Reagan's 'Pre-emptive Strike' Wasn't
Jude Wanniski
June 17, 2002


Memo To: John McLaughlin, NBC’s McLaughlin Group
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Israel’s Were

Now that President Bush is setting things up to justify military action against anyone on earth who we suspect is going to do us harm, I see all kinds of intellectuals deciding it will be loads of fun playing Superpower. You devoted a segment to the idea on your Sunday show and I was surprised to see Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, almost chortling at the prospect of throwing suspected terrorists into the dungeon and throwing the key away. In this new world, he laughs at the idea of reading Miranda Rights to sinister-looking men on airplanes who are colored Palestinian. (Maybe his mommy taught him in the cradle not to pay attention to the Constitution when it comes to Arabs and Muslims, the way Saudi mommies tell their kids to grow up to commit suicide.) Rich has of course been ready to bomb Iraq, but he is at the end of a long line of boys and girls who have decided there has to be a “regime change” in Baghdad, because Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988, which you and I know he did not do.

The reason I am pointing this memo at you, John, is that you insisted Ronald Reagan ordered a pre-emptive strike against Libya in 1986, and that it was a good thing he did. I beg to differ. A pre-emptive strike is when you see the enemy ready to strike at you, its finger on the trigger, and decide to hit him before he hits you. The Reagan strike against Tripoli was a “punishment” of Libya for having been behind the bombing of a Berlin discotheque. In retrospect, it seems most likely Libya had nothing to do with that bombing. Reagan's punishment clearly aimed at killing Muumar Khadafi and only killed his daughter. It also seems likely that Al Qaeda took its revenge on Pan Am 103. You said at the time that it was a good thing to do, bombing Libya, and I guess you still think so. Maybe you are right. But it was not a “pre-emptive strike.” There has never been a time in our history where we struck with lethal force at a presumed enemy. The Confederacy struck first at Fort Sumter and the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor. Our military has been sent into combat in many places around the world, but never at a military force that seemed about to strike at us.

Israel, on the other hand, has practiced the pre-emptive strike beginning with its 1967 war against its Arab neighbors. It justified the strike on the grounds that Egypt was planning to strike, but historians now agree that while Egyptian President Abdul Nasser may have dreamt about it, there was no imminent danger of a sneak attack. It was a quick and easy win for Israel after it destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground. There is a new book out about the 1967 war by an Israeli government official that documents an Egyptian plan of attack, but this is of recent vintage and was not known by the Israeli government in 1967. Remember, John, this pre-emptive strike is what gave Israel the West Bank and Gaza and has been sticking in the craw of Palestinians and the Arab World ever since. The Arabs struck back in 1973 in the Yom Kippur War, which was not a “pre-emptive strike” but an act of war, as the Arabs tried to win back the land they lost in 1967. They did much better than they did in 1967 and got back the Sinai which had been lost six years earlier.

The fact is that the Bush administration is spending so much time advertising a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, but a strange argument is being made. You should read the transcript of CBS’ Face the Nation and you will see Chairman Joseph Biden [D-DE] of Senate Foreign Relations making the incredible argument that if we know Saddam Hussein has chemical or biological weapons that he could use against our troops if we invaded Iraq, that would be reason enough for a pre-emptive strike. Huh? Of course, President Bush has been pushed so hard by the Republican War Party that he is now practically indicating he reserves the right to bomb Baghdad even if Saddam Hussein allows the United Nations to station thousands of inspectors on a full-time basis all over the country.

Why this determination to get rid of Saddam, when there are absolutely no signs he is planning to do anything foolish? My belief is that it all goes back to Israel’s “pre-emptive” strike against Iraq in 1981, in the earliest days of the Reagan administration. Remember Iraq was just about to crank up the nuclear power plant being built for it by the French, under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Just before the French were to install the nuclear material that would generate power for Baghdad, 25 miles away, the Israeli Air Force swooped down and blew the plant to bits, killing a few Iraqis in the process. I’ve long believed that Richard Perle, who was given a special office created for him in the Pentagon – in charge of Middle East and NATO affairs – directed the Israeli strike from his office. The action was condemned by every country in the world, except for the United States. Now that, John, was “pre-emptive,” with Israel and its supporters arguing to this day that even though it was a legitimate power plant of exactly the kind the French had built for Israel, Tel Aviv could not take the chance that it would give Baghdad a running start on building a nuclear weapon – of the kind Israel was already boasting it could build at a moment’s notice.