The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Osirak Myth (again)

October 6, 2010

I failed to comment on Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 Atlantic Monthly piece about US or Israeli responses to Iran’s apparent nuclear weapons program. Goldberg has the threat meter set to nearly 10 as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly said this summer that Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon (p. 60).

A lot has been said and written about this piece, but this claim has not received enough attention (p. 58):

Israel has twice before successfully attacked and destroyed an enemy’s nuclear program. In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean–built reactor in Syria. An attack on Iran, then, would be unprecedented only in scope and complexity.

Dan Reiter of Emory, however, has published some work that directly challenges the claim that the Osirak bombing was a success.

Some years ago, Dan and I worked together with a group of scholars to look at the preventive use of force. In October 2004, Pittsburgh’s Ridgway Center issued Policy Brief 04-2, “The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks.”

This is the summary:

The 1981 Israeli aerial striike on Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osiraq is frequently cited as a successful use of preventive military force, and may be used to justify similar attacks in the future. However, closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not substantially delay the Iraqi nuclear program, and may have even hastened it. Attempts to replicate the “success” at Osiraq are likely to do even worse, as proliferating states are now routinely dispersing and concealing their nuclear, biological, and chemical programs to decrease their vulnerability to air strikes. Given the poor track record of preventive attacks in controlling the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, American interests will be best served in the future by embracing other tools of counterproliferation.

The brief includes some discussion of the fairly dismal record of preventive attacks. Such strikes, Reiter concludes, “generally fail.”

Later, Dan published a longer report on this topic for the Army War College, as well as the chapter in the book the research group produced together. The book’s Major Findings Summary Sheet concluded: “The 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor, for example, drove the program underground, accelerating Iraq’s drive to develop nuclear weapons.” The book editors published an op-ed on “The Osirak Illusion” as well.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.