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Copyright 2006 The Monitor

The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)


Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service


September 7, 2006 Thursday






LENGTH: 1175 words


HEADLINE: Take the preventive war option off the table


BYLINE: By William W. Keller and Gordon R. Mitchell




The Sept. 11 attacks five years ago had many terrible consequences, most of them seared into our minds by that day's unforgettable images of destruction. But the attacks also had a long-term consequence for national policy, arguably even more destructive – they lit a fuse in Washington that led to the Bush administration's incendiary doctrine of preventive warfare.


Preventive warfare is the doctrine that affirmed and encouraged the United States to strike first in Iraq, before any move by Iraq to strike us. It allowed our leaders to act on their imagination of what Iraq might be planning for us. And we know now how that imagination was fanciful.


After the obvious misfire in Iraq, one might have expected the White House to go back to the drawing board and revisit its commitment to first-strike force as a key weapon in its war on terror. No such luck.


The 2006 National Security Strategy explicitly reaffirms the U.S. approach of "acting pre-emptively" against emergent security threats.


The fuse is still live. Another major terrorist attack on American soil could ignite it and trigger a sequel to the ill-fated Operation Iraqi Freedom, perhaps in the form of a preventive U.S. assault against Iran or North Korea.


Before this is allowed to happen, we should review the track record of preventive warfare and think carefully about whether first-strike force is a sound security strategy for addressing the dangers posed by the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Most of the preventive attacks of this type on record since World War II have been ineffective or worse. Limited strikes (by Israel, Iran, Iraq, Norway, Britain and the United States) have largely failed to eliminate targeted weapons stocks. Full-scale regime-change operations (by the United States and its allies) have enjoyed more success in rooting out unconventional arsenals, but led to huge and unanticipated post-war costs.


Framed as snapshots, preventive strikes often appear effective at first, but blemishes come to light later when the dust settles. For example, the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osiraq nuclear reactor is often cited as a success story. But the mission's apparent operational success was cosmetic; destruction of the Tammuz I reactor only drove Saddam Hussein's nuclear program underground and accelerated Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, so that by 1991 Iraq was within 18 months of building an atomic bomb. A 1998 U.S. strike against the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan did nothing to counter al-Qaeda's biological weapons program. And the full-scale preventive invasion of Iraq in 2003, intended to stem the production of unconventional weapons and topple an adversarial government, failed to uncover the weapons, while post-war civil strife continues to tie down U.S. forces, complicating and undermining the initial military victory.


Two key factors accounting for this poor track record are faulty intelligence and misuse of intelligence analysis by political leaders.


To predict an attack by an enemy before such an attack is evident requires intelligence bordering on clairvoyance. No intelligence is that reliable, even in a system exquisitely organized and not corrupted by politicians. Yet ironically, a preventive war doctrine itself further degrades the quality of intelligence, steering analysts and their political masters to introduce false positives into the threat matrix by distorting the warning function of intelligence tradecraft.


Despite these shortcomings, some argue that the preventive force option is still useful as a threat that can leverage coercive diplomacy. But raising the stakes with a weak hand is risky business. If adversaries decline to fold under pressure, Washington faces a Hobson's choice of either admitting that the threat of force was a bluff, thus severely damaging U.S. credibility, or alternately exercising a flawed military option that was never intended for actual use.


Unfortunately, the need for broad public discussion of these issues is obscured by the Bush administration's catch phrase "all options are on the table." When uttered by White House officials, this statement works as an ideological code that appeals to common sense but packs heavy baggage. Through repetition of the code, Washington obliquely re-asserts its commitment to preventive warfare. But since the commitment is not explicit, it can be advanced without explanation or justification. The resulting vacuum of public discussion enables a thoroughly discredited military option – preventive war – to remain on the books as a key pillar of U.S. national security strategy.


On those infrequent occasions when they are pressed to justify preventive warfare, advocates of the Bush national security strategy give ground, pointing out that first-strike force is just one tool in their shed, along with nonviolent options such as rigorous inspections, treaties, law enforcement and economic leverage. Unfortunately, insistence on keeping the preventive war option on the table degrades intelligence, diverts resources and diminishes allied support necessary for effective implementation of these nonviolent prevention strategies that offer more promise in countering nascent security dangers.


As a country and as individuals, we have learned much about ourselves since September 11. One lesson that has clearly not yet been learned is that preventive warfare – striking first militarily – simply does not work as a tool to counter proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Like spoiled food, the preventive war option should not be kept on the table. Its removal would clear space for the more palatable and effective foreign policy instruments that are better suited for dealing with this new century's emerging security challenges.




William W. Keller is the Wesley W. Posvar professor of international security studies and director of the Ridgway Center for Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh; Gordon R. Mitchell is an associate professor and director of debate at the University of Pittsburgh. Keller and Mitchell are co-editors of “Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy” (University of Pittsburgh Press 2006). Readers may write to Keller at Room 3940 Posvar Hall, 230 S. Bouquet St., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15260, or at bkeller@pitt.edu; Mitchell may be reached at 1133 Cathedral of Learning, 4200 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, Pa. 15260, or at gordonm@pitt.edu.


This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.



(c) 2006, William W. Keller and Gordon R. Mitchell


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LOAD-DATE: September 8, 2006