Tag: preventive war

The Osirak Myth (again)

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.


Symposium Report

I just returned from the 47th Annual International Affairs Symposium at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Events were organized as debates — the students developed the topics and invited academics and people from the policy world to participate. My debate was on this topic: “Jumping the Gun? The Legitimacy of Preemptive War.”

The application of offensive war as a defensive measure raises debate over the legality and legitimacy of such campaigns. While purely defensive warfare is often accepted as legitimate, there is broad disagreement over the line between aggression and self defense. If a state perceives a security threat, does it have to right to launch a preventive attack?

My talk was on “The Illegitimacy of Preventive War,” with a great deal of attention on the necessity requirement of a just war. Given great uncertainties about threats — and a history of both threat inflation and intelligence failure — how can states ascertain the hostile future intentions of other states? The risk of false positives would be too great.

In the 1950s, a large number of defense and foreign policy analysts argued that the US should launch preventive war against the Soviet Union. After all, war was inevitable and the US was in a better position then than it was likely to be later…

The most-discussed presentation of the Symposium was Jeremy Rabkin‘s broadside against non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He began by accusing NGOs of being spineless for refusing to operate in risky countries and for cooperating too much with dubious governments.

Then, he essentially accused NGOs of being evil (and he wasn’t talking about NGOs as “new colonialists”).

Rabkin flippantly claimed that these transnational NGOs (and their donors) are primarily interested in taking up anti-American causes.

Oh and he accused NGOs of failing to report ongoing genocides they witnessed first-hand (Cambodia, Darfur) — for fear they’d lose access to the states in question.

Needless to say, most other panelists and Lewis and Clark students and faculty were left shaking their heads.

In any case, I really enjoyed the event and wish to thank the organizers and student hosts for inviting me to participate.


Israeli threat inflation?

Over the weekend, the AP ran a story based on high-level Israeli sources suggesting that Iran’s nuclear program has “crossed the threshold,” which implied that the program is now militarized:

Iran is now capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel’s top military intelligence officer said Sunday, sounding the highest-level warning that Israel’s archenemy has achieved independent nuclear capability.

At a Cabinet meeting, the chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, did not say Iran already has an atomic bomb, participants said. However, he said, Iran has “crossed the threshold” and has the expertise and materials needed for one.

Meanwhile, American intelligence sources disagree and reported their dissent to a US Senate committee this week. The Post today quoted Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair:

“The overall situation — and the intelligence community agrees on this — [is] that Iran has not decided to press forward . . . to have a nuclear weapon on top of a ballistic missile,” Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our current estimate is that the minimum time at which Iran could technically produce the amount of highly enriched uranium for a single weapon is 2010 to 2015.”

Readers may remember that I pointed out similar apparently contradictory statements about Iran’s nuclear material recently delivered on weekend TV progams by high-level US officials just last week.

What’s going on?

Iran has demonstrated that it can enrich uranium. So far, none of the uranium has been enriched to weapons-grade, but the technological skill required isn’t all that substantial. This is a huge flaw in the Nonproliferation Treaty and I’ve previously discussed the much-needed Additional Protocol to the NPT, which would improve verification.

Some experts, like Harvard’s Graham Allison, call for an end to nuclear enrichment. The big mistakes were made when Ike promoted Atoms for Peace and the NPT reflected his guarantee allowing non-nuclear states to pursue a wide range of “peaceful” technologies.

As for the moment, Blair notes that the Israelis are engaged in classic worst-case planning:

“The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view,” he said.

Israel wiped out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 and destroyed something mysterious in Syria in 2007.

Israel has often hinted that it might attack Iran, so this story isn’t over by any means — even if the Obama administration worries more about Pakistan.


Global Norm Decline? Maybe Not.

Anthony Clark Arend at Georgetown University is blogging about Israel’s threat to bomb Iranian nuclear reactors if they do not desist. He worries that this latest brinkmanship is more evidence of a decline in the non-aggression norm, since the situation would not meet the criteria for preemptive self-defense against an imminent attack laid out in the UN Charter as an exception to the non-aggression rule:

If imminence is not the standard for using force anticipatorily, then what is? The mere fact that the other state is building a nuclear reactor? The fact that the other state is building a reactor and is hostile toward a particular state? The fact that the other state has a history of aggression? The problem is obvious. As fuzzy as the imminence criterion may be, if that criterion is relaxed, it is unclear what will replace it. And so, the door will be opened for more and more bogus claims of “legitimate self-defense.”

In other words, we’ll be back to plain old balance of power politics, a bad recipe in a nuclear armed world.

Arend’s discussion of the law on preemptive self-defense, and how it differs from the Bush doctrine, is extremely illuminating. I think he may be overestimating the damage being done to the norm itself here, however (much like those arguments I’ve heard that Guantanamo Bay “threatens the entire Geneva regime.”) I would say that in terms of norm decline, what matters is not what states like Israel or the US do, but how the international community reacts, since as Fredrich Kratockwil and John Ruggie long ago argued, “norms are counterfactually valid.”


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