"There are times when the utmost daring proves the height of wisdom." (Carl von Clausewitz, On War)
Plausibly, it is only because of Israel's earlier preemptions against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities that the Middle East is not presently awash in Arab nuclear weapons. In this connection, US President Donald Trump might have had to make far more risky calculations in launching his recent retaliation for the Syrian chemical weapons attack if Bashar al-Assad had already acquired a recognizable nuclear counter-retaliatory capability. Also worth noting is that if the long-lasting Damascus regime had not been the object of very successful Israeli defensive strikes back in 2007, nuclear weapons could eventually have fallen into the fanatical hands of Shi'ite Hezbollah, or – if the al-Assad regime should fall – Sunni ISIS.
Israel's first use of anticipatory self-defense against a potentially nuclear Middle Eastern adversary was directed at Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor near Baghdad on June 7, 1981. Precisely because of Israel's courageous and correspondingly international law-enforcing operations in both Iraq and Syria, America and its allies do not currently have to face enemy nuclear regimes or their terrorist nuclear proxies. Significantly, as corollary, it was the world community's failure to act in a similarly timely fashion against North Korea that contributed mightily to our now expanding security woes regarding Kim Jong-un.
In essence, thanks to Israel's Operation Opera on June 7, 1981, and also its later Operation Orchard on September 6, 2007, neither Iraq nor Syria will be able to provide Islamist terrorists with game-changing kinds of destructive technology. To be sure, nuclear weapons in these countries could conceivably have made End Times theology a meaningfully palpable strategic reality.
We may now be more operationally precise. On June 7, 1981, and without any prior forms of international approval, Israel destroyed Osiraq. Left intact, this Saddam Hussein-era reactor would have been able to produce enough fuel for an Iraqi nuclear weapon. Moreover, had Prime Minister Menachem Begin first pleadingly sought formal approvals from the "international community," that residually vital expression of self-defense would assuredly have failed.
Law also matters. Under international law, war and genocide need not be mutually exclusive. Although it had been conceived by Mr. Begin as an indispensable national security corrective for Israel, one desperately needed to prevent an entirely new form of Holocaust, Operation Opera ultimately saved the lives of thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of Americans. These were and still remain US soldiers fighting in all the subsequent "Iraqi wars."
During the attack on Osiraq, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor before it was ready to go "on line." Ironically, immediately following the attack, the general global community reaction had been overwhelmingly hostile. The UN Security Council, in Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, expressly indicated that it "strongly condemns" the attack, and even that "Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered."
Officially, the United States, perhaps not yet aware that it would become a distinctly primary beneficiary of this unilaterally defensive Israeli action, issued multiple statements of conspicuously stern rebuke. Today, of course, particularly as we worry about both al-Assad war crimes and prospective ISIS advances, matters look very different. Indeed, in June 1991, during a visit to Israel after the first Gulf War, then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney presented Maj. Gen. David Ivry, commander of the Israel Air Force (IAF), a satellite photograph of the destroyed reactor.
On the photograph, Cheney inscribed: "For General David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our (American) job much easier in Desert Storm."
International law is not a suicide pact. Israel did not act illegally at Osiraq. Under the long-standing customary right known as anticipatory self-defense, every state is entitled to strike first whenever the danger posed is "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation." For such manifestly compelling action, it does not require any antecedent approvals by the United Nations.
It was the United States, not Israel, which issued a unilateral policy statement, in 2002, declaring that the traditional right of anticipatory self-defense should immediately be expanded. Here, Washington's strategic and jurisprudential argument hinged, correctly, on the starkly unique dangers of any nuclear-endowed enemy. The National Security Strategy of the United States was issued by the most powerful country on earth. In comparison, Israel, which had claimed a substantially more narrow and conservative view of anticipatory self-defense back in 1981, is small enough to fit into a single county in California, or twice into Lake Michigan.
Serious students of world affairs are more or less familiar with what happened at Osiraq back in 1981. But what about the attack that took place in Syria, during Operation Orchard, in 2007? In this second and later case of an Israeli preemption designed to prevent enemy nuclear weapons, the operational details are much more hazy.
In brief, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, consciously reasserted the 1981 "Begin Doctrine," this time within the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Several years later, in April 2011, the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) authoritatively confirmed that the bombed Syrian site had indeed been the start of a nuclear reactor. Olmert's decision, like Begin's earlier on, turned out to be "right on the money."
It's not complicated. International law is not a suicide pact. All things considered, Israel's 1981 and 2007 defensive strikes against enemy rogue states were not only lawful, but distinctly law enforcing. After all, in the incontestable absence of any truly centralized enforcement capability, international law must continue to rely upon the willingness of certain individual and powerful states to act forcefully on behalf of the entire global community.
This is exactly what took place on June 7, 1981, and, again, on September 6, 2007.
Going forward, Jerusalem and Washington now need to inquire further: What about Iran? Should Tehran sometime agree to provide its surrogate Hezbollah militias with some of its own evolving nuclear technologies, Iran could find itself marshaling considerable and potentially decisive influence in regional terror wars. Then, endlessly sectarian conflicts raging throughout Iraq, Syria, and other places could continue to grow until every remaining flower of human society were irremediably crushed. If that should actually happen – an even more plausible scenario if there should be a simultaneous or near-simultaneous coup d'état in already-nuclear Pakistan – we might then all still bear impotent witness to a world spinning further out of control.
"Defensive warfare [...] does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen," counsels Clausewitz in On War: "We must wait only if it brings us visible and decisive advantages." Israel chose not to wait in 1981, and again, in 2007. For that oft-overlooked reason, Americans and citizens of certain other allied states can now sleep more securely and peacefully in their own beds.
Louis René Beres is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. He lectures and publishes widely on matters of Israeli security and nuclear strategy.