By Peter Slevin
Washington Post, Sunday, September 22, 2002
The Bush administration's declared willingness to attack potential enemies before they strike represents a new chapter in strategic doctrine that heightens the danger of unintended consequences and raises the pressure on the U.S. national security system to get things right the first time, military and diplomatic analysts say.
Made official on Friday, the dramatic change in the decades-old strategy of deterrence and containment puts an option into play that could be effective against rogue states, according to experts. But they warned that the shift to preemption also risks establishing a precedent for countries whose motives or timing the U.S. government may not support.
Just as Russia, India and Israel cited last year's U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan to justify aggressive measures against opponents they labeled terrorists, a preemptive attack by the United States on another country could prompt other governments to bypass the United Nations and launch a unilateral strike against a foe.
"What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," said Oxford University professor Adam Roberts. "I have to say it puzzles America's allies that that danger doesn't seem to be fully grasped."
Preemptive military action would require the administration to draw early conclusions about a rival nation's capabilities and intent, placing a premium on accurate intelligence and judgment. It would necessitate a clear public case to avoid sharpening the perception that the United States plays by its own rules in foreign affairs.
And the military would have to strike with precision, as the danger of retaliation would be great, defense analyst Harlan Ullman said.
"You don't get a second chance," said Ullman, author of "Unfinished Business -- Afghanistan, the Middle East and Beyond," an assessment of international threats. "Preemption assumes a quick, decisive, relatively inexpensive victory. If that does not happen, you may not have the necessary logic and rationale for a long-term campaign."
President Bush laid out his argument for beating an enemy to the punch in his National Security Strategy, released Friday. He declared the shift, part of a policy designed to maintain a "balance of power that favors human freedom," at the same time the administration has announced its intention to disarm Iraq -- unilaterally and by force, if necessary.
For the president's national security team, the strategy document makes explicit a tactic that every administration has contemplated in contingency planning but few have applied. Senior officials contend that aggressive "anticipatory action" is a weapon more suited to threats posed by terrorists and terror-sponsoring states than the more passive Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment.
No longer is the military power of the United States sufficient to dissuade opponents from attacking American interests, the thinking goes. And no longer, by implication, is the Bush team confident that U.S. interests can be defended properly by collective action, whether sponsored by the 19-nation NATO alliance or the cumbersome machinery of the United Nations Security Council.
"The purpose of our actions will always be to eliminate a specific threat to the United States or our allies and friends," the National Security Strategy asserts. "The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just."
Yet, to some observers, the very act of one country preemptively attacking another carries troubling echoes of vigilante justice when much of the world is working toward common understandings about the use of force.
"It's a violation of the U.N. Charter. It's a violation of the NATO charter," said Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy at the National War College. If preemption as a policy takes hold, Gardiner asked, "where does it stop?"
On Sept. 11, just as Bush was preparing to tell world leaders that the United States would act alone against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein if no one else would, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a determination of his own. He said Russia would be justified in launching attacks on Chechen rebels who seek refuge in neighboring Georgia. The Bush administration objected.
Ullman worries that countries fearing a preemptive strike would develop stronger deterrent weapons. He gave Iran as an example, saying that a Tehran government might hurry its nuclear weapons program after seeing the United States lead an assault on Iraq, along with Iran a part of Bush's "axis of evil." Others have asked whether Pakistan, feeling pushed into desperation by India and its significant superiority in conventional forces, would feel freer to use nuclear weapons as a first strike.
When deterrence ruled the strategic calculations during the Cold War, understandings among rival governments were generally clear. Superpowers knew that certain behavior could trigger a response.
During the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy, armed with reconnaissance photographs of missile sites in Cuba, ordered a blockade of the island and told Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev to remove them or face destruction of the sites. The Soviets backed down.
These days, the threats posed by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are more diffuse and the rules less clear. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier this year that the United States could not always afford to wait for "absolute proof" before challenging terrorist groups or countries that are thought to possess weapons of mass destruction.
If preemption became widely acceptable, according to some military experts, one country fearing an assault might attack its rival first, preempting the preemptor and escalating a conflict that might have been resolved without force. Or a nation under a sudden attack might choose to deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons it otherwise might not use.
Brussels-based analyst Robert Kagan believes the dangers of the new doctrine can be overstated.
"I don't think we're moving into the age of preemption," Kagan said. "I don't think other nations are being restrained from taking action by the fact that no one has set the precedent of preemption. That's not why China is not attacking Taiwan. That's not why India is not attacking Pakistan."
"They're making calculations based on their own national interest and the relationships of international power," he said.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general, briefly pushed aside the finer points of doctrine and the potential for trouble last week when he explained preemption's logic. "When we see something coming at us," he said, "we should take action to stop it."
Ullman emphasized the radical change embodied in the elevation of preemption to a formal place in U.S. strategic doctrine after years when national security was defined by thickets of nuclear-tipped rockets and their cousins based on land and sea, none of which were ever likely to be launched.
"You're now resting American security on different sets of assumptions," Ullman said. "Given the reality of September 11, this is no longer an academic debate."return to Wardrums2002