On Saddam's Nuclear Ambitions

A Goldblog reader writes to ask:

You wrote in your Iran piece that "In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting--forever, as it turned out--Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions; and in 2007, Israeli planes destroyed a North Korean-built reactor in Syria." But you have always argued that Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions extended until he was overthrown in the American invasion. So what gives?"

It's a fair question, one also raised by my good friend Glenn Greenwald. (Next year: Seder at Joe Klein's house!) I did not mean to suggest in the Iran article that Saddam's desire for nuclear weapons was stopped by the Osirak attack. I meant to suggest only that the Osirak attack was more effective than the Israelis thought it would be, because Saddam never achieved his ambition of nuclearization. Of course, the Osirak attack wasn't the only reason Saddam never reached the goal of gaining a nuclear capability (the 1991 Gulf War, and subsequent U.N. sanctions, had a lot to do with this as well, of course) but I've always believed that Saddam sought nuclear weapons, right up to the bitter end. I mean, I'm a well-known neoconservative Zionist fifth-columnist warmonger: How could I believe otherwise?

In any case, I've written a hundred times that Saddam sought, with varying degrees of success, various types of WMD programs until he was overthrown.  So my apologies if you found the writing unclear. I should have added another sentence to explain exactly what I meant by "ambitions." I do believe that had the attack on Osirak not been launched, Saddam might have achieved his ambition by the time he invaded Kuwait (He obviously would have been smarter if he had waited until he crossed the nuclear threshold before he launched the invasion; this would have reduced the likelihood of an American intervention).

The larger point here is that the Israelis claim that Menachem Begin, then the prime minister, launched the Osirak attack in 1981 thinking that it might only set back the Iraqi nuclear program by one year. Some Israelis in leadership positions today tell me that they think an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be similarly worthwhile if it only delayed the Iranians by a year. This certainly doesn't seem worth it to me.