Pre-Emptive Strikes: Clarion Call To Chaos?

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Posted by andreas from ( on Tuesday, October 08, 2002 at 4:45AM :

Pre-Emptive Or Preventive Strikes
The Clarion Call To Chaos?

By Terrell. E. Arnold

[The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer of the Department of State and former Chairman of the Department of International Studies of the National War College.]

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week Secretary of State, Colin Powell stated: "The right to resort to pre-emptive or preventive strikes is inherent in the sovereignty of a nation to protect itself". He went on to state that "The concept of pre-emptive strikes has been included in this year's Strategy Report to alert the public to the fact that (the) terrorist threat is different from other threats." The concept, he said, "could be applied to terrorists or to a country".

In the wake of 9-11, with a virtually global desire of governments to prevent that kind of attack from occurring in their countries, this pronouncement of the US Secretary of State lends an aura of legitimacy to a concept that can wreak fundamental changes in the governments of countries, their relations with neighbors, and probably the map of the world over coming decades. If post World War II experience is any guide, adopting it as a general right of states would be a clarion call to chaos.

The Critical Questions

Powell's statement raises many questions: Why would the leadership of the world's only superpower suddenly abandon a set of foreign policy precepts that have carried it successfully through a century of fundamental and often dangerous changes in the distribution and the scale of world power, with many, perhaps even most of the benefits accruing to itself? What could be so prized that its achievement or acquisition would prompt that superpower to abandon or, at least, ignore friends, shed alliances, and threaten to proceed alone on a path that has no obvious, profitable or necessarily successful outcome? What has changed so radically that our leadership feels compelled to adopt a new strategy?

What Has Changed?

The last question, the environmental one, needs to be answered first. The answer is not simple, but it is clear: The enemy has changed. We struggled through most of the past half century under the enigmatic threat of the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dismemberment of the Union, the so-called "evil empire" was gone. But, as James Woolsey said in his confirmation hearings to be approved as Director of the CIA, what we faced in its place was a "pit of poisonous snakes." Those enemies, small, dispersed, sometimes deadly, difficult to detect, but above all lacking in organized structure, imposed brand new requirements on strategy, tactics, equipment, training, and mindset.

We were not ready for this. Our military thinkers and our security professionals have tinkered for years with Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), but it was always considered a small event below the horizon of the larger potential battle. Now it is the potential battle, and the horizon has no other immediate threat promontories.

We are still not ready for this. Our force structure is well-equipped, high tech, resistant to attack and able to attack in the air, on the ground, and under water. But it is bulky. It can do enormous damage quickly, but it is wasted on small targets. It is designed for battlefield engagement or for standoff destruction. But it is much harder to focus down to the scale of caves, forests and villages where the rules of guerilla warfare control. That, plus the constant ambiguity of doing battle in a place where most people are not the enemy, is the core problem in Afghanistan.

The Search for Answers

The search of our leadership, as bumbling as statements may sometimes seem, is for clarity. Just what specific challenges do these "poisonous snakes" present to us? Where and when are they likely to attack, or how? When they attack, will we be ready to repel them, or will our posture be the shocked and reactive one that followed 9-11? Where and how can we position ourselves globally to do the most good, meaning most effectively defend ourselves? And on whom can we truly count? On the scale of terrorist challenges of the past few decades, just how much of our blood and treasure should we plan to devote to this enemy? What is our optimum force structure for this?

We can forgive ourselves if we flounder around in this for a while. In our national interest, however, we must find workable answers and put them in place sooner rather than later.

The questions are good. However, good answers are not easy. The best answers we can get are derived from honestly played out game scenarios and from hard intelligence on specific threats or events. Neither generates a foolproof set of answers for strategic planning. Everybody, including the terrorist, learns from the past. The answers we do get begin to shift the moment trouble starts, and any plans we have made become less and less well targeted. The best we can do is plan around as broad a range of plausible scenarios as possible, test capabilities against each of them, and make necessary adjustments. Then we should expect that the next real case will somehow be different but still within our ballpark. Perhaps this quandary prompted Winston Churchill to say: "Plans are useless, but planning is essential."

The change of enemies is not alone responsible for our situation. Uncertainty was there all the time.

This discussion enters the rationale for preventive and pre-emptive strikes through the door of readiness. In a world of six billion people in 180 countries where 50-60 of the countries are variously unstable, just what should we be ready for? The media reporting set of questions-who what, where, when, why, and how--is the policy starter set. Faced with this order of complexity, it is easy to retreat into fixation on a single enemy, once the Soviet Union, now Al Qaida or Iraq. It is easy to seize on a single answer: pre-emptive or preventive strikes. However, it is hard to focus on 50-60 problem countries or 60-70 terrorist groups at once. Obviously one of the ways to deal with that, if one knows enough soon enough, is to take pre-emptive or preventive action. For the nation state system as a whole, the question is who does it and under what circumstances?

