The world hears nothing from Menachem Begin. The former Israeli prime minister and bete noire of two American presidents (Jimmy Carter said he was pleased to bequeath Ronald Reagan two things: Sam Donaldson and Begin), remains in his Jerusalem apartment, a virtual recluse, saying almost nothing. Among the things he does not say is, "I told you so."
In June 1981, Begin ordered the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, fearing that the installation being built by the French near Baghdad might be used to make atomic weapons. Begin told his Cabinet that Israel would be criticized for bombing the reactor -- and indeed he was right.
Naturally, the Arab League met and lambasted Israel. But in the United Nations Security Council, even the United States voted to condemn Israel. The American ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, was particularly scathing. Uncharacteristically, she likened the raid to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Libyan occupation of Chad -- a bit of rhetorical overkill, it now seems clear.
In the press, the reaction was no different. There's no use in calling the roll of columnists who dumped all over Israel for eliminating Iraq's nuclear potential. Suffice it to say, though, that some predicted it would drive a wedge between Israel and the United States that would be irreparable.
What's startling in reviewing news accounts of the raid and its aftermath is not just that Begin has been exonerated by history but how some of what was being said in 1981 is being echoed today. Shortly before the Israeli raid, for instance, the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Shimon Peres, asked Begin to delay any military action and attempt a diplomatic solution. But Begin, armed with intelligence supplied by the CIA, knew that the Iraqi reactor would soon become "hot." If delayed, a bombing could spread radiation over Baghdad. Begin opted to act as soon as possible.
Now, once again, the debate is between those who want to move militarily against Iraq and those who prefer to see a diplomatic solution. Mostly, it seems, this debate is being conducted on Sunday talk shows and op-ed pages, but it is almost sure to be echoed in the breaks between fishing and golf at Kennebunkport. Can the United States accept any solution that leaves Saddam Hussein in power?
The problem I have with those who argue for a quick military strike is that they seem to be arguing from an Israeli perspective. Back in 1981, Begin was right, and the world owes him some thanks Iraq does not now have atomic weapons. But the United States is not immediately threatened by Iraq -- as Israel was and is. Our national interest is to maintain the status quo in the Middle East, to keep oil in friendly hands and to ensure the survival of moderate regimes -- Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and our two allies, Egypt and Israel.
A war, quick or otherwise, might put Saddam Hussein in the past tense, but it might also quickly get out of hand. The region is too unstable to predict what would happen. The oil we seek to protect might well fall into the hands of fundamentalist anti-Western regimes, Israel might be drawn in, and Jordan, a nation in advanced state of disintegration, might well become a Palestinian state -- and a PLO one, at that. In fact, even Egypt could be destabilized by a Middle East war. This region is a latter-day Balkans.
Already, Saddam Hussein is indicating that he realizes he has over-stepped himself. The economic embargo is taking hold; the blockade is certain to make it even more effective. The Bush administration has placed a noose around Baghdad made mostly of American rope but with conspicuous international strands. It just could be that Saddam Hussein could be brought down without a war. It just could be that even if he survives, he has been taught a lesson -- and the international community one as well. It has learned the value of acting in unity. War should be a last resort.
After Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear facility, Begin cited the Holocaust as justification: "There will never be another Holocaust in the history of the Jewish people. Never again, never again!" The statement tells you everything you need to know about Begin's mind-set, about what he thought he was up against. The quibblers of 1981 now have to concede he had a point.
But the United States faces no holocaust and a resort to military action is not yet justified. Those who plump for war are a bit premature, attempting to make the Middle East safe for not only oil but for Israel as well. A war, though, is one way to imperil both.