As pressure mounts to reckon with Iran's nascent nuclear program, some strategists are arguing that the United States has run out of alternatives to military action. Many of them are pointing to Israel's 1981 air attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor as a model for action--a bold stroke flying in the face of all international opinion that nipped Iraq's nuclear capability in the bud or at least postponed a day of reckoning. This reflects widespread misunderstanding of what that strike accomplished. Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.
Osirak is not applicable to Iran anyway, since an air strike on a single reactor is not a model for the comprehensive campaign that would be required to deal, even unsatisfactorily, with the extensive, concealed and protected program that Iran is probably developing. As the United States crafts non-proliferation policy, it should soberly consider the actual effect of the Osirak attack and the limitations of even stronger air action.
In contrast to a ground war, air power has the allure of quick, clean, decisive action without messy entanglement. Smash today, gone tomorrow. Iraq's nuclear program demonstrates how unsuccessful air strikes can be even when undertaken on a massive scale. Recall the surprising discoveries after the Iraq War. In 1991 coalition air forces destroyed the known nuclear installations in Iraq, but when UN inspectors went into the country after the war, they unearthed a huge infrastructure for nuclear weapons development that had been completely unknown to Western intelligence before the war.