Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Osirak Recalled

Reagan’s Secure Line

WITH a controversial Israeli attack in the news, I have thought back to another controversial Israeli attack, one that took place 29 years ago today: the strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor under construction in Iraq. The daring, risky bombing dealt a fatal blow to Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. I was then President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, after having been his chief foreign policy adviser for several years.

That Sunday afternoon, I was on my back porch in Arlington, Va., wading through a small mountain of staff memorandums, reports, diplomatic cables and the rest of my perpetually mounting paperwork. My progress was interrupted by a call on the “drop line” direct link from the communications center next to the White House Situation Room; the duty officer was requesting that I go to the special secure line, kept in a safe in my basement.

After a few fumbles with the rotary dial, I opened the safe, inserted the current secure chip and connected to the comm center. On the scratchy connection, the duty officer reported that Israeli warplanes were returning from their mission in Iraq, and were by then over Saudi airspace. Oddly, the aircraft, F-16’s and F-15’s, were thought to be unable to make a round trip to Iraq: Israel couldn’t refuel its planes in the air and landing between the two countries was considered unthinkable.

Equipped with this fragmentary information, I requested constant updates, then hastily connected to the White House switchboard and asked to be put through to President Reagan. Within seconds, an officer at Camp David answered; I directed him to get the president on the line immediately. He hesitated, then said, “Sorry, sir, he is just boarding the chopper here.”

I ordered the officer to get the president off the helicopter and to the phone without delay, but he demurred, indicating that the president might not like to be recalled. I suggested that if he wasn’t immediately brought to the phone, there would be consequences. I could hear the whirring of the helicopter blades in the background.

In what seemed an eternity but was only two minutes or so, President Reagan was on the line, a slight note of irritation in his voice: “Yes, Dick, what is it?” I quickly recited what happened, and he asked me to repeat the message. After pausing for a few seconds, he asked, “Why do you suppose they did that?” My answer was something to the effect that the Israelis clearly did not want that reactor to become operational.

He went silent, and the phone line again filled with the churning of the copter. With characteristic aplomb, he suddenly asked: “Well, you know what?” I said, “What, Mr. President?” His retort was classic: “Boys will be boys!”

This was typical Reagan. He could simultaneously recognize the long-range strategic consequences and appreciate the seriousness of the situation — then cut to the chase with a pithy comment. I said I would have a report by the time the helicopter landed back at the White House.

The next day, with all hell breaking loose in the newspapers and on TV, cabinet members and senior staff members held a long, animated Oval Office meeting and tried to assess the impact of the sensational strike from every angle.

The vigorous discussion provided some surprises, including the opinions presented by Vice President George H. W. Bush; the chief of staff, James Baker; and the president’s omnipresent aide, Michael Deaver. They argued strongly for punitive actions against Israel, including taking back aircraft and delaying or canceling scheduled deliveries. There also came the unexpected news that several important Middle East countries, while publicly professing outrage and dismay, were privately pleased.

Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was angry, but measured, while Secretary of State Alexander Haig carefully presented the diplomatic concerns. As he explained to me before the meeting, Haig was inclined to stand by Israel, but great pressure from within the State Department and from other countries prompted him to be less vocal and ultimately to authorize official American criticism of Israel. The C.I.A. director, William J. Casey, was circumspect; like Haig, he understood the president’s views well. I said nothing. The president himself said little, listening patiently.

Even today, few people realize that in the years before his presidency, Reagan devoted himself to foreign-policy study, filling his hours with reading, correspondence, travel abroad and briefings with experts. There were actually disagreements among advisers about the wisdom of his devoting so much time to these substantive tasks, some considering this work marginal to political or other considerations. But as a result of his extensive preparation, Reagan developed deeply held principles on foreign policy, and while he was always willing to listen to opposing perspectives, he was not easily persuaded to yield.

When the session concluded, I lingered behind. The president looked up from the papers on his desk. “Well, what did you think of all that?” he asked. I suggested that he had basically heard all points of view — and that I had heard his comment the day before. He smiled, and returned to the papers on his desk.

By the end of the year, the United States and Israel had signed a strategic cooperation agreement.

Richard V. Allen, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, was the national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1982.
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