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Policy Implications of the Bush Doctrine on Preemption

Author: Ivo H. Daalder
November 16, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations Press


To: Members of the CFR/ASIL Roundtable on Old Rules/New Threats

From: Ivo Daalder

Subject: Policy implications of the Bush Doctrine on Preemption

We live a world in which terrorists and tyrants may join forces to develop and use technologies of mass destruction to inflict grievous harm against the United States and its friends, allies and interests anywhere around the globe with not even a moment’s notice. How should our government respond to this new threat? In its National Security Strategy released last September, the Bush administration answers by promulgating a radically new doctrine of military preemption. “If the United States could have preempted 9/11, we would have, no question,” Vice President Dick Cheney told the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville this summer. “Should we be able to prevent another, much more devastating attack, we will, no question. This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes.”

Given the havoc a terrorist attack using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction would surely inflict, preempting such an attack is unquestionably desirable. And the United States, like many other countries, has always left open the possibility of using military force preemptively. It is, as Secretary of State Colin Powell has frequently stated, long been a very useful tool to have in America’s foreign policy toolbag. But maintaining the option of preemption is very different from promulgating a new doctrine, for this implies that preemption is not just a foreign policy tool, available for the rare circumstance in which its use might prove necessary, but a policy preference for dealing with threats of this kind. If that is the administration’s intent — and its promulgation in the National Security Strategy surely implies it is — then it is incumbent on the administration to spell out in some detail when preemptive military action is justified and, especially, who is justified in taking such action. This it has not done. As a result, the promulgation of the new doctrine leaves unaddressed profound questions of policy that its advocates have so far ignored.

The Administration’s Case for Preemption

The National Security Strategy puts the case for preemption thus: “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.” This case rests on three propositions.

• First, with the diffusion of advanced technologies, tyrants are acquiring weapons of mass destruction at a perilously rapid rate and, with their help, so will terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Traditional preventive measures — like diplomacy, multilateral nonproliferation treaties and export controls — may delay but cannot prevent the spread of these weapons into these unsavory hands.

• Second, tyrants and especially terrorists view mass destruction technologies as weapons of choice rather than as weapons of last resort. They are much more risk-prone than our cold war adversaries, and much less likely to care about the consequences of their actions for the lives of those who support or live among them.

• Third, the old, reactive strategies of containment and deterrence are therefore less likely to succeed. And since the risks and consequences of deterrence failing are great, the alternative of preemption is, for all the dangers of such a strategy entails, to be much preferred.

The legal justification for this doctrine resides in the concept of anticipatory self-defense — that is, the notion, long recognized in international law, that states can take defensive action even before an attack has occurred if the threat is truly imminent (traditionally when an opposing force mobilizes in anticipation of an attack). The classic example is Israel’s preemptive attack that started the 1967 war, which came in response to the imminent threat of invasion by its Arab neighbors. What makes the current situation different from previous instances is the need, as the Bush administration sees it, to “adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries” — i.e., terrorists and tyrants armed with mass destruction weapons. Since it cannot be known when a state or terrorist organization that possesses weapons of mass destruction will use them and since weapons like these can be delivered without much if any warning, the administration argues that rogue states pose an “imminent threat” when they seek to acquire technologies necessary to build these weapons, and especially nuclear weapons. Accordingly, preemption is justified not just to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction but also their acquisition.

The Case Against Preemption

The promulgation of this new doctrine has been met with concern at home and especially abroad — and not without reason. The doctrine suffers from considerable conceptual confusion, most importantly by conflating the notion of prevention with that of preemption. Preventive war refers to a premeditated attack of one state against another, which is not provoked by any aggressive action of the state being attacked against the state initiating the conflict. In contrast, a preemptive attack is launched only after the state being attacked has either initiated or has given a clear indication that it will initiate an attack. A war against Iraq that is justified by the belief that Baghdad will soon acquire nuclear weapons which it then may use to threaten the interests of others would be a preventive war; an attack against an Al Qaeda cell believed to be plotting a terrorist strike would be a preemptive strike. While the latter can readily be justified on the basis of self-defense, preventive war, especially if launched by a single state on its own accord, cannot. And every time when our nations leaders confronted the question of launching a war to an adversary from acquiring nuclear weapons — whether against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, against Cuba in 1962, or against China in 1964 — they decided against it.

