The Dangers – Then and Now – of a Pre-Emptive Strike

Reports that Pentagon officials are actively discussing plans for using nuclear weapons to prevent Iran from building its own A-bomb reveal that President Bush is falling victim to the same lack of imagination that led John F. Kennedy to think he could attack China to keep it from getting the bomb without igniting a major war.

Even more worrisome is the catastrophic possibility that Bush will form another “coalition of the willing” by teaming up with Israel in a joint attack on Iran.

Kennedy’s failure to grasp the consequence of his plan to bomb China 45 years ago in circumstances remarkably like today’s show how easily President Bush could stumble into a major new war in the Middle East.

A nuclear-armed China would be a “great menace in the future to humanity, the free world and freedom on earth,” Kennedy told a visiting French diplomat in January 1963. Kennedy’s words are eerily similar to Bush’s January statement that an Iran with nuclear weapons would be “a grave threat to the security of the world.”

So far the Bush administration has wisely allowed the international community to take the lead in responding to the threat from Iran. These international efforts to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions have been halting but still hold promise. Recently, European Union officials discussed diplomatic and economic sanctions against Iran for the first time and urged Iran to comply with a United Nations request to halt its nuclear enrichment program.

Iran’s announcement this week that its uranium-enrichment efforts have passed a new milestone are more show than substance and do not significantly set back international efforts to end its nuclear program.

In the early 1960s Kennedy had much less to work with diplomatically. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, did not yet exist and China was not to join the United Nations for another decade. Also, China’s self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world made it all but impervious to trade restrictions or other economic sanctions.

The paucity of means helped lead to JFK’s flirtation with the military option. This pursuit, particularly his desire for a covert international coalition, illustrate the dangers that may lie ahead for President Bush.

Kennedy considered striking “Red China” unilaterally, but he also thought he had a better idea. He believed Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev could be persuaded to take military action to stop China’s A-bomb program. The most frightening scenario was for a joint nuclear strike: A U.S. and a Soviet plane would fly together over China’s nuclear facilities and each would drop a bomb. Only one of the bombs would detonate, making it impossible to determine whether the U.S. or Russian weapon had produced the mushroom cloud over the ruins of China’s nuclear facilities. This scheme is reminiscent of a firing squad in which every member but one shoots blanks at the victim. White House planners must have somehow believed their nuclear firing squad would likewise absolve the United States of full accountability.

The consequences of a U.S.-Soviet strike on China, including all-out war between China, Russia and the United States, are mind-boggling to contemplate. If Bush administration officials war-game Kennedy’s China policy they may realize that a nuclear strike on Iran’s processing sites, killing an estimated 10,000, would have similarly dire consequences.

Even if the United States were to act unilaterally, Iran would likely respond militarily against our forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, perhaps with other Middle East nations. The United States would also have to anticipate an unprecedented wave of terrorism for generations to come. In this context, alienating our allies worldwide would be the least of our concerns.

It’s not known if there have been discussions, in Washington or Tel Aviv, about a joint strike, but Israel today, unlike Russia in 1963, seems a willing partner. Israel, which bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981 to prevent that country from developing nuclear weapons, was determined to keep Iran from getting the bomb even before Irans president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Israel should be “wiped off the map.”

But if the United States were to enlist Israel’s considerable expertise and knowledge of Iran to assist in an attack, the consequences would multiply exponentially. Just imagine: Two nations already suspected in the Middle East of collusion against the Arab world actually be joining forces to attack a Muslim nation in the first use of nuclear weapons since World War II.

The Kennedy administration’s China debate continued under President Lyndon Johnson but a new intelligence assessment downplaying the danger allowed cooler heads to prevail. China detonated its first nuclear weapon on October 16, 1964, and Kennedy’s fears China would use its nuclear arsenal to bully Asia have proved groundless.

With any luck cooler heads will also win today’s debate in Washington over Iran and the world will again be spared the disastrous consequences that can come from a president’s failure of imagination.

Harvey Simon is a writer in Washington, DC, and is the author of “The Madman Theory,” a novel of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Formerly, he was a national security analyst at Harvard University.