Some Questionable Assumptions

The first question above boils down to: why does current leadership think we must abandon the well-tested and successful policies of the past five decades? The answers seem to lie in a string of dubious or false assumptions: First, the United States is more seriously threatened than any other country. Second, other governments do not understand the seriousness of the threat. Third, other governments cannot be brought to a sufficient level of awareness and understanding to see our need. Fourth, we do not need international cooperation to succeed. Fifth, the solutions we achieve unilaterally will be acceptable and durable. Sixth, our actions can be pursued without consequences for our roles and standing in the international system. Seventh, we will make enemies in carrying out our strategy, but those animosities will fade as self-interest takes over in the future. Eighth, the desire to do business with us will cause many countries to go along with us despite their reservations or objections. Ninth, it is much harder to get other countries to go along with us than it is to do it ourselves. Tenth, the requirement for action is urgent. Eleventh, we can serve the US national interest better by going it alone.

Each of those assumptions has a problem. The thought that the United States is most threatened would be challenged by the Palestinians, Iraq, East Timor, India, Pakistan, and at least half a dozen other countries. Because other governments do not share our sense of urgency or importance for attacking Iraq does not mean they lack understanding. It means that so far our arguments have not been persuasive. If we produce convincing evidence, they will listen, and perhaps still disagree that war is the solution. Unless we intend to enter Iraq over that short piece of waterfront it has on the Shatt al-Arab, at minimum we need air and overland rights from several countries to get to Iraq. If we go it alone, we will forego the support of numerous countries whose leaders can be helpful, and we will be stuck with staying on our own to keep the results together.

The enemies we will make are not by any means governments only; the terrorist population aligned against us will increase in many different countries. The risk of a successful attack against us will therefore grow. Other countries may do business with us without lifting a finger to help us. Attacking Iraq is not an emergency; it is an option. We may serve the narrow national interest in removing a presumed threat from Iraq, but at the expense of damaging relations in virtually all parts of the globe. In short, in a world that has grown both interdependent and crowded, it makes less sense now for us to go it alone than it ever did.

Are There Any Rewards?

Is there, under this convoluted spectrum, a pot of gold? There truly isn't. We can assume that with our far superior forces we will surely win, but it would be foolish to consider this an easy campaign. The Gulf War was said to be a slam-dunk, and battlefield casualties numbered less than 800, but in a Veterans Administration report of May 2002 Gulf War casualties were reported to include 8306 veterans dead and 159,705 veterans injured or ill. When personnel still on active duty are included, the VA indicated in the May 2002 report that a total of 262,586 individuals are "disabled veterans" due to duty in the Gulf and that 10,617 veterans have died of combat related injuries or illnesses since the initiation of the Gulf War. That represents a casualty rate of more than 30% for combat related duties between 1990 and 1991.

If Saddam has only the help of his Republican Guard divisions, estimated at 120,000 strong, and they defend Baghdad as they are setting up to do, our casualties could be far greater than in the Gulf War. If the US uses depleted uranium shells as lavishly as it did during the Gulf War, casualties from radiation alone will be numerous.

What then is the reward? Hardliners may say that we will have had a free hand to clean out a snake pit, that we have shown Saddam and his adherents that they cannot even think about making Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) without our considering it a threat. And that demonstration should be a deterrent to other countries whose leaders have dreams of WMDs, or who already have them.

The Problem Of Double Standards

Even the deterrent may be uncertain. For any rationale for a pre-emptive strike against Iraq to have real credibility, it is essential to get rid of the hypocrisy of the double standards that are implicit in many Bush Administration statements. In addition to Iraq, US leaders have talked about going after Libya, Syria, Iran, Sudan, and North Korea to pre-empt their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. But those countries are well aware that the United States has not threatened the actual owners: ourselves, Britain, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel who, among them, have enough weapons today to return the earth to the stone age. Bush core team members have said repeatedly that Saddam must be made to live up to the 19 or more United Nations resolutions he has not observed. Israel, on the other hand, has ignored more than 30 to date virtually without US comment. Whatever might be going on behind the scenes, if anything, to get the Israelis to shape up, the public posture of the United States on this issue must be even-handed.

Bush and other spokesmen have argued that Saddam must be called to account for going to war with Iran. However, Iranian leaders who incited Shiite Muslims in Iraq to rebel against Iraq are ignored. Bush is angered because Saddam is said to have tried to assassinate his father, but now Bush's spokesman has said "one bullet" should take care of Saddam. Warlike situations invite extremes.

As a final example of double standards, Saddam has not threatened to use nuclear weapons that he may or may not have. The Israelis have threatened to use them against Saddam, however, and we know the Israelis have the weapons.

