In the last few weeks, the Bush administration has underscored its commitment to pre-emption—striking an enemy before it can strike us. The administration argues that in an age of senseless and catastrophic terrorism, we do not have the luxury of waiting to attack until we are hit first, and that the traditional tool of deterrence will not work against enemies prepared to lose their lives to
kill Americans. These sentiments are understandable, and international law allows for pre-emptive actions if evidence about an enemy’s plans is compelling.
However, publicly emphasizing the value of pre-emption, as well as its close cousin of preventive war, is not such a sound idea. It tends to worry allied countries, already nervous about a United States they see as prone to
unilateralism and military action. More importantly, it tells our enemies to hide their illicit materials and take precautions since they may get hit at any time.
In this sense, talking too much about pre-emption may make it less useful, by making enemies less vulnerable. Finally, it may lead Americans to think we have a newer and more powerful policy tool than we really do. In fact, pre-emption
has been around a while. And it is difficult to carry out successfully.
First, to be fair to the members of the Bush team, they do not deserve the image of a reckless, shoot-’em-up-cowboy administration that wants to launch first strikes around the world. In his original West Point speech playing up the idea this spring, President Bush identified it as only one of a number of policy tools available to the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell also has pointed out that pre-emption need not involve military action; it can
also, for example, involve law enforcement activity.
Nonetheless, by highlighting the importance of pre-emption in American foreign policy, this administration clearly wants to dramatize its role and its
visibility. The motivation is partly to prepare the world for what might be coming, especially in Iraq, where the Bush administration may decide to launch a war in the next year to unseat Saddam Hussein. The Bush team is perhaps also hoping to put the fear of God into countries that might consider harboring or
But it is doubtful that countries really need that reminder. Few could think they would get a second chance if caught cooperating with al-Qaeda or a similar terrorist organization. Certainly, the Taliban did not. Moreover, President Bush’s clear message to the world ever since Sept. 11—that either you are
with us in the war on terror or you are against us—leaves little room for misinterpretation.
Moreover, to put the idea in historical perspective, the United States has considered pre-emption as a policy option for decades.
In the 1950s, for example, the Strategic Air Command had plans to launch an all-out nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union if we learned that Moscow was preparing to hit us. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro was a form of pre-emptive action. In 1962, the military advocated that President Kennedy conduct a pre-emptive strike against Soviet missiles in Cuba. The Reagan administration’s invasion of Grenada and the first Bush administration’s invasion of Panama in the 1980s were justified at least partly on pre-emptive grounds, even if they were also responses to past provocations.
During the Clinton administration, Secretary of Defense William Perry issued a stern and public warning that we would not allow North Korea to develop a nuclear arsenal. Less impressively, but also in part pre-emptively, the Clinton administration also undertook the 1998 cruise-missile strike on al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, attempting nsuccessfully to kill Osama bin Laden in the process.
One might also categorize NATO’s air attacks against Serb forces in Kosovo in 1999 as pre-emption, since according to President Clinton one of the goals of
the operation was to reduce the Serbs’ ability to hurt the ethnic Albanian people there.
What does this track record tell us?
That pre-emption has been around for years. That it has been used by Democrats and Republicans, both in the form of threats and action. That it can work. But that opportunities for striking first are relatively rare, and that
pre-emptive action can fail or have other negative consequences.
For example, Curtis LeMay’s nuclear war plan of the 1950s had a narrow military logic to it, but only for a brief period when a pre-emptive attack had a chance of destroying the fledgling Soviet nuclear arsenal. Its greater
effect, once the Soviets realized our intentions and took steps to reduce their vulnerability by increasing and modernizing their nuclear forces, was to contribute to a nuclear arms race only brought under control toward the end of the Cold War.
The Bay of Pigs effort failed miserably. Had pre-emption been attempted in the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, we might have experienced a nuclear war—though it also must be acknowledged that threatening a form of pre-emption and imposing
a naval quarantine ultimately helped contribute to a successful resolution of the crisis.
Pre-emption worked reasonably well in Grenada and Panama, and the threat of U.S. attack helped contribute to a successful resolution of the North Korean
nuclear crisis in 1994. But it failed to defeat Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda in 1998 and failed to prevent the Serbs from committing massive atrocities in Kosovo in 1999.
There are good reasons why pre-emption has its limits. First, it usually requires quick and surgical strikes that accomplish a demanding military goal. Even in today’s era of precision air power, it is difficult to carry out such attacks. For example, NATO could not target Serb forces and irregulars armed with small weapons using the air power it had available in March, 1999.
A few months earlier, when they bombed Iraq for four days in Operation Desert Fox, the United States and United Kingdom did not have good intelligence on the
location of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities, and accomplished little with the raids as a result. In 1998, Osama bin Laden had moved on to safety before the cruise missiles launched at him could reach their targets.
Hezbollah assets in Iran, or North Korean artillery dug into the mountains near the DMZ on the Korean peninsula, or Chinese missile launchers arrayed near
Taiwan would all be very hard to target and strike with pre-emptive action.
Yes, there are cases in which pre-emption works. Threatening a large, visible, nuclear reactor like Secretary Perry did in 1994 can be effective, because such a reactor cannot be relocated, cannot be hidden, and cannot be
quickly or easily replaced. Carrying out an invasion quickly and decisively, as we did in Grenada and Panama, can obviously solve a problem definitively in some cases. Threatening invasion explicitly or implicitly, as in Cuba and as the Clinton administration did towards Haiti in 1994, can be effective if the threat is credible, and if the enemy has no good options for pre-empting the pre-emptor.
That brings us to the case of Iraq. What are the possible uses of pre-emption against Saddam Hussein? History suggests that pre-emption can work in this
case, but only if it is decisive, and only if we carry it out soon enough that Saddam does not have time to pre-empt us first. History also suggests that there are many possible pitfalls, however.
First, pre-emption could eliminate Saddam’s nuclear weapons program before it can produce a bomb. That could make us safer. However, if Saddam responds to
our war talk by giving biological agents to his special forces or to terrorists, and instructs them to attack us if we launch a war against Iraq, pre-emption may fail.
Second, the threat of pre-emption, if credible, can cause a change in Iraqi behavior that might solve our main problem without war. If Saddam can be coerced to allow weapons inspectors back into his country, and can be intimidated sufficiently to let them do their jobs this time, pre-emptive threats of invasion may stop him from getting a nuclear weapon even if they do not result in regime change in Baghdad. But this will be a tough act to pull off.
Last, if attempted irresolutely, pre-emption can fail to destroy the targets that motivate it. Any measures short of serious war, for example, would probably fail to destroy the weapons programs in Iraq we most fear, as happened
with Operation Desert Fox in 1998. Or an attempt to arm the weak Iraqi
opposition and support it with only U.S. airpower could give Saddam a political boost while getting many of his domestic opposition killed, as happened in the Bay of Pigs.
Pre-emption is like revenge—a dish best served cold, and best prepared quietly, and best used rarely. If we are going to go after Saddam, endless banter about the idea, and half-measures designed to make it look like we are doing something rather than designed to succeed, may come back to haunt us. It is fine to give general speeches about the importance of pre-emption. But
President Bush needs to make a tough decision about a very tough and specific case. So far, despite the rhetoric, he has not.