Reagan On Iraq, Israel, And Saddam

I’ve started to read The Reagan Diaries, edited and collected by Douglas Brinkley, which cover his entire presidency. It’s quite remarkable, and even more useful as a reference guide thanks to the helpful index in the back of the book. So far, it shows that Reagan had been quite involved in policy matters, in contrast to his commonly-accepted persona as a hands-off CEO. Today as I began my tour through the book, I noted an interesting passage that has direct relevance to today’s Middle East problem:

Sunday, June 7 (1981): … Got word of Israeli bombing of Iraq — nuclear reactor. I swear I believe Armageddon is near. … (Israeli PM Menachem) Begin informed us after the fact.
Tuesday, June 9: … Ended day with an N.S.C. meeting re the bombing of Iraq. Begin insists the plant was preparing to produce nuclear weapons for use on Israel. If he waited until the French shipment of “hot” uranium arrived he couldn’t order the bombing because of the radiation that would be loosed over Baghdad.
I can understand his fear but feel he took the wrong option. He should have told us & the French, we could have done something to remove the threat. …
What has happened is the result of fear & suspicion on both sides. We need a real push for solid peace.

When I read this section, I could not help but notice how badly Reagan got this one wrong. First, the French were building the reactor, and were obviously not interested in halting its progress. Not only that, but twenty-six years later almost to the day, we have proceeded no further on the comprehensive peace that would have allowed the Israelis to ignore the nuclearization of a state like Iraq.
Had Begin asked for and followed Reagan’s advice, Saddam Hussein would have had nuclear weapons, and the first Gulf War would almost certainly have turned into a nuclear exchange. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have waited until 1990, and we probably wouldn’t have pushed Saddam back out of Kuwait.
Any lessons here for our strange and passive course with Iran?
I’ll continue to post intriguing diary entries from the book as I come across them. In the meantime, you can order your own copy from Amazon, and help put a couple of dollars in my account there.

8 thoughts on “Reagan On Iraq, Israel, And Saddam”

  1. Reagan was probably taken by surprise because we were nominally Iraq’s ally during the Iraq-Iran war, which would continue for two more years. Iran was then, along with Libya, the main sponsors of terror at the time, so we were giving Iraq a wide berth to do all sorts of actions today considered questionable, even criminal.
    Reagan was acting on those facts at the time — it wasn’t a mistake to not consider 2003 in mind when it was still 1986.

  2. Interestingly, the poster ahead of me stated the US was a defacto ally of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. That explains the use, by Iraq of Soviet equipment. The US commonly sells T-62 tanks and AK-47s. I believe Iraq was a Soviet client.

  3. I think that the Captain is overreacting to an ambiguity in the wording: I can understand his fear but feel he took the wrong option. He should have told us & the French, we could have done something to remove the threat. …”. Was Reagan expecting the French to be part of the we? I think not.
    I think that Reagan, especially at that time, would have reacted by telling the French that the uranium would never arrive, not by asking the French to co-operate. It’s one of those nasty geographical details. Yes, the French could ship the fuel around the Horn direct to Basra, but that would take it up the Persian Gulf. The more normal route would be across the Med to Syria or Lebanon. Would the US Navy be willing to stop and search French ships? We did it to the Russians in 1962.
    Shipping it by rail would be right out. Even if the French could get permission from Italy, Switzerland, or Austria to ship it through the Alps, from there the route leads through what was then Eastern Europe. The Soviets might not object to that–but I am sure that the French would have been unwilling to do so. That brings you to Turkey, which I am sure would have impounded the fuel back then if the US asked.
    What about shipping by air? At the time, the US had the capacity to do that, but the French Air Force did not have any significant heavy lift capacity. It would have taken hundreds of dedicated flights. Fuel elements have to be shipped in very heavy casks for radiation shielding, and putting too many fuel rods in one cask, or too many casks too close together* can be very dangerous to your health–and that of anyone with a mile or so.
    What about commercial air transport? Even if that wasn’t a non-starter for other reasons, can you imagine what would happen if it became publicly known that, say, Air France was transporting enriched uranium on its flights to Damascus or Baghdad?
    *The casks are primarily to protect against gamma radiation. I just erased a long explanation of why the casks don’t include water or hydrocarbons to deal with neutrons. It was really getting off topic. Just accept the fact that shipping enriched uranium by air safely would take some R&D, and lots of heavy lift capacity. On the other hand, one cargo ship could easily carry all the fuel for one reactor.

