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The strategic doctrine of preemption

08/28/02 12:00AM By Bill Seamans
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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans has been listening to the debate about whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein with a strong sense of deja-vu.

(Seamans) One of the ironies of history is how the present often echoes the past. When President Bush endorsed the idea of striking an enemy first and by surprise - what is called the strategic doctrine of preemption - he set a new course for the journey to Baghdad to topple Saddam Hussein.

Well, as I said, the present often echoes the past and that word "preemption" sent me into my dusty files for another famous strike-the-enemy-first story. It's one that I think bears repeating and one that has not to my knowledge been mentioned by Bush as a precedent for his preemption thinking, I suppose because of the sensitivity of what he calls "our Arab allies." There are several versions but the facts in my 21-year-old notebook scribbled while in Israel at the time are the accurate story told to me, to use some Washingtonese, by the very highest Israeli authority at the time.

On June 17, 1981, eight American-made Israeli Air Force F-16's and eight more F-15's took off on a secret mission. Each F-16 carried a pair of old-fashioned 2,000-pound iron bombs. The Israelis had decided that the electronically guided "smart bombs" in their armory were just too complicated thus had a built-in possibility of error. They decided, instead, on the old reliable eyeball-on-the-bombsight technique and plenty of practice on a mock-up in the desert. The F-15's were armed with air-to-air missiles to ride shotgun while the bombers did their work. Their target was Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor nearing completion about fifteen miles outside of Baghdad.

The Israeli mission was executed perfectly. No Iraqi planes rose to challenge them and they brought back video camera pictures which showed the dome and the rest of the reactor reduced to a pile of dusty rubble. Menahem Begin, then prime minister, said his intelligence people had estimated the reactor would have become operational within a month. He said that Saddam had given the go-head to build a Hiroshima-type twenty-kiloton bomb with which, Begin claimed, Hussein intended to destroy Israel. Begin said he gave the order for the preemptive strike before the atomic fuel was installed to avoid spreading nuclear contamination. "We had a terrible dilemma, " Begin said, "Should we have remained passive?"

President Reagan condemned the attack and stopped the delivery of more American-made aircraft then in the pipeline to Israel.

Now, as the present echoes the past, President Bush has endorsed the option of a preemptive strike against Saddam, but says he hasn't made up his mind yet. Meanwhile, I wonder if Bush sometimes thinks about Mehahem Begin's words, "We had a terrible dilemma - should we have remained passive?"

This is Bill Seamans

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.
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