As controversy swirls around the Bush administration’s use of intelligence to justify the war with Iraq, perhaps the most important point has been forgotten. How the controversy turns out may well decide the fate of the Bush administration’s only foreign policy innovation, the policy of pre-emption.
Pre-emption is getting someone before they get you. Arguing that a nation should do this is an innovation because international law accepts as legitimate one nation attacking another only when the first nation has been attacked or when an attack is imminent and unmistakable. In its national security strategy, the Bush administration argued that in a world where weapons of terrible power proliferate and groups like al Qaeda exist we cannot afford to wait until an attack is imminent. We must act as early as possible to remove this danger.
The Bush administration was not the first to recognize the possible utility of pre-emption. But no administration before this administration made pre-emption, as a response to the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a public policy. Bush’s predecessors were stymied by the fundamental paradox of responding to proliferation: when pre-emption is most likely to succeed, it is least likely to occur. When a nation or a group first tries to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the danger can appear remote to the public and insufficient to warrant pre-emptive action, even though this is when it is most likely to succeed as a military mission. A nation or group just beginning to acquire weapons of mass destruction does not yet have them to use and probably has not developed good ways to protect them.
Lying behind this paradox is the problem of intelligence. Prior to September 11, lots of very good intelligence would have been necessary to convince an administration to act pre-emptively, given the political risks of such action. The risks come from the fact that the public, not seeing the need for pre-emptive action, may well punish an administration for undertaking it. Definitive intelligence might persuade the public to support such actions, but such intelligence is seldom if ever available. For example, some of the materials used to produce weapons of mass destruction can be used for other purposes. To be sure that the material will be used for weapons, we need definitive information about the intentions of those acquiring and using the materials. We need human sources, therefore, who are privy over a period of time to the most secret discussions a regime is likely to have. This is difficult to achieve, to say the least. We must accept, then, that early pre-emptive action, pre-emptive action taken when it is likely to be most useful and least dangerous to those who take it, is likely to be mistaken—precisely because it is early. Consequently, even though pre-emption might be thought useful or necessary in the abstract, no administration prior to this administration was willing to declare it a policy. September 11 convinced the Bush administration that it had to accept the risks involved in pre-emptive action.
The war with Iraq was a pre-emptive war. It was taken on the basis of intelligence that was not definitive. The administration should admit this. It should not debate its critics on the matter of the particular intelligence involved in the decision to go to war. Instead, it should remind them of why pre-emption is necessary. It should remind them that given the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the existence of organizations, like al Qaeda, willing to use such weapons against us, we must get them before they get us. We cannot wait until the intelligence is beyond question. The administration should make its critics debate them on the merits of pre-emption. If the critics reject this policy, they will appear to be endangering the United States. If they accept it, then they must accept the fact that the intelligence upon which we decide to pre-empt will always be questionable.
The administration needs to make this argument and win it because the political outcome of this controversy may well decide whether we can follow a policy of pre-emption. If the Bush administration does not win this argument, future administrations are likely to be stymied once again by the paradox of responding to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. They will deem pre-emption too great a political risk and thereby unnecessarily risk the well-being of all Americans.
David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.