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Lessons of Desert Fox

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
February 14, 2006
The Boston Globe

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A radical leader of an Islamic country confronts the United States and threatens Israel. The United States suspects that this country’s leaders are not being truthful about their nuclear program. The president calls this standoff a grave threat to international security.

Sound familiar? While this scenario appears to describe the tense situation concerning Iran’s nuclear program today, it similarly describes the confrontation between Iraq and the United States in late 1998.

On Dec. 15, 1998, chief UN weapons inspector Richard Butler reported to the Security Council that Iraq had not provided “full cooperation” to the inspectors. The next day, President Bill Clinton ordered US forces to strike targets in Iraq.

Over a four-day period, Operation Desert Fox struck about 100 Iraqi facilities. The goal was to degrade and diminish Saddam Hussein’s ability to use weapons of mass destruction as well as his conventional military.

Militarily, Desert Fox appeared to be a smashing success. It hit 85 percent of its targets and 74 percent of all strikes were highly effective, according to Pentagon analysts.

Strategically, the military campaign was a blunder and sowed the seeds of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Unintentionally, the 1998 attack splintered the coalition that President George H. W. Bush painstakingly assembled in 1990 during the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War. Neither Clinton nor his successor President George W. Bush was able to reunite this large group of nations dedicated to stopping Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction.

Another unintended consequence was that the United States lost practically all credible intelligence about Iraqi WMD-related activities. UN inspectors were shut out of Iraq until late 2002, when Bush formed a much weaker coalition. But by then, worst-case thinking had seized hold of the imagination of intelligence analysts and policy makers who were trying to look inside the black box of Iraq’s purported WMD programs.

Continued intransigence by Hussein was taken as further proof that he had WMD. Fearing that the only way to stop Hussein was to topple his regime, Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Almost three years later, the United States remains bogged down in Iraq.

When US government officials talk of keeping the military option “on the table” with Iran, they seem to have not learned valuable lessons from the showdown with Iraq. An all-out military attack against Iran is out of the question because American forces are stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. A limited US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would bring down international censure on the United States. While the Bush administration may be prepared to weather that storm, the far more dangerous consequence is that military action could stimulate a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tehran may not have crossed the nuclear Rubicon with a political decision to make nuclear weapons. But a US attack would undoubtedly convince Iran’s leaders to take that momentous step and would prevent International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from having access to Iran’s nuclear program.

Fortunately, based on what the inspectors have discovered to date, there appears to be time to resolve the nuclear dilemma diplomatically. Iran’s recent decision to restart research on uranium enrichment was designed to send a political message and to allow its scientists to solve serious technical problems. Despite the worst-case thinking of a few analysts that Iran is probably months away from making a nuclear bomb, virtually all reliable estimates place Iran five to 10 years away.

Bush recently put his finger on the crux of the problem by saying, “I don’t believe non-transparent regimes…should be allowed to gain the technologies necessary to make a [nuclear] weapon.” Clearly, Iran should be more open about what it intends to do with its nuclear program. Similarly, the United States should be more transparent about its intentions concerning Iran.

The president should pledge that the United States would not attack a non- nuclear Iran. He should then make clear that the United States is prepared to engage in talks with Iran about its security concerns provided that Tehran suspends its sensitive nuclear activities.

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