September 10, 2002
or Preemptive War?
you believe President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that there are
new reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein is getting somewhat close
to being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon, or do you believe
the International Atomic Energy Agency, which says it has no such
evidence? In terms of justifying an attack on Iraq, it might not
make any difference at all although the likelihood is that
Bush and Blair are exaggerating the threat. As the administration
and its allies scramble to gather evidence convincing enough to
justify a military attack, it might be useful to step back and consider
just what kind of evidence would be sufficient. Unless something
much more compelling emerges, it appears U.S. leaders are constructing
a novel and troubling rationale for military invasion.
has been talk of a preemptive strike or a preemptive war. But even
if everything that has been leaked and much, much more turns out
to be true in spades, what the Bush administration is talking about
is not a preemptive war but a preventive war. That is something
the United States has never done before. We should think long and
hard before we allow our leaders to do it this time.
a well-accepted definition for preemptive war in international law,"
Joseph Cirincione, Director of the Non-Proliferation Project of
the Carnegie Endowment, told me on the telephone last week. "Preemptive
war is justified by an imminent threat of attack, a clear and present
danger that the country in question is about to attack you. In such
a case a preemptive attack is recognized as justifiable."
the 1967 Six Day War, Israel attacked first, but Egyptian and Syrian
troops were massing on the border and airplanes were being mobilized.
For most observers that was the very definition of a preemptive
attack, although scholars and international relations experts are
still able to debate whether the attack was justified under international
law. But there is little question that there was an imminent threat.
MAYBE. IMMINENT? NO
the administration is discussing in terms of Iraq is not an imminent
threat of attack on the United States which might justify
a preemptive strike or even on any of Iraqís neighbors. What the
administration wants to do is to attack Iraq to prevent or neutralize
a potential future threat. Thatís very different from an imminent
United States has never undertaken a "preventive" war
in all of its history. (Some would say that invasion of Panama that
led to the capture of Manuel Noriega was preventive rather than
preemptive, and maybe it was. But that was a relatively low-level
incursion with a few troops, that lasted longer than the interventionists
expected but still was over fairly quickly. Even the most modest
plans against Iraq are more ambitious and costly by orders of magnitude.
the criteria for such a war were simply that a country be dictatorial
and despotic and have weapons of mass destruction, the world does
not lack for candidates, including Pakistan (whose leader installed
by a coup, who recently unilaterally changed the constitution to
give him something approaching dictator-for-life, recently pledged
new fealty to the administration's war without end) China, North
Korea and maybe Russia.
be clear. To justify an attack on Iraq or any other country on the
grounds that it is assembling weapons of mass destruction, the leaders
of a country cannot be operating in a context of equally sovereign
nations, the reigning myth of current international relations. The
country in question would simply have to view itself as a world-straddling
imperial power, whose mission is to keep lesser countries whether
related to it by colonial ties or not in line.
donít think most Americans view this country as an imperial power
mandated to intervene in any dispute and drive any leader out of
power who displeases us although many Americans in moments of
anger or pique come close to saying something like that. But talk
reasonably with most Americans about whether that is a universal
principle, that Americaís job is to fix the world wherever the world
is less than perfect in the eyes of our leaders, and theyíll back
off. They might still want to be helpful in certain instances, but
they would want to pick and choose their spots. Itís also generally
been the case that U.S. leaders have sought to justify military
actions so as to make the United States either the aggrieved or
attacked party or the defender of an innocent victim of aggression.
Before the last Gulf War Saddam Hussein did invade and occupy Kuwait.
One can argue as to whether he got a wink-and-nod from U.S. diplomats
or even whether the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border was an artificial product
of early 20th-century British imperialism, but Saddam
did indeed invade. This time he has been careful whether because
of deterrence or his own circumspection, not to create a clear-cut
provocation. U.S. leaders felt the need to blow up the Gulf of Tonkin
incident probably dishonestly as later investigation indicates
into an unprovoked attack on the United States, making our escalation
of the Vietnam war a response rather than aggression. Historians
disagree as to whether the U.S. purposely set up the Pearl Harbor
attack, but however you come down on that, it was an attack. It
was unlikely back then (however much they itched to get involved)
that the FDR administration would have been able to pull the American
people into a full-scale war without a provocation of similar magnitude.
days, however, no provocation is deemed necessary. Administration
leaders may babble about how Saddam has violated the UN mandates
and sanctions, but if thatís the case the UN rather than the US
is the aggrieved party. There is not even a hint of a credible threat
of an attack by Saddam on the United States, and not much of a hint
of an attack on its multifarious interests overseas. There is just
the possibility that at some time in the indeterminate future he
might have enough weapons to give some to terrorists (unlikely as
my column last week pointed out) or might attack his neighbors.
the 21st century that has become enough for the sole
remaining superpower to make war. And most members of the administration
donít even make more than a cursory bow toward the U.S. Constitution,
insisting that going to Congress will be merely for approval or
consultation, not a recognition that Congress has the sole power
to declare war and that the founders put this in the document purposely.
Iraq because it poses a potential future threat someday might not
strictly be, as Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Ted Carpenter
suggested to me, "a pretext for outright aggression."
But it would be a dangerous precedent. Do we want the United States
to be the country that strikes first whenever it sees a potential
problem? That would keep our military very busy and provide plenty
of grist for those who see this country as an imperialist aggressor.
Cirincione, who recently co-authored the new book, Deadly
Weapons of Mass Destruction,
believes it is virtually certain that Iraq still has chemical and
biological weapons and is probably trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
But that doesnít make the threat imminent. The news trumpeted by
the compliant media last Friday suggesting that United Nations inspectors
say that satellite photos show some new buildings and some reconstruction
at former Iraqi nuclear sites, Mr. Cirincione said, "cuts two
ways. On one hand, it shows there is new activity - which we had
expected anyway. But it also demonstrates that we can see this activity,
and weíre likely to be able to see most of what Saddam is likely
to do of any significance before the threat is imminent."
Carnegie Endowment thinks "coercive inspections" backed
by a multinational military force would be a good step short of
war. It has prepared a series of papers and a summary of the idea,
believing it would be an acceptable and workable compromise between
doing nothing about Saddam until an attack really is imminent and
Carpenter is skeptical, suggesting that Iraq would never submit
to allowing such military forces, and its refusal would then be
the kind of pretext Bush might be able to sell to the "international
community" to back an outright military attack. Iím inclined
to agree with Ted, although Iím willing to believe that what the
Carnegie people think they are doing is suggesting alternatives
to defuse the situation and avoid a military invasion except as
a last-last-ditch alternative.
is certain is that a preventive war is different from a preemptive
war. An outright, open preventive war of this magnitude would be
unprecedented in our history, an acknowledgment that our leaders
view the country as a universal empire rather than a free republic.
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