Nations and alliances should move early to deal with crises while they are still ambiguous and can be dealt with more easily, for delay raises both the costs and risks. Early action is the objective to which statesmen and military leaders should resort.
— Wesley Clark, "Waging Modern War" (2001)
THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL PART of President Bush's National Security Strategy, unveiled in September 2002, was its mention of preemptive action against "emerging threats before they are fully formed." This has been described by foreign policy mandarins as a diplomatic earthquake that has overthrown decades, if not centuries, of devotion to the doctrines of containment and deterrence. Iraq was widely seen as the test case of this "radical," uniquely "neoconservative" approach.
Now that the occupation of Iraq is approaching the one-year mark, with still no chemical, biological, or nuclear stockpiles found, but plenty of Americans and Iraqis getting killed, learned commentators are proclaiming that the preemption doctrine has disappeared as thoroughly as Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. As early as last summer, Morton Abramowitz, a respected former ambassador and assistant secretary of state, wrote in the Washington Post, "Preemption policy toward 'rogue states' has been eroded." Now, in the Australian, Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, writes, "The Iraq mission is . . . likely to be the first and last example of preemption in action."
In light of David Kay's report that prewar U.S. intelligence about Saddam's WMD "was all wrong, probably" and various other embarrassments suffered by the Bush administration, as well as the continuing deaths of American soldiers, these arguments cannot easily be dismissed. In fact Kay himself says, "If you cannot rely on good, accurate intelligence that is credible to the American people and to others abroad, you certainly cannot have a policy of preemption." But rumors of the death of preemption are much exaggerated.
In the first place, preemptive war— or even preventive (some say preventative) war where no threat is imminent— was hardly invented by the Bush administration. It has long been an accepted option not only for the United States, but for other nations as well. In his new book, "The Breaking of Nations," Robert Cooper, a career British diplomat who is now a senior European Union official, writes that "the War of the Spanish Succession, fought to ensure that the crowns of France and Spain were not united . . . was a preventative war. No one attacked Britain; but if Britain had allowed the two countries to unite it would by then have been unable to deal with an attack from the resulting superpower."
You don't have to reach back to the 18th century for instances of preventive military action. In 1962 the Kennedy administration seriously considered a military strike to take out the Soviet missiles in Cuba, even though it was highly unlikely they would ever be fired against the United States. Kennedy wisely refrained from launching World War III, but he did undertake a naval blockade (he called it a "quarantine"), which is regarded under international law as an act of war.
Recent U.S. history is replete with smaller-scale instances of preventive action, from the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 to the invasion of Grenada in 1983. In neither case had there been a direct attack on the United States; the threats being addressed (the rise of communism in the Dominican Republic, the cultivation of Grenada as a Soviet and Cuban base) were largely speculative, and many critics charged that they were being blown out of proportion. But Presidents Johnson and Reagan, respectively, thought the dangers grave enough to risk American lives.
More recently, in 1993-94, the Clinton administration seriously considered launching a war to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Clinton didn't act that time, but in 1998 he did launch strikes against al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and various Iraqi military installations. The attack on Afghanistan might be seen as a punitive strike since it came after al Qaeda had bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. But the Sudan strike was mainly preemptive. As recounted by former National Security Council staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon in their book "The Age of Sacred Terror," the pharmaceutical plant was targeted because it was suspected of making chemical weapons for al Qaeda. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said he wanted to take it out before nerve gas showed up on the New York City subway.
The Clinton administration launched another preventive war the following year by attacking Serbia in cooperation with its NATO allies. When the military operation started, the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars was only just beginning. The NATO action, as Gen. Wesley Clark later testified, "was designed to preempt Serb ethnic cleansing and regional destabilization" (italics added). We are today keeping thousands of soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo, not because there is a war going on but to avert another war from breaking out.
Yet many pundits argue with a straight face that the Bush administration invented preemption. What the Bushies did is simply bring out into the open and make explicit what had been implicit all along: "To forestall or prevent . . . hostile acts by our adversaries," in the words of the National Security Strategy, "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." It may be argued that it was unwise to turn what had been de facto into de jure policy. There is no question that, with its bold declaration, the National Security Strategy has alarmed much of the world and some of the American public. It's given rise to nightmare scenarios in which the United States goes around, willy-nilly, invading countries on trumped-up charges and other countries, too, invade their neighbors under the banner of preemption.
The fact that neither has come to pass since the Iraq war last year is hardly proof that such fears are unfounded, but it does, at the very least, indicate they are overblown. India isn't about to nuke Pakistan, claiming a right of preemption. Nations take life-or-death decisions based on their own circumstances, not on what the United States does. The National Security Strategy has not shredded international law or age-old norms of international conduct. The exact conditions that applied in the war on Iraq— a decade-long history chockfull of instances where Saddam broke promises and violated international law— do not apply elsewhere, which helps explain why Bush targeted Iraq and not other rogue states like Iran or North Korea (or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia).
