Thursday, March 16, 2006

The National Security Strategy, Pre-emption, and Preventive War

President Bush released the new National Security Strategy of the United States today, and while there doesn't seem to be anything really new or innovate in it, it's still worth discussing. Two things are most noteworthy: That the document seems to identify Iran as the greatest threat facing the US, and that the commitment to pre-emptive strikes (the "Bush Doctrine") is re-affirmed. There is also a strong commitment to democratic norms and ideals...the report singles out North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe as seven despotic states (p. 3), although there isn't much mention of what to do about them.

I've already blogged a lot about Iran here, so I won't really discuss that anymore. Suffice it to say that I agree that Iran is the #1 threat to the US....

The discussion of pre-emptive war is very interesting however. On p. 23, the Strategy states that "under long-standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of an enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of pre-emption."

Actually, what is being described here is the logic of preventive war, not pre-emption. As normally understood, the difference between the two is one of time horizons: A pre-emptive strike is launched in response to a clear and imminent threat from an enemy; a preventive war is launched to prevent an enemy from becoming stronger in the future, thereby fighting the war on terms favorable to preventor, not the preventee. Israel's attack on Egypt and Syria in 1967 is the classic example of pre-emption; the enemies forces were mobilizing, and by all accounts, an attack was pending in the immediate future. Attacking, for example, China today rather than risking a war in the future when China would be stronger would be an example of preventive war. Israel's strike against Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor also qualifies as a preventive strike, as the threat being nullified was years, not days, away.

What Bush is doing here is conflating the two as was done in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The argument is that when the threat is terrorists armed with WMDs, there will not be the types of warnings and signals that typically foreshadow conventional wars. Terrorists do not call up reserves, they do not mass troops at the borders or scramble air assets, their movements cannot be tracked with satellites. These facts, combined with the potential damage of a WMD, make traditional pre-emption obsolete. As Bush said in a speech of October 8, 2oo2, "
Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof -- the smoking gun -- that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." Thus, the time horizon for pre-emption must be moved back; it is no longer a clear and imminent threat, but rather the possibility of a threat, that may trigger a first strike by the US.

This conflation is troubling for several reasons. First, while pre-emption is considered both legal and legitimate, preventive war is neither. Now, regular readers will know that I do not concern myself to greatly with the dicates of international law, but legitimacy is a different story, and (un)fortunately the two often coincide. The US is the global hegemon, true, but it tries to be benevolent one. It does not force other states to join its institutions or follow its rules, but tries to convince others that it is in their benefit to do so. That task is made easier if US leadership is viewed as legitimate. Launching wars seen by most observers as preventive, as was Iraq, compromises US legitimacy and undermines American leadership and hegemony. Now, the US need and must not always defer to international consensus; quite the contrary. But unilateral action must be reserved for only the most dire of situations, when the security of the nation is truly threatened in a nearly existential sense.

Second, as the Iraq War more than demonstrated, intelligence is a tricky beast. The difficulty in knowing intentions as well as knowing capabilities is one of the main reasons that preventive war is not accepted in the international community. Combined with the previous point makes for all the more reason to be exceedingly careful and cautious before launching preventive wars.

Third, the kinds of threats President Bush is envisioning are not easily taken out with limited strikes; rather the problem tends to come from corrupt, dicatorial, and despotic regimes. It would be one thing if Bush was talking about strikes like that by Israel against Osiraq; a limited strike designed to eliminate a specific threat, like Iran or North Korea's nuclear program. But when the threat is despotic regimes in cahoots with terrorists, preventive war takes on a different cast, as it did in Iraq. It's one thing to use Special Forces or air platforms to take out a nuclear reactor, uranium enrichment plant, or even a military asset. It's another thing entirely to take over an entire country. But this is where the logic of the National Security Strategy leads.

Now, I am not in principle opposed to any of the logical or strategic arguments being made in the Strategy. I am just wary of where they lead. The US must be proactive and try to deter states from proliferating WMD and sponsoring/cooperating with terrorists. Invading Afghanistan and Iraq were powerful signals of deterrence. But the US must also be careful about how it uses it power. Iraq must be used, to some degree, as a cautionary tale; preventive war can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth.

No comments: