“...the place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same.”
-President George W. Bush, March 16, 2006 (Global Security, 2007).
In this section I will discuss both proponents for the policy of preemption as well as those who stand against it. In a previous section, we discussed the nature of the Bush administration’s policy of preemption, and concluded that is was actually a recipe for preventive war. Keeping this in mind, we will explore some alternatives, as well as their potential effectiveness against international terrorism.
On one side of the argument, we find Glen Segell (2004:492), who goes to bat for the Bush administration, asserting that the history of rogue states (states pursuing WMD) has not been one of cooperation or compliance. This history, Segell argues, more-or-less leaves disarmament and/or regime change as the only arms control strategies available with which to address the problem of rogue states. Furthermore, Segell points out that short of the emergence of some sort of “global convention” on “self-regulatory arms control and disarmament,” the world will just have to learn to accept that the military hegemon, America, will use preventive war as an “integral and regular approach to disarmament of rogue states.”
Likewise James Steinberg (2006:55-6) contends that while the Bush administration’s “decision to articulate a formal doctrine of preventive force is a departure, the use of preventive force-and the debates over its legality and wisdom-predates the Bush administration’s post-11 September strategy.” Steinberg calls attention to the fact that the “debate over the appropriate use of force has its roots in the provisions of the UN Charter, which was adopted in the context of the perceived threats facing the international community after the Second World War.” Furthermore, he insists that preventive force was strongly considered on several occasions during the Cold War (Cuba: 1962, China: 1963-4), and was actually used by the Clinton administration in 1998 and obviously by the George W. Bush administration. Steinberg advocates the preventive use of force as a counterterrorism strategy for two reasons: first, many terrorists are not deterrable (particularly suicide terrorists), and second, Steinberg argues that imminence is hard to gauge with terrorism.
Retired Brigadier General Russell D. Howard (2006:459) also argues in favor of a preventive war strategy, in that he agrees with President Bush that the “past practices and explicit statements” of terrorists “provide an adequate substitute for the doctrine’s requirement for imminent threat.” Howard’s primary argument appears to be that terrorists have no single government that they are accountable to, nor do they have any one set of national boundaries, hence the Cold War strategies of deterrence and containment won’t work. Howard quotes President Bush from his 2002 speech to the graduating class at West Point:
Deterrence- the promise of massive retaliation against nations-means nothing against shadowy terrorists networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.
The Bush Administration vows to strike first against terrorists rather than retaliate after an attack. General Howard (2006:457) supports this strategy with four principal arguments 1) “Defense against terrorist use of a WMD is extremely difficult,” 2) “Deterrence against non-governmental actors is also extremely difficult.” 3) “U.S. military presence overseas is declining, as is the number of military personnel in the United States who can be deployed.” 4) “Therefore, compelling adversaries to stop what they are doing or planning to do, by using military force against them, has more utility in the post-Cold War world.”
Dombrowski & Payne (2006:127) claim that the international community has of lately come to accept Bush’s policy of preemption, if... (and this is a big if)- there is no other viable alternative, a multilateral coalition agrees to the preemptive action, and it has the authority of the UN Security Council. They support their claim by noting that some 48 countries took part in the preventive action taken in 2003. They also refer to Australian Prime minister John Howard’s and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s support of Bush’s policy of preemption, list countries such as Israel, Russia, India, Pakistan, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as supporters of the doctrine of preemption, and quote Tony Blair from his March 2004 statement advocating for preventive war over containment in dealing with terrorism. Dombrowski & Payne also quote from the Panel on High-Level Threats, Challenges and Change, a 16-member UN panel created in 2002. Dombrowski and Payne point out that the panel’s report clearly justifies the use of preventive force:
In the world of the twenty-first century, the international community does have to be concerned about nightmare scenarios combining terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, and irresponsible states and much more besides, which may conceivably justify the use of force, not just reactively but preventively and before a latent threat becomes imminent.
Dombrowski and Payne assert that the language of the European Security Strategy also reflects support for preventive action. According to Dombrowski and Payne, most members of the international community see the logic behind preemption when it is justifiable and necessary, especially in the face of international terrorism. What most members of the international community do not accept, are the other two pillars of the Bush Doctrine- unilateralism and military hegemony.