The alarm created by the Bush Doctrine is not entirely a bad thing. It's not only our friends who are worried. So are our enemies. This helps explain Muammar Qaddafi's sudden willingness to give up his WMD arsenal, lest he too wind up in a spider hole trying to evade Delta Force. This may also explain the Iranian mullahs' willingness to accept greater international scrutiny of their nuclear program.
How does this balance out? Do the deterrence benefits of preemption outweigh its public relations costs? Does the image of strength that America projects in the Middle East offset the image of lawlessness that America projects in Europe? At this point it's impossible to say. But whether or not American leaders continue to trumpet a policy of preemption (Bush did not mention it last month in his State of the Union address), it will remain in the presidential toolkit because there is no other plausible alternative for dealing with the mega-dangers we now face. To quote Robert Cooper again: "It would be irresponsible to do nothing while even one further country acquires nuclear capability. Nor is it good enough to wait until that country acquires the bomb. By then the costs of military action may be too high. Hence the doctrine of preventative action in the U.S. National Security Strategy."
But what about the costs of preventive action? Aren't they also too high, as numerous critics of the Iraq war assert? Again, it's impossible to say, because we don't know what would have happened had Saddam Hussein remained in power. It's possible that the policy of containment would have worked, but it seems unlikely. Remember that containment was failing before Bush came into office. Russia, France, and other countries that would sing the joys of sanctions as an alternative to military action in 2002-03 were strongly lobbying, before military action was on the table, to relax or lift sanctions altogether. And the United States and Britain likely would have gone along at some point, if only because the costs of containment were so high. Containment kept tens of thousands of troops surrounding Iraq and dozens of warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones. It also meant conniving in a policy under which the Iraqi people were starved of milk and medicine even while Saddam continued to build all the palaces his sick heart desired. The "oil-for-palaces" program, as one military wag dubbed it, was not a sustainable long-term policy, morally or politically. Something had to give.
Based on what we now know, Saddam had kept at least the nucleus of his WMD program intact, waiting for the day when world attention would wander and he would be free to rebuild his fearsome capacity. According to David Kay's testimony, he was concentrating on developing long-range missiles, in the expectation that warheads would come later. The fact that his nuclear program was less advanced than was commonly believed does not mean he was harmless. As the examples of Iran, Libya, and North Korea demonstrate (all instances where the CIA underestimated WMD development), it is distressingly easy these days to buy nuclear-weapons technology on the black market. Given Iraq's oil wealth, if sanctions had been relaxed, Saddam Hussein would have had the financial resources to become a nuclear menace overnight— as he had almost succeeded in doing before the 1991 Gulf War. It would have been irresponsible of President Bush not to act. (Incidentally, Bush is pilloried by Democrats for not acting on much sketchier evidence before the attacks of September 11.)
None of this is meant to excuse the intelligence lapses that occurred before the war or the nation-building lapses that occurred afterwards. Both are real problems. Bush's commitment to launch an independent probe is a good sign. The United States desperately needs to improve its intelligence and peacekeeping capabilities, though it must be said that no intelligence agency or nation-building bureaucracy could possibly achieve the level of prescience demanded by America's critics. In particular, if as David Kay suggests, Iraqi generals and possibly even Saddam Hussein himself were fooled by corrupt scientists into thinking that they had WMD, how was the CIA supposed to conclude otherwise?
Still, the criticisms of Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, et al., for their prewar claims regarding weapons of mass destruction carry a good bit of sting. The American public and especially other nations may well be wary, absent ironclad proof of a sort that rarely exists, about accepting a future administration's claims that another nation poses a WMD or terrorist threat. This, however, remains mainly a theoretical danger since, for now at least, there is a considerable degree of unanimity between America and its major allies that both Iran and North Korea pose unacceptable risks of nuclear proliferation. Bush has had no problems in getting 10 allies, including Germany and France, to join the Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at forestalling such dangers— another relatively unheralded example of preventive action.
Which is not to say that Bush could get Germany and France to agree to an invasion of Iran or North Korea, even if he were so inclined, which he's not. Yet the fundamental reality is that failed states and rogue states are the biggest challenges faced by the West in the post-Cold War era. There is no reason to think that either deterrence or sanctions are sufficient to deal with these threats. That leaves preemption— a policy urged by no less an authority than Wesley Clark before his foray into politics. Obviously, if the only thing preemption can mean is an Iraq-size occupation, it is not an option that can be hauled out very often. But what if preemption is understood to include military strikes, coalition occupations, and political/diplomatic action?
