At the news, reported in yesterday's New York Sun, that the Bush administration is keeping its options open in respect of battle plans for a possible attack on Iran to disrupt that country's illicit nuclear program, let us pause to consider the reaction that greeted Prime Minister Begin's strike on Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.The airwaves and the newsstands were flooded with government denunciations. The Chinese communists called the Israelis "arrogant gangsters"; the French called the strike "unacceptable"; the Soviets called it an "act of gangsterism"; and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency described it as the most serious incident in his career. Even the Reagan administration joined in. The State Department said America "condemns" the strike, and, at the United Nations, Ambassador Kirkpatrick compared the raid to the "brutal" Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and voted against Israel in the Security Council. The administration then sanctioned Israel by suspending the delivery of F-16 fighters.
A few newspapers and columnists saw past all this. Robert Bartley's Wall Street Journal issued a now-famous editorial, "Mourning the Bomb," commenting that "it's nice to know that in Israel we have at least one nation left that still lives in the world of reality" and that "we all ought to get together and send the Israelis a vote of thanks." In Germany, Axel Springer's Die Welt defended Israel. William Safire of the New York Times predicted that one day the world would thank the Jewish state. The Tulsa World wrote, "The United States and other powers have treated the spread of nuclear weapons as an abstract problem to be talked about. The Israelis have recognized it for what it is: a monstrous threat to survival that must be avoided at all costs."
But for the most part, the world's press was beside itself with outrage. The Soviet news agency called it a "barbarous attack." The New York Times editorialized that "Israel's sneak attack on a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression" and concluded that "Israel risks becoming its own worst enemy." The Memphis Commercial Appeal chastised that "this was a reckless action. Indeed, it must be described as an act of war every bit as much as the Japanese sneak attack upon the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor was." The Boston Globe warned that "the one thing the raid will not do is ensure the welfare of the Israeli people," while the Washington Post wrote that "the Israelis have made a grievous error. "Time warned that "Israel has vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontation in the Middle East."
What is going to be the reaction, a generation later, if and when America or Israel acts in Iran? Have the chancelleries and editorial rooms learned from the errors of a generation ago? Years after Osirak, Max Frankel conceded in his memoirs that the Times's response was a "major mistake." Vice President Cheney famously sent the following note after the 1991 Gulf War to the Israeli commander who led the 1981 raid: "With thanks and appreciation. You made our job easier in Desert Storm. - Dick Cheney." But will a new storm of outrage erupt if either Israel or America acts? The real lesson of the last pre-emptive bombing of a nuclear program is that even though it was met with worldwide condemnation and only a few editorials of support, the logic become clear in the long run. That is what the world was taught by the courage of Menachem Begin, who uttered his famous retort "never again" and went to his grave understanding that even in a life marked by almost constant heroism, his attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor was his great prime ministerial act.