  4. The US supplied lots of items to the Iraqis during the war with Iran in a similar fashion to the way they helped the Islamic resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. You would have a hard time finding M-16s and other US equpment then and the current Afghan army still has a preference for Soviet/Russian guns and equipment which are also by and large supplied via US channels.
    Most of Reagan’s security advisors took a different view of this event as did many leaders in Europe. They would have liked to have known in advance to be sure but much of the public consternation was for show and because of international law rather than genuine unease with the attack. It’s ironic that the Iran Iraq war eventually served as the primary reason for Iran wanting nuclear capability and making it a priority again after the program was paused in post Revolution Iran.

  5. Foxbats over Dimona!
    That’s the title of a new Israeli book; outlining how the 1967 SIX DAY ROUT was actually a planned attack by RUSSIA, to cancel out Israel’s Dimona defense. No. They didn’t succeed.
    And, in 1981, Reagan, recouperating from his gunshot wounds, actually believed in diplomacy. Besides, Menachem Begin had NO friends in American diplomatic circles. Still don’t.
    But today? A lot more Americans are aware of how easy it was to buy, and hold hostage, not just State, full of grease ball diplomats; but the CIA, as well.
    Israel KNOWS it has very few friends in any elite circle. Yet, it’s not the country to let the truth out of the bag, either.
    And, today, June 2, 2007, we can be big shots with hindsight. But that places your eyeballs up your rear ends. Not good enough for “real time.”
    And, not good enough to explain how diplomacy has gone awry. While Abner Dinnerjacket suffers no consequences for saying “Iran will wipe Israel off the map.”
    I’d bet the Man Upstairs has different ideas. But how will this play out?
    Olmert’s coming on June 19th. He’s pretty much broke, in the sense that he can’t tell the Jews in Israel to hightail it off the West Bank’s ridges; to give the PLO a better chance to grow their terrorism.
    The trouble with diplomacy? We just never know when these turkeys lose. (Look how long it took to hear that the russians have no great economy. That they’re a bunch of provocative stinkers.)
    So, perhaps? Words are cheap. And, the ding-a-lings that do their songs and dances for the media are just wasting time?
    On Bush’s plate? Not much, me thinks, with Israel. Because what can Olmert offer? Besides. If his lips are moving, he’s lying. Most Israelis know to understand their political situation, they take what Olmert says, and then guess it’s the opposite.
    While on the Supreme’s, Bush is gonna do another “diversity” trick; and we can guess who, on the Supreme’s, kicks over her chair? (I think, but am not sure, that O’Connor could more than fill the vacancy; while Bush dithers with a few more incompetents.) Well? At least the clock’s moving.

  6. lexhamfox sez:
    “The US supplied lots of items to the Iraqis during the war with Iran in a similar fashion to the way they helped the Islamic resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. ”
    But the US never supplied anywhere near as much in the way of arms to Iraq as did the Soviets and (surprise) France. Check out this chart:

  7. Captain: You left out the most telling comment about the situation: Jimmie “forgot” to brief Reagan on the reactor situation and the evidence was found in theState Dept.

  8. Fair point Del but look at how SIPRI compiles the data. Much of that equipment from China and Russia was purchased with US dollars made available by the US. Also remember that it was clandestine support becuase of the embargo. Most of the US support for Afghan resistence was similar and hard to trace until the final few years.

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