But Dombrowski and Payne’s argument is a little misleading. While they do eventually clarify that there is “a uniquely European style of preemption: preemption of the formation or acceptance of terrorist ideologies and cells in the world’s poorest regions through early crisis intervention and peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and nation building activities,” they do so more or less after they’ve made their argument that most of the international community supports preventive action. The misleading part is their interchangeable use of preventive and preemptive action. It’s only after they’ve done their best to convince you that the vast majority of the international community sees the logic in a preventive policy that is basically synonymous with Bush’s preemptive policy, that they then reveal that the preventive policy that they are referring to is actually not synonymous with preemption at all, but rather a non-military, preventative alternative to preemptive strikes. Dombrowski and Payne (2006:130) offer three likely outcome scenarios to the current debate over the use of pre-emptive war: 1) Preventive war remains “illegal, illegitimate and rare.” In other words, the status quo remains. 2) The US and other of its more privileged allies “continue to assert an ad hoc right to ‘preempt’ certain kinds of threats.” In other words, the current international norms against preemptive war continue to be ignored and broken by the US and others that the US allows. 3) International law is revised and preemptive war against non-imminent threats becomes internationally accepted.
Far from a broad acceptance of Bush’s policy of preemption (as Dombrowski and Payne articulate), other scholars argue exactly the opposite: “The Europeans are clearly unhappy with the U.S. characterization of the campaign against terrorism as a ‘war’ and with the U.S. doctrines of pre-emption” (Wright, 2006:281):
The central argument is fairly simple. The language of the “war on terrorism” is not a neutral or objective reflection of policy debates and the realities of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Rather, it is a very carefully and deliberately constructed-but ultimately, artificial-discourse that was specifically designed to make the war seem reasonable, responsible, and “good,” as well as to silence any forms of knowledge or counter-argument. More importantly, the discourse of the “war on terrorism,” as it is presently constructed, poses severe challenges to the healthy functioning of democratic society (Jackson, 2005:148-50).
Eastman & Brown (2006) argue that preemption, particularly as a counter-proliferation strategy, is very problematic and promises little success. The US would have to attack before a WMD handoff is made. This is only a viable option if the US can detect the source of the weapons and location of the potential handoff. But this requires intelligence on the WMD capability, locations, numbers, types, impending transfers, where weapons are stored, how they are transferred, who they are going to etc... Preemptive strikes also risk war with the WMD-capable state involved in the hand-off. Eastman & Brown suggest that a strategy of prevention is a more promising endeavor. They advocate the substantially easier task of taking away weapons programs development capability from potentially hostile states before they can proliferate. Eastman & Brown’s basic premise is that it is easier to monitor WMD development than it is to track WMD transfers.
John Linder, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack, agrees that it is far easier to secure WMD and weapons grade material in their respective places of storage rather than attempt to preempt an attack. But he argues that so much more is needed. First of all, terrorists have access to technology, and technology is everywhere. Simply securing WMD and materials, in no way prevents the proliferation of nuclear technology. Given that the US shares 2,000 miles of border with Mexico, and another 5,000 miles of border with Canada, even with the $1 billion that the Federal Government is spending to deploy radiation portal monitors at every point of entry into the United States, Linder questions what is to prevent a terrorist from simply crossing an unprotected part of one of our borders? This question becomes far more relevant when one considers that the US has only 157 designated legal points of entry for its combined 20,000 miles of border. With more than 440 million people visiting the US each year legally, and untold numbers entering illegally, the probability of terrorists entering undetected are beyond reasonable calculation. Even more disparaging, these radiation portal monitors cannot detect the difference between a nuclear weapon and kitty litter. So in essence, terrorists may quite likely be able to enter legally through a designated point of entry, nuclear weapon in hand, completely undetected. Linder advocates the three-tiered strategy currently in place. This strategy prioritizes securing WMD and materials at their source, monitoring them closely to detect any illicit movement, and continuing to enhance our domestic efforts (Committee on Homeland Security).
Christopher Layne (2006: 42) discusses the differences between the strategies of deterrence and compellence. Deterrence entails “the use of power to persuade another state to refrain from taking an action that the United States does not want it to take.” While compellence, on the other hand, is “the coercive use of American power to compel another state (or substate actors) to act, against its own preferences, in ways that Washington wants it to act.” Layne points out that the U.S. has been very successful in deterring other states from attacking it, but not so successful in compelling other states to do as it would like them to. This, according to Layne, is why the US has been able to prevent “North Korea and Iran from attacking their neighbors but is seemingly ineffective in persuading them to give up their nuclear weapons programs.” Layne sees it as no surprise that the U.S. is “foundering today in the Iraqi morass and failing in Afghanistan.” Despite its clear economic and military advantage, the U.S. is disadvantaged in both arenas. Layne argues that anytime a superior outside force is up against an insurgency, the gross asymmetry actually works against the outside force, as the insurgency does not have to “win militarily,” but merely “survive and prolong the conflict in order to wear down the external power’s political will.”
