Just for a change of pace, I thought I would post my lecture notes for this afternoon's panel discussion (
if you're going to the talk, don't read this now unless you want to be bored; okay, I didn't deliver it as written which should surprise nobody, but I'll leave it up anyway). The International Studies Program posed the question "What is the future of preventative war?", which later morphed into "The future of preventative war." I don't go into any historical depth because my co-panelist is the historian David Kaiser, who lectures about this stuff for a living, and I'm expecting he'll cover that ground (and hopefully he'll post his lecture notes too, so you can almost feel like you were there!). I don't claim any great original insights here, since this isn't really my primary field... just thought I would post it since I don't have time to write anything else today.
"The future of preventative war"
Preventive war has always been and will always be a part of world politics – by whatever name. All the way back to Thucydides, when Sparta allegedly went to war with Athens out of fear of the rise of Athenian power, created a series of pretexts searching for a casus belli until it found one. Israel attacked Egypt and Syria in 1967 for “preventive” reasons – not because it really feared imminent attack, but because it could not tolerate forever the harassment and incitement coming from its neighbors. Even Saddam Hussein invoked preventive justifications when he launched war against Iran in 1980 (Khomeini was allegedly mobilizing Iraqi Shia against Saddam) and Kuwait in 1990 (Kuwait was engaged in “economic warfare” and bleeding Iraq dry). Almost every war is cast as "preventive" in some way by its initiator - because a state thinks, or at least wants publics to think, that attacking now will be preferable to not attacking, i.e. preventing some undesirable outcome. What's really the key is whether audiences believe the argument - whether it's seen as a legitimate, honest fear or a manufactured one.
Despite this long, if less than glorious, pedigree, preventive war has long been seen as illegitimate under international law. Hence the controversy when the Bush administration publicly articulated a doctrine of preventive war in its 2002 National Security Strategy. In the Bush administration's formulation, preventive war meant that the US must reserve the right to act before a threat materialized. In an age of WMD and terrorists, Rumsfeld argued, states must be able to act before "the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud." This is not an insane argument. Indeed, two colleagues – Rodger Payne and Peter Dombrowski – have recently argued that there is even an emerging consensus for preventive war around the world. A lot of statesmen evidently saw the usefulness of a preventive war doctrine, even if they didn't agree with its implementation in Iraq. Indians suggested that Pakistan would be a great candidate for preventive war, for instance.
Iraq was the main test case for Bush’s new and improved preventive war doctrine. Let me just make a few points about how Iraq shapes the likely short term future of preventive war, and then say a few words about Iran and North Korea – the most discussed targets of an American preventive war in the near future.
The failure of the intelligence about Iraqi WMD and ties to al-Qaeda (leaving aside the question of whether this was really a failure or a politically motivated manipulation) casts grave doubt on the viability of any preventive war doctrine. The world is full of bad people and threats, and a doctrine which demands that we remove them all is a recipe for overstretch, backlash, and disaster. Preventive war has to be based on a compelling case that the state in question has both the intentions and is developing the capability to carry out a threat great enough to merit war. Iraq was presented as such a case, with "slam dunk" intelligence - but it wasn't. The doubt which this now casts on all intelligence cripples PW as a doctrine: how can we know when action is urgent when we can not know the urgency of the threat? Some honest Iraq hawks, like Ken Pollack, have written about this dilemma at length as this has become clear; I find it difficult to take seriously any foreign policy analyst who has not at least tried to wrestle with the dilemma.
One response to the failure of uncertainty is simply to assume the worst and act whenever there is doubt. That's fine, if you have unlimited capabilities or if war is cheap and success relatively easy. But again, Iraq has crippled any such assumption. With our military bogged down in a seemingly endless quagmire and civil war, who now will argue that a preventive war will cheaply and easily secure our objectives?
Of course, even if those problems didn't exist, a doctrine of untrammeled PW would still be a recipe for disaster. Much of American hegemony has rested on the fact that most countries in the world have not feared us - there has been some confidence that for all America's power, it wouldn't exploit that power. The Bush doctrine destroyed that conviction, but there are still limits. If other countries believe that the US will engage in preventive war, their obvious move is to accelerate plans against such an invasion - get nukes now rather than later, put in place defensive measures, or... attack first before the US can get in the first strike. Preventive war cuts both ways, you know.
Finally, one common argument in defense of preventive war is that it's good for the reputation: that willingness to go to war with Iraq, say, will convince other states of the credibility of our threats and will enhance our bargaining power. But that depends on the outcome of the war. In May of 2003, some potentially targeted states surveying what appeared to be an easy American victory in Baghdad might have given greater attention to American threats. The opposite is more likely true today – Iranians looking at American struggles in occupied Iraq are unlikely to conclude that the American public is eager for another war. That makes American threats less rather than more credible.
One final concern is that the process of building support for preventive war is itself generally problematic. In the absence of an attack, the state which wants support for a preventive war needs to go to extremes to build public support: which usually means demonizing the enemy, ratcheting up tensions, trying to manuever the opponent into an act of war, distorting intelligence and degrading the public sphere with apocalyptic argument. This is not conducive to rational deliberation, and can be corrosive of both democracy and a prudent foreign policy.
Now the specific cases: Iran and North Korea are the two obvious candidates for an American preventive war, as Bush has defined it, but neither looks likely. No good military option exists against either. North Korea could devastate South Korea, possibly even Japan, has accelerated its nuclear program and possibly has workable nukes. China and its other neighbors are more worried about its collapse than about its going nuclear.
And Iran? the Iraq war has left Iran stronger than it has ever been: in a dominant position in Iraq, the Hezbollah success and its own nuclear defiance have won it support across the Sunni-Shia divide. It's bigger than Iraq, has learned from Iraq, and doesn't seem likely to be an easy win no matter how it's cut. Unlike Saddam, its rulers are shrewd and preparing for war - and don't seem unduly concerned by American threats.
To sum up, then, I would say that preventive war will always be a weapon in the arsenal of great powers, regardless of international law or precedent. It has probably become more likely given shifting technology and changing tolerance levels for uncertainty. But I don't think it's likely in the two cases for which it's most frequently invoked these days.