Pre-Emptive Doctrine Difficult, But Not New

Andrew E. Busch

October 1, 2003

Over a year has elapsed since President Bush declared that the United States would act decisively and with armed force to preempt danger from terrorists and rogue states. His declaration—implemented last March in Iraq—has provoked a steady stream of commentary ever since, much of it negative. With the Iraqi war still controversial and tests still facing America in Iran, North Korea, and Syria, the “Bush Doctrine” of preemptive war is ripe for a fresh appraisal. Two things about it stand out.

First, the doctrine may be more difficult to execute than many of its supporters first thought. For one thing, the military force requirements of such a policy probably do not permit more than one such exercise at a time, at least in its full Iraqi regime-changing form. While modern “force multipliers” might drastically reduce the manpower needed to defeat the enemy in battle, they cannot obviate the subsequent need for extensive forces to police the post-war environment. We might well be able to gain victory against both Iraq and Iran simultaneously, but who now thinks we could occupy both simultaneously? Unless a commitment is made by the President and Congress to significantly expand the size of the armed forces, there is a severe constraint on the application of a preemptive policy. To be fair, the administration has tried to make it clear (though many of its critics are not listening) that it sees preemption as only one possible option of many, and an option to be used sparingly.

A second problem is political. To be sustainable over time, American wars depend on public support. That support, in turn, depends on the degree to which Americans are convinced that the costs of war (both human and financial) are outweighed by the benefits. The problem with preemptive wars is that the costs will always be obvious and tangible, even when they are not large by historical standards; the benefits, by definition, lie primarily in the intangible and unknowable realm of horrors prevented. We will never know what destruction was averted by the early demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime. That is, of course, its greatest benefit—we will never know—but also the greatest vulnerability of the policy that brought it about. This problem is compounded by the uncertainty inherent in intelligence collection and analysis. For those who have a stake in doubting the motives of policymakers or the justice of a military action, a policy that aims to defeat a less-than-fully-formed danger will always afford ambiguities that can contribute to cynicism.

On the other hand, the strength of the policy is that it is much more firmly rooted than its critics admit. Indeed, it is remarkable how ultimately un-remarkable a policy of preemption is in American foreign policy. If some critics offer reasonable observations regarding the practical difficulties inherent in such a policy, the argument that the Bush policy is somehow a bizarre refutation of all previous foreign policy frameworks is simply not supported by fact. In a broad sense, almost all U.S. foreign policy since the Monroe Doctrine has been aimed at keeping (and if necessary fighting) enemies “over there” so they do not come over here. In the twentieth century, American participation in the great World Wars assured the victory of freedom on foreign battlefields in preference to our own; Korea, Vietnam, and the entire policy of containment (and under Reagan, rollback) of communism were likewise fought on the front lines, so we did not have to fight in the last ditch. In September 1941, Franklin Roosevelt declared it prudent to strike a rattlesnake first, and in October 1962 John F. Kennedy was hours away from launching a preemptive war against communist Cuba to prevent the basing of Soviet weapons of mass destruction there. Both Operation Desert Storm (1991) and Operation Desert Fox (December 1998) were substantial military actions aimed to divest Iraq of its military power, including WMD, before it was too late. This is why we have the “Veterans of Foreign Wars”—historically, American policymakers (and citizens) have preferred to meet danger before it reached our shores.

While this history was occasionally discussed in the debate prior to the Iraq war, another set of evidence has been essentially unremarked upon. By perusing major party platforms back to 1992, it is clear that the Bush Doctrine of preemption against terrorist regimes did not spring out of nowhere. In the wake of the first Iraq war, the 1992 Republican platform commented extensively on the danger posed by “tyrants” and “ruthless demagogues in rogue regimes” who sought chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. By 1996, the GOP platform went further: “The governments of North Korea, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Cuba must know that America’s first line of defense is not our shoreline, but their own borders. We will be proactive, not reactive, to strike the hand of terrorism before it can be raised against Americans.” While this sentence did not reappear in 2000, Republicans devoted an entire substantial section of the platform to “Protecting the Fellowship of Freedom from Weapons of Mass Destruction,” promising that “We will react forcefully and unequivocally” to evidence of reconstituted Iraqi WMD programs.

For their part, Democrats in 2000 touted a policy of “forward engagement,” which “requires trying to disrupt terrorist networks, even before they are ready to attack.” This was a strategy involving “all arms and levels of our government,” implicitly including the armed forces.

Altogether, it is quite clear that prior to 9-11 strategic thinkers in both parties had begun to grapple with the issues of WMD and terrorism, and that they had concluded that preemption under certain circumstances had to be the policy of the United States; to forego that option was to cede the strategic offensive to the enemy when such an offensive could mean the deaths of thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of Americans. Given this development of thinking over the previous decade, and put in the context of the historical determination of the United States to fight its enemies as far from its soil as possible, it would have been surprising if an American President in the post 9-11 world had not embraced preemption. No small part of the 2004 presidential election may turn on the question of whether the practical difficulties of the policy will be outweighed by its solid historical pedigree.

Andrew E. Busch is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.