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Discussion Guide

Based on the article “More Pre-emptive Strikes?” by K. Subramanyam, published in The Times of India (independent), New Delhi, India, June 10, 1981 and reprinted in the World Press Review Iraq Anthology 1981-2003.

The author of this article asks an important rhetorical question about Israel's pre-emptive strike on the Osirak reactor near Baghdad in 1981: “Is this the beginning of the process of legitimization of ‘assertive disarmament’ by some nuclear weapons powers that have appointed themselves international gendarmes?”

Discuss his question in light of the current war against Iraq: The Bush administration says war is necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used against American targets. Much of the international debate, however, has centered on the legality or legitimacy of a war that defends against the possibility of a future attack rather than against an aggression that has already taken place.

Questions to consider:

1. In your opinion, has the United States today appointed itself to be an “international gendarme” [international police officer], as the author feels Israel did in 1981?

2. What would policing the world involve?

3. Should the United States play this kind of role on the international stage?

4. What other ways, apart from having the United States police the world alone, might there be to make sure that all governments abide by international law?

5. How does the fact that the United States is a nuclear power and has the strongest military in the world affects its relations with other countries, especially countries without nuclear weapons?

6. Should any country have nuclear weapons or should the world commit to total disarmament?

7. The United States says it is justified in going to war against Iraq because it believes Iraq will one day attack or aid an attack on U.S. targets. Using the same logic, would North Korea or Iran (both named by President Bush as part of the "axis of evil," alongside Iraq) be justified in going to war against the United States because, having seen the invasion of first Afghanistan and now Iraq, they believe they are in immanent danger of U.S. attack?

8. People who support a pre-emptive war against Iraq argue that it is justified because nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons materials could fall into the hands of terrorists, who must be prevented from ever using such weapons against U.S. targets. What other ways might there be to prevent such a scenario?

9. Although Bertrand Russell suggested in the 1940s that Soviet installations be destroyed before they were able to develop atomic bombs, his advice was not followed. As a result, the Soviets were able to develop nuclear weapons unchecked, and the decades that followed witnessed a massive arms race—the Cold War—between the United States and the U.S.S.R.

Considering that the Cold War inspired a global fear of annihilation through nuclear war, should Bertrand Russell's advice have been followed in the 1940s? Even though the feared nuclear war did not take place?

Why would a pacifist and philosopher like Russell would suggest a pre-emptive disarming strike?

What might have been the consequences of a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union at that time?

Do you think a potentially short "hot war" would have been better than the decades-long Cold War?

10. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent countries that had been part of the union suddenly found themselves in control of nuclear weapons that had formerly been the responsibility of the central Soviet government.

For reasons that include weak economies, the loss of central (Soviet) control, and the collapse of a central security system that imposed order by force, former Soviet republics are having a harder time keeping up the high level of security that nuclear reactors and stockpiles of nuclear weapons require.

Many people worry that this lack of security makes the former Soviet Union an easy and attractive target for terrorist groups wanting to get hold of nuclear materials.

What steps might be taken to make these nuclear materials more secure, so that they do not fall into the hands of terrorists?

Are the nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union (which are known to exist and which are known to have insufficient security protection) or North Korea (also known to exist and controlled by a belligerent, centralized power) pose a bigger, equal, or smaller threat than the nuclear weapons that Iraq might be in the process of secretly developing?

11. Do you think that a government planning a pre-emptive disarming strike against a sovereign state should first have to prove, to the satisfaction of the international community, the existence of a “smoking gun”?

[The expression “smoking gun” refers to undeniable evidence that proves guilt or fault: for example, chemical or biological weapons now found in Iraq would be a “smoking gun” not only because Iraq is forbidden, by U.N. Security Council resolutions and cease-fire agreements, to possess such weapons, but also because the Iraqi government has denied that it has any; finding them would prove that Iraq has both lied to the world and broken international law.]

Note: in the lead-up to its war against Iraq, the United States did attempt to establish such proof; Israel, before striking the Osirak reactor, did not.

12. International opinion was divided after the United States presented what it felt was strong evidence of Iraq's secret weapons programs and its links to terrorist groups: some people thought the United States had made its case; others thought it did not show enough evidence to justify a pre-emptive war.

What should happen if the international community is not convinced by the proofs being offered to justify a pre-emptive strike?

Is it justifiable to go ahead with a pre-emptive strike despite a lack of international agreement, or should a pre-emptive strike be put off until everyone agrees that it is necessary?

Is it possible for all, or even most, of the governments in the world to agree on a particular course of action, especially one as controversial as a pre-emptive war?

What if, after the current war against Iraq is over, no nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons materials are found? Do you think this would mean that the United States was wrong to launch a pre-emptive war? Why or why not?

13. In 1981, Israel was widely condemned for its pre-emptive strike against the Iraqi reactor, but no concrete action (economic sanctions, for example) was taken against it.

The author of “More Pre-emptive Strikes?” raises doubts about the value of the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its safeguards when a country with a secret nuclear arsenal can attack a signatory to the treaty and not be held accountable (Iraq had signed but Israel had not).

Can international treaties, such as the NPT, remain relevant if they are unable to give protection to their signatories from powerful countries outside their jurisdiction? When considering this question, recall international treaties that the United States has withdrawn its support from: the Kyoto Protocol, the creation of the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

What role should such treaties play on the world stage? Can they work if, as in the case of Israel and the NPT, some countries refuse to sign them and are not held accountable under their rules?

14. Since 1981, international opinion has shifted. Israel's pre-emptive action is now generally viewed as an important and positive step in the containment and disarmament of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, in contrast, is generally believed to have been developing nuclear weapons in secret despite having signed the NPT, and even using the agreement to cover his actions.

What are the implications for international treaties like the NPT if governments use them as a shield behind which to conduct illegal activity?

Is it possible to keep international treaties from being used as smoke screens?

List ways in which the international community could and should enforce treaties like the NPT.

List difficulties that the international community might face when trying to enforce international treaties.