The doctrine of preemption is also strategically imprudent. If taken seriously by others, it will exacerbate the security dilemma among hostile states, by raising the incentive of all states to initiate military action before others do. The result is to undermine whatever stability might exist in a military standoff. Take the very real case of India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers with long-standing territorial and other grievances. Suppose tensions rise, as they did last summer, when a million Indian and Pakistani troops massed on the border. Islamabad, fearing that Delhi might try to preempt its quite vulnerable nuclear strike capability, will have a powerful incentive to go first. India, knowing this to be the case, will have an equally powerful incentive to get its weapons off before Pakistan does. Given this dynamic, the use of force in tense situations like these will increasingly be viewed as a first resort, thus undermining whatever moderating influence diplomatic intervention might otherwise have had.

The case of India and Pakistan points to another grave danger of publicly promulgating a doctrine of preemption, which is that other states will invariably embrace arguments in its favor as a cover for settling their own national security scores — as Russia has already done with respect to Georgia. As Henry Kissinger has argued, “It cannot be either in the American national interest or the world’s interest to develop principles that grant every nation an unfettered right of preemption against its own definition of threats to its security.” The Bush administration recognizes this problem, and warns other countries not to “use preemption as a pretext for aggression.” But that is easier said than done. The administration, while arrogating to itself the right to use force whenever and wherever it believes the preemption of potential future threats warrants it, has made no effort to define the line separating justifiable preemption from unlawful aggression. And that may well be the gravest flaw of the new doctrine. For by presuming that the concept of self-defense now includes preemption (as broadly defined), the administration has erased any viable distinction between the offensive and defensive purposes of military action. Yet, the legitimacy of using force depends crucially on a clear and agreed understanding of precisely this distinction.

Whatever the merits and demerits of a preemption doctrine, there are practical problems with relying on such a policy for dealing with the current threat in all but the most extreme situations. One is the difficulty determining the timing of any preemptive strike, especially if the goal is to preempt the acquisition of mass destruction weapons. Is construction of a nuclear plant sufficient reason (as Israel believed to be the case in 1981 when it attacked the Osirak reactor) or should one wait till fissile material production is actually underway? And what about chemical and biological weapons facilities? Are pharmaceutical or fertilizer factories game (as the former was in 1998, when the U.S. struck a facility in Sudan)? If so, how can one distinguish between concerns that produce legitimate products and those that do not — and what of dual-use facilities?

Another practical difficulty is that the target state can respond in ways that make preemption very costly — and perhaps even counterproductive — in ways that advocates of the strategy have largely ignored. Take, for example, a preventive war against Iraq. This could very well precipitate the very use of weapons of mass destruction by Baghdad that the military action is designed to forestall. Saddam would have every incentive to use what he has before U.S. forces can find and destroy the weapons. Moreover, as the CIA has recognized, once Saddam deems war inevitable any constraints on him transferring weapons to terrorist groups eager to strike the United States and its interests will be lifted. And in the chaos that attends any war control over weapons and materials is bound to break down, making it that much more likely that these fall into the wrong hands. Or take the case of North Korea, where it might be possible to launch a precision strike against Pyongyang’s critical nuclear facilities. But even if successful, the consequences could be severe — including the not unlikely decision by North Korea’s leaders to launch a suicidal war that would kill millions of Koreans in the process.

A Short-Lived Doctrine?

Preemption sounds better in theory than it is likely to be in practice. There is no doubt that the United States must maintain the capacity to engage in the preemptive use of force. There may well be circumstances in the future in which doing so is both justified and strategically sound. But maintaining the option to preempt is one thing, codifying it as presidential doctrine is quite another. Interestingly enough, many in the Bush administration seem to have come to the same realization. At least when it comes to dealing with rogue states, preemption seems to have lost its luster. With respect to Iraq, the administration has abandoned its preemption rhetoric and now makes the case for the possible use of force on the need for Iraq to comply with its disarmament obligations. In the case of North Korea, which just last month confirmed that it had an active nuclear weapons program in direct violation of its international commitments, the administration has dismissed any talk of military action — preemptive or otherwise.

What we are left with is an argument for preempting terrorists, whether armed with weapons of mass destruction or not. But this is neither controversial nor anything new. Law enforcement and intelligence activities have long aimed to preempt terrorists before they strike. The previous administration issued standing orders to locate, target, and kill Osama bin Laden — and no one would have objected if it had succeeded. Instead of disputing preemption as means to deal with terrorism, the U.S. debate has always about whether we are doing enough to stop terrorists preemptively.

All of this suggests that the Bush administration was unwise to elevate what can be a crucial tool for securing American interests into a doctrine that bears the president’s name. It is now too late for the administration to disavow the Bush doctrine — but the less said about it by the president and his advisers that better off we will be.