Is it Really deja vu?

The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is again at the eye of the brewing storm, just as he was before. Even the name of the U.S. president, George Bush, is the same – only this time, it is Bush Jr. But there are a number of differences.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 15, 2002.)

“This is deja vu all over again” is one of the well-known sayings of baseball-great Yogi Berra. Those who search for instances of history repeating itself are most likely to see a grim similarity between the period preceding the Gulf War almost 12 years ago and the present time. But is it really a repeat of the same scenario? Is it deja vu all over again?

The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, is again at the eye of the brewing storm, just as he was the last time. Even the name of the U.S. president, George Bush, is the same – only this time, it is George Bush Jr., the son of the president who launched the Desert Storm offensive to liberate Kuwait. We are hearing the same talk about the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Israel in response to an American attack on Iraq, and the advisability or inadvisability of an Israeli response if attacked. Gas masks are being issued again; shelters are being inspected and refurbished; the newspapers are having a field day with scare headlines. It sure looks like this is a movie we have already seen.

In anticipation of the upcoming movie, our defense minister announced that the American attack on Iraq would take place in November (he probably doesn’t know; and if he does know, he shouldn’t tell). Our prime minister, while advising his ministers to keep quiet, has already said: “We will respond if attacked;” “We will only respond if we suffer casualties in an attack;” and “If attacked, we will know how to do defend ourselves.” The administration in Washington is hinting that it wishes Israeli politicians would just shut up.

Actually, there are a number of significant differences between then and now:

1. Unlike in the period preceding the Gulf War, the U.S. president has not succeeded in putting together a coalition against Saddam Hussein that includes Arab countries. Whereas, many Arab states – first and foremost, Saudi Arabia – were deathly afraid of Saddam Hussein the first time around and, therefore, made willing allies of the U.S., today, they refuse to be drawn into an alliance with the U.S. and oppose military action against Iraq. Thus, the possibility that Israeli involvement might lead to a fracturing of a coalition is not an issue this time, as it was then.

The main incentive for Saddam Hussein to attack Israel in order to bring about an Israeli response that would lead to a break-up of the coalition – a cause of concern to the U.S. and Israel at the time – is absent now.

2. To the best of our knowledge, Iraq’s capability to attack Israel has been significantly diminished since the Gulf War. Intelligence assessments have it that the Iraqis may have about a dozen Scud missiles in their arsenal at present, as opposed to over 100 12 years ago.

On the other hand, Israel’s ability to contend with an attempt by Iraq to launch missiles against the state has been substantially improved. The Israeli reconnaissance satellite, Ofek, provides intelligence that was sorely lacking during the Gulf War and that the U.S. provided only after repeated Israeli requests and after considerable delay. The Arrow missile interceptor system is now operationally deployed and Saddam Hussein must take into consideration that missiles launched by him against Israel, will be shot down.

3. Although there is no need to lend credence to Iraqi pronouncements, they differ substantially when compared to those made on the eve of the Gulf War. After meeting with then U.S. secretary of state James Baker in Geneva on January 9, 1991, nine days before the American assault was launched, then Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz (now the deputy prime minister) was asked whether his country would attack Israel. He replied: “Absolutely, yes.” This time, Iraqi statements regarding Israel have been much more subdued.

All this leads to the conclusion that an Iraqi attack against Israel triggered by a U.S. attack on Iraq is not a very high-probability event at this juncture.

There’s no need for complacency, but certainly no cause for panic.


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