Many critics and even some supporters of the Bush administration have fostered the illusion that preemption means large-scale military actions on the model of Afghanistan or Iraq, period. This is not what the Bush administration itself intends. While preemptive military action has received all the attention, it actually forms only a small part of Bush's National Security Strategy. Just look at the chapter headings of the strategy: "Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity," "Strengthen Alliances to Defeat Global Terrorism and Work to Prevent Attacks Against Us and Our Friends," "Work with others to Defuse Regional Conflicts," "Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction," "Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade," "Expand the Circle of Development by Opening Societies and Building the Infrastructure of Democracy," "Develop Agendas for Cooperative Action with the Other Main Centers of Global Power," "Transform America's National Security Institutions to Meet the Challenges and Opportunities of the Twenty-First Century."
Many of these priorities— in particular, expanding capitalism and democracy— are "preemptive" in the broadest sense: They are intended to transform other societies so they will not threaten us in the future. This is not just lofty rhetoric. As seen from Bush's continual harping on the need to spread democracy to the Middle East, the president views this as a major priority, because he understands that catching terrorists isn't enough. We need to stop new recruits from joining the terrorist cause. This is the kind of preemption that should have the widest possible support not only from the president's usual backers but also from Democrats and the French.
Specific actions to push regime change in places like Iran and North Korea are far more controversial. But, whatever happens in Iraq, the United States retains a host of options when it comes to advancing the cause of freedom in nonmilitary ways— by supporting political dissidents, stepping up radio and television broadcasts, and using economic and diplomatic pressure to undermine totalitarian regimes. In other words, the sort of strategy we pursued against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That policy was hardly limited to passive "containment," as some revisionists now claim. Ronald Reagan waged political, economic, and moral warfare on the "evil empire," and even sponsored proxy wars, but he prudently refrained from direct military attacks. His is a preemptive strategy we can and should apply around the world today.
Timely intelligence about WMD programs in other countries is not strictly essential to this policy. We should aim to hasten the demise of the regimes of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Kim Jong Il because those regimes' very existence threatens the people of those countries, neighboring states, and, indirectly, the United States, regardless of their precise current chemical, biological, or nuclear capacity. The regimes themselves are weapons of mass destruction. If this policy had been carried out a little more aggressively before 2003— if George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had provided more support to anti-Baathist Iraqis— an invasion of Iraq might never have been necessary.
Of course military action can never be ruled out, not least because the very threat of armed intervention makes our diplomacy much more potent. But military action doesn't have to mean hundreds of thousands of troops garrisoning a state for decades. The Israelis showed in 1981, when they bombed Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor, how effective a pinprick strike can be. If the Israelis hadn't acted, the world would have faced a nuclear-armed Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1991. Unfortunately, various rogue states have taken note of the Osirak example and have taken pains to shield their WMD facilities from air strikes. But during the past two decades the American military's targeting capabilities have advanced immeasurably. The Osirak option remains viable, especially if coupled with a limited insertion of ground troops to direct the airstrikes and oversee the eradication of the suspect facilities.
Special Forces, with or without airstrikes, form another powerful tool to be used against our foes. They are in fact hunting suspected terrorists around the world every day. Not even John Kerry could possibly disagree with this example of preemption.
What about full-scale occupation and nation-building? Is this off the table after Iraq? By no means. In the first place the utility of this option might seem very different in a few years' time if, knock on wood, Iraq becomes a functioning democracy. In the second place, the trend toward international occupations of failed states started long before Iraq. Since the end of the Cold War, Cambodia, Somalia, East Timor, Haiti, Kosovo, Bosnia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, the Solomon Islands, and Afghanistan have been occupied for varying lengths of time by foreign peacekeepers. Western countries, including the United States, have no choice but to try to restore some semblance of order in these failed states, lest their problems give rise to WMD development, terrorism, contagious disease, or refugee flows. The trick is to intervene in such a way that the United States doesn't wind up shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs, as it has in Iraq. The obvious answer— easy to formulate, hard to execute— is to build more of an international consensus behind such interventions. This may not have been possible in the case of Iraq, since Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac were dead set against military action, but it should be more doable in other instances.
In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter argue for revising international law— which currently respects national sovereignty above all— to create an obligation for outside intervention should a state commit crimes against humanity, develop WMD, or shelter terrorists. They argue that "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough," because it doesn't advocate a global "duty to prevent" wrongdoing.
These aren't the ravings of crackpots, warmongers, or neocons. Feinstein served in the Clinton State Department and today is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Slaughter is dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and president of the Society of International Law. They're both liberals, but they realize there is an overwhelming imperative for "early and effective collective action" when "faced with the prospect, as in Iraq, of a brutal ruler acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction."
Here's a counterintuitive possibility: The Iraq war, by showing the limits of national sovereignty, may wind up expanding preemptive interventions rather than extinguishing them. Sure, this is speculation. But while it may be premature to suggest that the ideas advocated by Feinstein and Slaughter will become reality, it's no more premature than claiming that preemption is finished. In all likelihood, it's only just begun.
Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.