Pressure on Pre-emption

Nov. 1, 2004

“Count Bush’s Doctrine of Pre-emption as a Casualty of the Iraq War,” declared a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times reported that, while the ouster of Saddam Hussein initially stoked public enthusiasm for preventive war, political support was blown apart by America’s failure to find banned weapons, a bloody postwar occupation, and massive cost.

Pre-emption is not necessarily dead, said the newspaper, but the public won’t go for another “regime change” war anytime soon.

If the overall concept of pre-emption acquires too negative an image, the US could lose a potentially valuable tool in the war on terror.

No one doubts that fanatical terrorists are seeking horror weapons to use against us. The leaders of al Qaeda openly declare their determination to inflict mass casualties and economic devastation with nukes, germs, and poisons.

Rogue states are possible sources of such weapons. The need to ward off apocalyptic attacks—especially a nuclear one—may force Washington to disarm more of these states. Faced with a mortal threat, the US must have the will to strike first and hard.

In 2002, the Air Force Association stated, “We agree fully with the policy … that we will hold open the option for pre-emptive action if that is needed in order to forestall destructive acts against us.” AFA recently noted the key role of airpower. (AFA’s Statement of Policy begins on p. 94 and is posted at

All US presidents have reserved a right to pre-empt an imminent threat to national security. George W. Bush—spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks—openly codified this view. In his 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” Bush asserted a right to disarm any nation whose weapons of mass destruction directly threaten us or could be given to terrorists.

It is worth noting that Sen. John Kerry, in the presidential campaign, also claimed “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.”

A key point, however, is that Bush’s stance went beyond traditional “anticipatory self-defense.” Pre-emption, he noted, need not be reserved for an urgent threat (such as an imminent missile attack). It could also be used against a regime to prevent a “gathering” danger from ever materializing.

Bush reasoned that, if a suspect state never acquired terror weapons, it could never supply them to terrorists. Conversely, once it had them, it would be too late to prevent their spread.

Critics argue that pre-emption requires US leaders to have near-perfect threat intelligence, a standard Washington will never be able to approach.

These opponents of preventive war cite Iraq as Exhibit A for their case. Under the circumstances that existed in 2003, they say, the US had no business taking the risk of going to war.

The fact that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction reflects poorly on the world’s major intelligence services, all of whom said they existed. However, it didn’t necessarily nullify Bush’s decision to go to war, given the data with which the US had to work.

It won’t be the last time a president confronts the need to make a high-stakes decision on the basis of sketchy knowledge.

Bush and Kerry agreed that the principal danger to the nation was nuclear proliferation. The nightmare is that terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon, smuggle it into New York or some other major city, and detonate it. That kind of nuclear attack could instantly cause 500,000 deaths.

Who might supply the weapons for such an “American Hiroshima”

At present, worried attention has begun to focus on Iran, the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism. Tehran is thought to be within a few years of producing an indigenous bomb.

Iranian nukes, if built, will rest in the hands of fanatical Islamic mullahs who are hostile to America and who are on close personal terms with some of the world’s most cold-blooded killers.

The critics are wrong if they think the US can afford to rule out preemption as one possible means for coping with this problem.

Without question, pre-emption brings risks. In purely military terms, the US must make sure it strikes the right target. It also must have high confidence that pre-emption can succeed.

The critical question is how Washington can make sound decisions about pre-emptive war with less-than-perfect knowledge.

The record is not good. Proliferation expert Henry Sokolski, writing in The Weekly Standard, cataloged some of the surprises experienced by the US over the years: Russia’s first nuclear test in 1949; India’s in 1974 and 1998; Israel’s efforts in the1960s; and the actions of Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Given the record, one should not expect unambiguous intelligence.

The US was never likely to go off on a binge of pre-emption. The problems in Iraq make that even less likely. Time-tested concepts of deterrence and containment are available, as are diplomacy and sanctions. Pre-emption should be viewed as simply one of many implements in the nation’s security tool kit.

Americans may now be more reluctant to pre-empt, and the bar to such action may be higher, but, in the current world situation, the US is in no position to be giving up any of its options.