Preventive Action and Weapons of Mass Destruction Part II

Barack Obama

More than once in the past thirty-five years, preventive action has been implemented, or at least contemplated by a nation-state. There are also a handful of times when it should have been used and wasn’t for whatever the circumstances at the time. For Part II and III of this piece, four crises involving weapons of mass destruction and preventive action to varying degrees will be examined. The first is Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli airstrike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor that was carried out in 1981. The second case study is President Obama’s 2012 declaration of a ‘Red Line’ in Syria. The third presentation will be the Iranian nuclear crisis and the reluctance of the US and Israel to use force to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program while it was in its early stages. The final crisis to be looked at will be the current North Korean nuclear crisis and the effects that preventive action could have had in the past, as well as its place at the present time.

Operation Opera

In 1976, Iraq purchased a nuclear reactor from France. The French, and Iraqis maintained that the purpose of the reactor was peaceful and it was unable to produce weapons-grade material. Israel was not so certain of Iraq’s intentions. A nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein was a nightmare scenario for the Israelis to contend with. The conclusion was reached in Tel Aviv that preventive action would likely be needed to ensure the reactor, named Osirak by its French manufacturers, was never brought online. Long before Osirak was up and running, diplomatic efforts aimed at halting the reactor program were initiated with France, and the United States. Simultaneously, clandestine actions were launched with the intention of fatally wounding Iraq’s nuclear program. And while all of this was going on in the late 70s, Israel’s vaunted air force was preparing to launch an attack on the reactor should it be necessary.

In November of 1980, Prime Minister Begin was informed by his country’s intelligence services that Osirak would be fueled and operational by June, 1981. A cabinet meeting was held and Begin’s ministers voted 10-6 in favor of authorizing the attack.

On 7 June, 1981, Operation Opera was launched. Israeli F-16A Falcons, escorted by a smaller number of F-15As bombed Osirak. The attack inflicted serious damage on the reactor and nearby support buildings. 10 Iraqis, and 1 French technician were killed in the attack, and Israel later paid compensation to the family of the French citizen.

The attack was achieved its objective of seriously delaying Iraq’s nuclear program. At the time Israeli and Western intelligence estimated the strike had delayed Iraq’s nuclear ambitions by a decade. If the raid had not been launched, it is probable that Iraq would’ve been armed with nuclear weapons by 1991. How this may have affected Operation Desert Storm is open to speculation, but it likely would not have been favorable to the US-led coalition and Israel.

Israel faced intense political condemnation for the operation, but it weathered that storm. Iraq did not retaliate. It was too involved in its war with Iran to spare the men or material to focus on Israel. There was even a degree of cooperation between Iran and Israel in regards to Osirak, which will be discussed in detail at some point in the future.

Operation Opera was a picture-perfect case of successful preventive action. The danger of a nuclear-armed Iraq was removed from the table. The action also served as a message to other Arab powers considering their own nuclear programs. Israel would turn to preventive action again if it felt its own existence were threatened.

Obama’s Red Line

Promising to launch preventive action if a situation warrants, and then doing exactly the opposite is a guaranteed way to lose credibility in a New York minute. Especially if the man making the empty promise is the president of the United States.

To the surprise and dismay of many, that’s exactly what happened to Barack Obama in 2013. The previous year, in the midst of his reelection campaign, the civil war in Syria was intensifying. Inevitably, it also became an issue on the campaign trail. In July, 2012 there were reports that the Assad regime was moving its stockpile. In a press conference following month, Obama declared that the movement or use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a red line. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama said at a press conference. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Obama had thrown down of the gauntlet. He placed Assad on notice in clearly expressed terms. Any movement, or use of chemical weapons would result in a US-led military response. Almost one year later in August of 2013, Assad crossed the red line and used chemical weapons against rebel forces near Damascus. The attack killed upwards of 1,400 civilians. It was expected that the US would shortly begin military operations to destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons before they could be used again. The world held its breath and waited for US missiles and bombs to rain down on Assad. But Obama failed to follow through on his threat with preventive action. He chose diplomacy instead. Subsequently, a US-Russian agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal came into being.

His reasoning for the change of heart was calculated. He knew that any US military action against Assad would bring US-Iran negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to a dead stop. In the grand scheme of Washington politics and the legacy of a president, ending Iran’s nuclear program trumped Syria. The fact that he was leaving American prestige in the dirt along with the red line rhetoric mattered little to Obama.

In the short term, American prestige did not suffer too much. The agreement made strides in reducing Syrian chemical weapon program. Assad’s regime appeared to be complying in earnest and there was no further use of chemical weapons in the conflict. Obama hailed it as a major victory in the battle to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Diplomacy had prevailed where preventive action could have had an adverse effect on the conflict and led it down a path the world wasn’t ready for.

The introduction of Russian forces into Syria in 2015 left egg on the face of Obama and called into question exactly how solid the agreement really was. Rumors abounded of Assad’s forces squirreling away some batches of sarin for use in the future. Obama ignored the rumors and consequences of Russian troops on the ground in Syria for as long as he could. However, the US was swiftly losing influence in all things Syria. His attempts to reassure the world otherwise failed to turn the tide of international opinion. The consensus was that Obama’s red line was an abject failure that served to encourage and assist crisis in Syria. The world order that was sustained by US deterrence had vanished.

