The Bombing of Osirak: Lessons From the 30th Anniversary of Israel's Strike on Iraq's Nuclear Reactor

Thirty years ago today, eight F16-A aircraft armed with sixteen Mark 84 2000-pound bombs took off from their base in Etzion, Israel on a mission that established a new post-World War II standard to halt the spread of atomic weapons with armed force. The target: the French designed nuclear reactor known as Osirak situated near Baghdad. With the failure of diplomacy, sabotage and assassination to arrest construction, Prime Minister Menachem Begin determined that he would not leave the country's fate to chance. By day's end, Saddam Hussein's first attempt to build a nuclear arsenal lay in a smoldering heap

Although three decades have passed, the daring Osirak strike continues to fascinate. But it also raises profound questions about the comparative benefits of force to stop nuclear proliferation. If military attack can immaculately reduce or eliminate the bomb's spread as Israel demonstrated, why don't countries apply the strategy more often? Why do we shirk today, for example, from using force to halt the likes of North Korea or Iran?

The answer lies on a bet countries repeatedly have preferred, one that banks on deterrence, diplomacy and/or hope that nuclear armed states will restrain themselves (DDR) from using nuclear arsenals. History shows DDR has worked in the past. What DDR cannot predict is future success. But history also demonstrates that neither can the Osirak template. A closer examination of both demonstrates the conundrum.

Preempt or not became an early order of business for the United States as the Cold War took off. Calls from the likes of Winston Churchill and Bertrand Russell promoted military action to halt the Kremlin's nuclear program. While the United States historically had not shied away from initiating force, in the aftermath of World War II it recoiled. "It might be desirable to strike the first blow [against the Soviet Union but] it is not politically feasible under our system to do so or to state that we will..." The author, George Lincoln, a Pentagon planner in 1945. Although presidents beyond Truman did not exclude preemption against a Kremlin coiled to strike, it relied on DDR to address the nuclear risk. With the Soviet Union's 1991 demise, the strategy seemed fulfilled.

But during the Cold War other challenges emerged. By the time John Kennedy entered office in 1961, increasingly the United States viewed China as the bête noir. As Beijing mounted its nuclear effort, an anguished president called on the bureaucracy to come up with options. In August 1963, the Joint Chiefs responded, "exhaust" non military alternatives first. In a September 15, 1964 memo written respectively by Secretaries of Defense and State Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson's senior foreign policy team concurred: "We are not in favor of unprovoked unilateral U.S. military action against Chinese nuclear installations at this time." On October 16, 1964, Beijing tested its first device. Relying on DDR, Washington learned to live with the nuclear armed China.

In the years that followed, decision makers in and outside the Untitled States faced similar challenges. In each instance -- the Soviet Union/China, India/Pakistan, Egypt/Israel, the US/North Korea -- DDR prevailed. Concerns that preemption would ignite an immediate costly conventional war outweighed apprehension about the future risk of nuclear war.

Israel proved to be the most striking exception. Twice -- the attack on Osirak and the September 2007 attack on Syria's nuclear reactor -- it bet air power could eliminate nuclear dangers. But the Osirak template also demonstrated limits. Iraq reconstituted its nuclear capability. But for the post-1991 Persian Gulf War's insertion of inspectors with orders to destroy the country's WMD stocks, Saddam would have had his bomb. Likewise it remains uncertain if Israel's strike on Syria destroyed all vital elements of the enterprise. But for the moment Syria poses no nuclear threat.

Ultimately, Osirak's legacy lies in its demonstration of military means to halt proliferation if other methods fail. But it is not the perfect solution. At best, it buys time banking that political developments may reduce the inclination of adversaries to go nuclear. It is a bet, but so is DDR. Both represent the best and the limits of counter proliferation policy strategy in today's continuing uncertain nuclear world.