The Buzz

Operation Desert Fox: A Blueprint for Crushing Iran's Nuclear Program?

In an interview with the Family Research Council last week, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) described what U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear-related facilities would entail:

“The president is trying to make you think it would be 150,000 heavy mechanized troops on the ground in the Middle East again as we saw in Iraq and that’s simply not the case. It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: Several days air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior—for interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.”

Several policymakers and analysts have correctly pointed out that Cotton vastly underestimates the costs and consequences involved with bombing Iran’s nuclear program. Beyond underselling the difficulty of such an attack, Cotton either misrepresents or misunderstands what really happened during the four-day U.S. and UK bombing of Iraq in December 1998. Though Operation Desert Fox is now routinely misremembered as such, in reality, it was not a bombing campaign intended to “take out” Iraq’s WMD program. Rather, it was designed and executed to punish the Saddam Hussein regime by degrading Iraq’s air defenses, killing Hussein’s security forces, and damaging missile and aircraft delivery systems for potential WMDs.

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It is essential to know that the Operation Desert Fox target list was not primarily WMD-related. In fact, when Secretary of Defense William Cohen briefed the press about the scope of targets, he did not mention WMD at all:

• I want to stress that this military action is substantial. It is inflicting significant damage on the seven target categories that we have selected. These are as follows"

• Iraq’s air defense system.

• The command and control system that Saddam Hussein uses to direct his military and to repress his people.

• The security forces and facilities to protect and hide his efforts to develop or maintain the deadly chemical and biological weapons. These are the forces that have worked to prevent the United Nations inspectors from doing their jobs.

• The industrial base that Saddam Hussein uses to sustain and deliver his deadly weapons.

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• His military infrastructure, including the elite Republican Guard forces that pose the biggest threat to his neighbors and protect his weapons of mass destruction

• The airfields and refinery that produces oil products that Iraq smuggles in violation of economic sanctions.

conversation between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that took place one day into the 1998 Iraq bombing was just released by the Clinton Presidential Library. During the phone call, Clinton stated, “The first thing we try to take out is their integrated communications and air defense systems.” Similarly, any bombing of Iran’s known nuclear program would absolutely start with establishing air superiority with a broad-based series of cruise missile and airstrikes against Iran’s integrated air defense system.

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In reality, only 12 percent of Operation Desert Fox’s intended targets were related to Iraq’s possible WMD sites—several of which were under full-time United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) camera monitoring. The one-hundred planned targets included twelve WMD industry and production facilities, and eighteen WMD security sites (the barracks and headquarters for Hussein’s most elite military units that primarily protected regime leadership). The other non-WMD or -missile targets included thirty-four air defense installations, twenty command and control sites, nine Republic Guard barracks, six airfields, and one oil refinery.