Ten years ago, on Sept. 6, 2007, Israel quietly launched Operation Orchard, a preemptive attack against Syrian nuclear facilities. It is only because of this foresighted operation, and earlier, Israel’s June 7, 1981, defensive strike against Iraqi nuclear facilities at Osiraq, that the Middle East is not presently endangered by Arab nuclear weapons. Plainly, too, if the already murderous Damascus regime had not been the object of a successful Israeli preemption back in 2007, nuclear weapons could eventually have fallen into the hands of Shiite Hezbollah, or perhaps even the Sunni Islamic State group.
Israel’s first use of anticipatory self-defense against a potentially nuclear adversary in 1981 was directed at Saddam Hussein’s still-developing reactor near Baghdad. Significantly, it has been the world community’s failure to act in a similarly timely and decisive fashion against North Korea that now contributes mightily to our expanding security woes with Kim Jong Un. Ironically, North Korea, which had secretly built the Al Kibar plutonium-producing heavy water reactor destroyed by Orchard in 2007, is now sending assembled arms to Syria and Lebanon, thereby also enhancing Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region.
More precisely, in pertinent documentation provided by U.N. experts to the U.N. Security Council in early August: “The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile, and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK.”
Notable as well is that Iran could soon become “another North Korea.” This ironic but distinctly plausible development would result from certain similarly missed legal opportunities of the world community to halt Iranian nuclearization.
Evident now is that America’s current nuclear crisis with Pyongyang is not merely a momentary event to be “won,” like a baseball game. Rather, the U.S. will likely have to live indefinitely with a nuclear North Korea, just as it may soon have to live with a nuclear Iran. In essence, this means that because no cost-effective preemptions were ever launched against North Korea, the U.S. and its allies will be obliged to dig in stoically for presumptively well-managed and long-term nuclear deterrence.
Inter alia, the success of any such clearly sub-optimal policy will be contingent upon uninterrupted enemy rationality. But what if this adversary should sometimes prove to be irrational?
There are further nuances. Whatever Washington might assume about Pyongyang, it will also be necessary to prevent Kim from undertaking any future aggressions in the form of North Korean attacks against Japanese or South Korean nuclear power plants. In any such eventuality, in extremis atomicum, an additional irony would surface: Unlike the Israeli preemptions against Osiraq and Al Kibar, which were directed against non-operational reactors, these prospective North Korean targets could actually suffer a nuclear core meltdown. This event could produce a conspicuous calamity far worse than what happened by accident back in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
In all matters of preemption, relevant international law warrants serious attention. Accordingly, during the attack on Osiraq, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor before it was ready to go on line. Nonetheless, immediately following the attack, the general global community reaction had been preponderantly hostile. The U.N. Security Council, in Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, indicated that it “strongly condemns” the attack, and that “Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered.” Largely forgotten, too, is that U.S. President Ronald Reagan took steps to ensure that the United States voted “yes” on this deeply ill-conceived resolution of condemnation.
International law is not a suicide pact. In unambiguous jurisprudential terms, the U.N. and the United States were sorely mistaken back in 1981. Israel did not act illegally at Osiraq, or later (when there was no official U.N. reaction) at Syria’s Deir ez-Zor. Instead, 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.” If anything, this standard, which dates back to 1837 (in a naval incident known formally as “The Caroline”), is more compelling in the nuclear age than ever before.
There is more. It was the United States, not Israel, which issued a 2002 unilateral policy statement declaring that the traditional right of anticipatory self-defense must be immediately expanded. Then, Washington’s strategic and jurisprudential argument hinged correctly on the expectedly unique dangers of any nuclear-endowed enemy. Significantly, 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 in 1981, is small enough to fit into a single county in California, or twice into America’s Lake Michigan.
Regarding the 2007 Israeli Operation Orchard, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, consciously reasserted the 1981 “Begin Doctrine,” this time referencing the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Several years later, in April 2011, the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency authoritatively confirmed that the bombed Syrian site had indeed been the start of a substantial nuclear reactor. Indisputably, Olmert’s decision, like Begin’s earlier one, turned out to be right on the money.
There is more. Israel’s 1981 and 2007 defensive strikes against enemy rogue states were not only lawful but manifestly law enforcing. In the incontestable absence of any truly centralized global enforcement capability, international law must inevitably rely upon the willingness of certain individual and powerful states to act forcefully on behalf of the greater world community. This is exactly what took place exactly 10 years ago, on Sept. 6, 2007.
“Defensive warfare … does not consist of waiting idly for things to happen,” counsels Carl von Clausewitz in his classic, “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. As a welcome result, the world need not have any of the same nuclear fears for Syria and Iraq that it still must harbor concerning North Korea. Iran, on the other hand, because of various sequentially missed opportunities for anticipatory self-defense, could sometimes become another North Korea.
On this most grievously urgent prospect, especially for Israel, we could all once again discover that it’s later than we might think.
Reprinted with author’s permission from U.S. News