Max Boot: Iraq Doesn't Discredit Wars of Preemption

Roundup: Historians' Take

Max Boot, in the Weekly Standard (Feb. 16, 2004):

Now that the occupation of Iraq is approaching the one-year mark, with still no chemical, biological, or nuclear stockpiles found, but plenty of Americans and Iraqis getting killed, learned commentators are proclaiming that the preemption doctrine has disappeared as thoroughly as Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. As early as last summer, Morton Abramowitz, a respected former ambassador and assistant secretary of state, wrote in the Washington Post,"Preemption policy toward 'rogue states' has been eroded." Now, in the Australian, Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, writes,"The Iraq mission is . . . likely to be the first and last example of preemption in action."...

In the first place, preemptive war--or even preventive (some say preventative) war where no threat is imminent--was hardly invented by the Bush administration. It has long been an accepted option not only for the United States, but for other nations as well. In his new book,"The Breaking of Nations," Robert Cooper, a career British diplomat who is now a senior European Union official, writes that"the War of the Spanish Succession, fought to ensure that the crowns of France and Spain were not united . . . was a preventative war. No one attacked Britain; but if Britain had allowed the two countries to unite it would by then have been unable to deal with an attack from the resulting superpower."

You don't have to reach back to the 18th century for instances of preventive military action. In 1962 the Kennedy administration seriously considered a military strike to take out the Soviet missiles in Cuba, even though it was highly unlikely they would ever be fired against the United States. Kennedy wisely refrained from launching World War III, but he did undertake a naval blockade (he called it a"quarantine"), which is regarded under international law as an act of war.

Recent U.S. history is replete with smaller-scale instances of preventive action, from the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 to the invasion of Grenada in 1983. In neither case had there been a direct attack on the United States; the threats being addressed (the rise of communism in the Dominican Republic, the cultivation of Grenada as a Soviet and Cuban base) were largely speculative, and many critics charged that they were being blown out of proportion. But Presidents Johnson and Reagan, respectively, thought the dangers grave enough to risk American lives.

More recently, in 1993-94, the Clinton administration seriously considered launching a war to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Clinton didn't act that time, but in 1998 he did launch strikes against al Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan, a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and various Iraqi military installations. The attack on Afghanistan might be seen as a punitive strike since it came after al Qaeda had bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. But the Sudan strike was mainly preemptive. As recounted by former National Security Council staffers Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon in their book"The Age of Sacred Terror," the pharmaceutical plant was targeted because it was suspected of making chemical weapons for al Qaeda. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said he wanted to take it out before nerve gas showed up on the New York City subway.

The Clinton administration launched another preventive war the following year by attacking Serbia in cooperation with its NATO allies. When the military operation started, the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars was only just beginning. The NATO action, as Gen. Wesley Clark later testified,"was designed to preempt Serb ethnic cleansing and regional destabilization" (italics added). We are today keeping thousands of soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo, not because there is a war going on but to avert another war from breaking out.

Yet many pundits argue with a straight face that the Bush administration invented preemption. What the Bushies did is simply bring out into the open and make explicit what had been implicit all along:"To forestall or prevent . . . hostile acts by our adversaries," in the words of the National Security Strategy,"the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." It may be argued that it was unwise to turn what had been de facto into de jure policy. There is no question that, with its bold declaration, the National Security Strategy has alarmed much of the world and some of the American public. It's given rise to nightmare scenarios in which the United States goes around, willy-nilly, invading countries on trumped-up charges and other countries, too, invade their neighbors under the banner of preemption.

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