the full story of the extraordinary planning required for the raid and the derring-do of the pilots, who had calculated that there was a one-in-four chance of being shot out of the sky before reaching the target. Rodger Claire, a former magazine editor, has gained access to Israeli military records and to the pilots who handled the mission. In "Raid on the Sun," he evokes the rigors and the risks of the plan.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his Likud allies, such as Ariel Sharon, had to stiffen the spines of Labor Party and intelligence officials who feared the repercussions of such a raid. "If I have a choice of being popular and dead or unpopular and alive," Mr. Sharon told fellow cabinet members, "I choose being alive and unpopular."
The 600-mile trip to the facility went well beyond the design specs of Israel's U.S.-built F-16 Fighting Falcons, which carried special 2,000-pound bombs and jury-rigged external fuel tanks. The book focuses on Gen. David Ivry, commander of the Israeli Air Force, and on the eight mission pilots. These included Ilan Ramon, who would later die in the Columbia space-shuttle explosion. Mr. Claire introduces us to each of the pilots--which ones told their wives of the dangers, which ones developed superstitions about their aircraft and, yes, which one blacked out and missed his target. Mr. Claire describes the brutal sun and desert heat that made a dangerous mission also physically punishing. A movie-maker unafraid of political correctness--the Israeli military as heroic!--could build a blockbuster around this story.
World opinion was all but unanimous in its outrage, and American opinion too. The New York Times editorialized that "Israel's sneak attack on a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression." Time magazine fretted that "Israel has vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontation in the Middle East." The U.S. secretary of state called the raid "reckless." The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. said it was "shocking" and approved a U.N. resolution demanding that Israel make "appropriate redress" to Iraq.
This was during the first few months of the Reagan administration, so the secretary of state was Alexander Haig and the U.N. ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Caspar Weinberger, the defense secretary, feared the reaction in Arab capitals and suspended further sales of F-16s to Israel. If the administration's official reaction was to condemn, the president's private reaction was to admire: "What a terrific piece of bombing," Mr. Reagan said upon seeing photos of the reactor site.
There was at least one exception to the media's chorus of denunciation. Under the headline "Mourning the Bomb," The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial began: "An atom bomb for Iraq, we have learned in the past 24 hours, has become the latest great cause celebre of world opiniondom. Various governments, including our own, and a lot of pundits have been busily condemning Israel's raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor. Our own reaction is that it's nice to know that in Israel we have at least one nation left that still lives in the world of reality." The editorial added: "Of course Iraq was building a bomb," and "of course, given the Iraqi reputation for political nuttiness reaffirmed again in its starting a war with Iran, its atom bomb would also have been a danger to all its neighbors. We all ought to get together and send the Israelis a vote of thanks."
Israel sought security, not world gratitude, a realism that the U.S. perhaps should recall as we endure current carping. If even the Reagan administration at first condemned the action, we probably shouldn't be surprised by today's hand-wringing over the U.S. handling of Saddam, Iraq and the Bush doctrine of pre-emption.
In time, condemnation of Israel became gratitude. As Mr. Claire recalls at the conclusion of his book, Gen. Ivry a decade later received a satellite photo taken by the U.S. after the raid, showing its devastating effect. There was a handwritten note at the bottom, written just after the U.S. liberation of Kuwait in 1991. "With thanks and appreciation. You made our job easier in Desert Storm.--Dick Cheney."
Mr. Crovitz is senior vice president of Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal. You can buy "Raid on the Sun" from the OpinionJournal bookstore.