Revamping An Old Practice

Pre-emptive and preventive strikes are not a new idea. Strategic or tactical surprise has always been considered advantageous. In the years since its formation over fifty years ago the United Nations, mainly through peacekeeping operations, has had the task of intervening in numerous cases such as East Timor, Kashmir, Cyprus, Bosnia and the rest of ancient Macedonia, Georgia, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Palestine, and others. Each of these has required extensive, hands on involvement, sometimes with former colonial powers. Most of the cases stem from one country or group seeking to take, enlarge, or retrieve a piece of ground and to deal with a population that it would like to acquire, keep or expel. In many instances, the conflict began with a pre-emptive strike. All of them require detached, third party mediation. Rewards are modest. Successes, such as East Timor, which became independent this year after a 25-year struggle, are not easily come by.

A principal lesson from 50 years of individual state action in this matter is that states that undertake pre-emptive or preventive strikes typically are unable to clean up their messes without help. Where states do handle these cases themselves, as shown in Palestine, the outcome is hard on the losers. Without third party intervention, the pre-empting states or groups frequently proceed with heavy costs in casualties and human rights abuses. If third party intervention is long delayed, as in the case of Central Africa, the human costs skyrocket.

The Matter of Self Defense

The principle that one state may attack another to defend itself is well established. Even so, there is much confusion and uncertainty about what constitutes adequate provocation. Thus, the utility, legality and modality of pre-emptive or preventive strikes are fundamental problems for the nation state system and for the United Nations. The issues are who does the work, what are the rules, and what are minimum acceptable outcomes? The responses to those issues should not enable any nation to garner territory, wealth, influence, or power. An important goal is that the pre-empting state not be allowed to profit from the venture. As a general rule, the United Nations appears to have adhered to such principles in dealing with the many cases since its formation.

The Case Against Saddam

It is enlightening to examine the US charges against Iraq in the light of Secretary Powell's statement. Before the Iran-Iraq War began, the religious leaders of Iran were fomenting the Shiite Muslims in Iraq to rebel, thereby facilitating Iran's possible capture of a disputed border zone and gain of an ethnic Iranian population. It can reasonably be argued that Iranian actions before the war began were a sufficient threat to Iraqi territorial integrity to provoke a pre-emptive strike. The US seems to have thought so at the time. Under the rules Powell has enunciated, it would have been for Iraq to determine the severity of the threat and to act accordingly. Before Iraq,s invasion of Kuwait began, the Kuwaitis were dumping oil at prices that undermined Iraq's oil income, thereby upsetting the Iraqi economy, which was still in the doldrums from the Iran-Iraq War. Evidently the Kuwaitis were not listening to the complaints of other oil exporters. The Kuwaiti case is less clear-cut, but Iraq had every reason to consider the Kuwait price-cutting a provocative act, and depending on duration and severity, perhaps cause for a pre-emptive strike. In a future world governed by Secretary Powell rules, Saddam could feel free to decide these provocations were harmful enough to attack. Outside consultations before the fact would be nice, but Secretary Powell,s statement does not suggest they would be required.

Ironically, under the Powell doctrine, Iraqi leadership could consider the open, frequent and severe threats US officials have made repeatedly against the country a cause for war. If Saddam were not bright enough to see that, if joined, the battle would surely be lost, a pre-emptive strike might already have been mounted. His best, perhaps his only option in the circumstances is to do nothing, but the provocations are quite real.

The Clarion Call

A look at the global picture of border disputes, displaced peoples and discontented ethnic or religious minorities suggests that there are numerous countries or internal country situations today where aggrieved parties could justify pre-emptive or preventive strikes. These could be either against rivals in the next country or in the same country. The United Nations experience in a world where pre-emptive strikes were the unofficial but implicit remedy for an offended party offers more examples than Secretary Powell may wish to elevate to legitimacy by proclaiming a new and outright global right of pre-emption. If the proclamation is taken literally, it is a call to chaos in or around fifty or more countries. In that environment, the work of the United Nations peacekeeping forces will never be done. Certainly the world,s lone superpower should not seek to take on this one.

Where Does That Take Us?

In effect, the Secretary of State has articulated an essential operating principle for the United Nations, not for the United States or other individual nations. It is time to limit the use of such action by nation states, not to expand it. Pre-emptive and preventive strikes should be employed by the United Nations only under the most demanding of circumstances, and in light of hard information. If nation states take part, they should do so under UN leadership. Except in the face of imminent attack, no version of the option should be available to anyone else. But to avoid injustices, the UN has to be equipped to hear and respond to grievances on a timely basis.

Freedom from harassment, attack or threats of attack has to be confronted as a global issue that concerns everyone on the planet. On this as on many other global issues, the common good is best served by a common strategy of the nation state system as codified in the charter and carried out in the operations of the United Nations.

-- andreas
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