Gideon Rose (Gramercy Round, 2007:75) claims that “preventative war has a deservedly bad reputation. Containment, in contrast, deserves more respect than it gets, since it has been quite good over the years at managing risks at acceptable costs.” His argument can be put to the test in the example of India and Pakistan. In the words of Indian Foreign Minister, Yashwant Sinha (April 2003): “If lack of democracy, possession of weapons of mass destruction and export of terrorism were reasons for a country to make a preemptive strike in another country, then Pakistan deserves to be tackled more than any other country.” Similarly, Pakistani Information Minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, claimed: “It is India which is a fit case for preemptive strikes-there is ample proof that India possesses biological, chemical and other weapons of mass destruction” (Dombrowski & Payne, 2006:120).
Paul Schroeder (2002) argues that the Bush Doctrine’s policy of preemptive war justifies a Pakistani attack on India, an Indian attack on Pakistan, China attacking Taiwan, South Korea attacking North Korea, or Israel attacking its neighbors. The policy of preemption justifies nearly every attack, by just about anyone, against anybody else, for nearly any reason. Indeed, the positions taken by both India and Pakistan create a credible argument against a policy of preemption. What if every country justified preemptive action against their enemy? Which, of course, most would find some rationale for doing...the world would be in utter chaos (more so than it is now)? The positions taken by both India and Pakistan create a credible argument for a policy of containment, which has, at least to some extent, been successful so far. Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, published an editorial in the Chinese newspaper China Daily, in which he stated that the United States was trying to “rule the world”  and demanded that the policy of preemption be done away with (Dombrowski & Payne, 2006:121).
Rose suggests that the main reason the Bush administration is so eager to engage in preemptive strikes is not the severity of the threats that America now faces, but rather the fact that America is now a “global hegemon.” Rose concludes that the “whole discussion is a sobering reminder that America’s foreign policy faces two separate challenges: managing the world and managing itself” (Gramercy Round, 2007:75-6). Rose is not alone in his views. A Pew Center survey reveals that since the Iraq war, “many Muslims, even in countries with reasonably good relations with the United States, such as Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan, fear that the United States may attack them” (Downing, 2006: 442). Likewise, “a majority of Korea’s younger people and the so-called progressives, who are the ruling group’s primary support base, strongly believe that George W. Bush is more dangerous than Chairman Kim Jong-il (Chung, 2004:385).
Liu (2006:13) is very critical of the fact that, as a nuclear-weapons state, the US has agreed to IAEA inspections but also exercises the right to exclude inspection of any activities or sites that it declares is of “direct national security significance.” The same exclusion by other nations, such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea, has since been used by the US as a pretext for preemptive attack, invasion or threats of such:
Iraq was also an exercise in the kind of preventative war that makes sense on paper, given the new threat environment. But our intelligence was deeply flawed, not just about Saddam’s weapons programs, but also the state of the country we would find on our arrival; the ongoing cost in blood and treasure; and the prospects for producing a stable ally that improves our position in the region. All of this is prompting doubts, too, about the real-world wisdom of the preventative-war model (Lowry, 2006:25).
“Both deterrence and defense are weaker strategies against terrorists than they were against communists” (Betts, 2006:394). Robert Johansen (2004:32) is concerned about the Bush administration’s claim to the right to use preemption, “not only to oppose terrorism but also to maintain U.S. global dominance.” Like so many others, Johansen cautions that the combination of the Bush administration’s “disdain for arms control, multilateral diplomacy, and international laws” could effectively make null and void “the past century of diplomacy.” For Johansen (and many, many others), “it is inappropriate in law, morality, and military practice to launch a military attack on another country except in self-defense or with explicit Security Council authorization.” Johansen also warns that aggressive US policies could very well “license aggression by other states and terrorists.” Perhaps Melvyn Leffler (2005: 443) captures the essence of the opposition’s opinion best when he writes:
The president says his policy rests on three pillars: fighting terrorism; building great power cohesion; and promoting democracy. But the tactics of preventative action, unilateral force, and military preponderance undermine cohesion with allies, provoke anti-Americanism, breed more terrorists, and make the promotion of democracy more difficult.
Once again, there is a real division in the opinions of academics, policymakers and security professionals regarding the utility of preventive war and its alternatives. On one end, there are those, such as General Howard, who claim that preventive war is the only choice for countering terrorism. On the other, there are those who condemn the very idea of it. Regardless of your position, when combined with the right to “act alone” and a military that is “beyond challenge,” America’s preemptive strategy is daunting by anyone’s perspective. Effective as a counter-terrorism strategy or not, it is no wonder that we have made the world very nervous indeed.