The use of sarin gas by Syrian government forces in April of 2017 was the final nail in the coffin for Obama’s red line. Assad, as suspected, kept some chemical agents in reserve for use at a time and place of his choosing. Preventive action in ’12 or ’13 might have halted his chemical program or degraded it enough, or the potential damage US military action would have visited upon his regime could have given him pause. The Syrian president gambled and won. His regime is strengthening with every passing day and Obama’s red line is atop the dust bin of history.

Note: Part III will be posted between 8 and 10 June, 2017





Preventive Action & Weapons of Mass Destruction Part I


Preventive action is a term often confused with preemptive action. Admittedly, the terms are similar in appearance. The two are also linked by the fundamental principle of ‘strike your opponent before your opponent can strike you.’ This is where the similarities end. Preemptive action is an attempt to stave off or defeat an imminent invasion or establish a strategic advantage in the opening minutes of such a conflict. A preventive action is a measure launched to neutralize a potentially imminent offensive capability from being obtained by an unfriendly or rogue nation-state. A threat which the initiating nation-state has determined it cannot live with. In contemporary times, the acquirement of Nuclear, Biological and/or Chemical (NBC) weapons by a rogue nation-state qualifies as such a threat.

At the moment, North Korea is a nation meets the criteria of a rogue nation-state possessing NBC weapons and a ballistic missile capability to deliver them. Pyongyang’s journey to obtaining nuclear weapons began in the early 1990s. The United States attempted to persuade North Korea from halting its nuclear weapons program without success. Tensions rose and nearly came to a head in June of 1994. The 1994 Korea crisis led to a brief, yet palpable war scare. Neither side wanted a conflict, and preventive action at that point potentially could have led to a major conflict. US plans to launch airstrikes against the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, to prevent North Korea from acquiring the raw material needed for nuclear weapons, were shelved. The US shifted gears and adopted diplomacy, and economic persuasion as its primary policy tools for halting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The effort led to the Agreed Framework, signed in October of 1994. The purpose of the agreement was to replace North Korea’s then-current reactor with light water nuclear reactors that could not produce weapons grade plutonium, and the eventual normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.

Here we are some twenty-three years later. The North has nuclear weapons and its relations with the US are anything but normal. Even more alarming is the progress North Korea is currently making in its ballistic missile program. There is growing concern that it could have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii, Alaska, or perhaps even the West Coast within the next few years.

Is preventive action an effective policy option for dealing with NBC threats? Back in 1994 it might have halted North Korea’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Or, it would’ve led to a major war in the region. For better or worse, we’ll never know.

Preventive action is a controversial policy tool available to governments to minimize or end the threats from NBC weapons in the hands of unstable regimes. Its detractors claim preventive action goes beyond what is acceptable in international law. Should a threat come to light that requires preventive action, the matter should be referred to the UN Security Council, which has the jurisdiction to authorize military action.

Diplomacy, deterrence, economic sanctions, and economic persuasion have also been used in many instances over the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st Centuries with varying degrees of success and failure. The majority of modern nation-states prefer non-aggressive, internationally accepted counterproliferation methods. Comparative assessments, and selective case studies suggest that nonaggressive policies are more effective in stopping rogue nations from acquiring and using NBC weapons.

Supporters of preventive action in the 21st Century argue that in the Post-Sept.11th world preventive action, as well as preventive war ( Note: there is a distinct difference between the two) is necessary in some instances. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a preventive war regardless of how it is viewed in contemporary times. Iraq harbored Islamic terror groups that were decidedly anti-US and anti-West, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was believed to possess and be developing chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the US government was not inclined to simply accept the Iraq situation as status quo. After all, on September 11th, 2001 Al Qaeda launched an attack that killed thousands of Americans and the terror group did so with a fraction of the resources that are available to a nation-state. It is difficult to imagine how President Bush could have allowed what was a clear and present danger in the Post-Sept.11th world to go unchecked.

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 now. By the time the first US aircraft were over Iraq in March of 2003, whatever biological and chemical weapons Iraq had were long gone. Very little evidence of an NBC weapons programs was ever found. For what it’s worth, my guess is that most of what Saddam could not destroy was transported clandestinely to Syria and beyond. Iraq had the benefit of a head start. It was apparent by September of 2012 that the US and its coalition was coming in at some point unless Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors unobstructed access to sites across Iraq. Frankly, by that point nothing short of removing himself from power would’ve satisfied President Bush. So, while the US prepared for war and built a coalition, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to believe that the Iraqi regime was destroying as much evidence as possible and simultaneously sending whatever it could to Syria and beyond. Preventive action/war in Iraq failed miserably to achieve its objectives.

The civil war in Syria, however, offers a case study of how non-aggressive policy tools failed to bring an end to Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons program and use of nerve gas against opposition forces. This instance will be examined in Part II of this article, along with how preventive action fared in a handful of other instances. It will be published on Monday night. Later next week, Part III will look at how preventive action can be used by the US to successfully neutralize North Korea’s goal of building a ballistic missile capable of reaching North America.