What the War on Iraq Means

David Tucker

March 1, 2003

The impending war on Iraq is the direct consequence of the Bush Administration’s national security strategy. If the Bush administration and its successors follow this strategy, as they should, it will alter in a fundamental way the character of international relations.

The strategy argues in effect that a fundamental change is necessary in international relations because the world is changing in a fundamental way. Technological advances mean that greater and greater power—chemical, biological and nuclear—can be in the hands of more and more nations and even individuals. In such a world, we will not be able to count on our ability to deter these nations and individuals from using this great destructive power against us, as we were able to count on deterrence in our confrontation with the Soviet Union. We must, therefore, act preemptively, since we cannot let our enemies strike first.

Some commentators who support the Bush Administration’s strategy have tried to argue that there is nothing fundamentally new here. Victor Davis Hanson, for example, has claimed that preemption is as old as warfare and that the United States fought preemptive wars in “Grenada, Panama, Serbia, and Kosovo.” Hanson is right that nations have acted preemptively but they have not declared it their policy to do so. They have sought, instead, pretexts for their actions, often trying to provoke an action to which they could then respond militarily. This hypocrisy was the honor vice paid to virtue. But this is not what the Bush security strategy calls for. It is not what we are doing in the case of Iraq. Nor is it true that we did this in the cases that Hanson cites. In Grenada and Panama, we did not act until U.S. citizens had been attacked. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, Milosevic and his allies were the aggressors. We responded with our allies on behalf of the international community.

To its credit, the Bush administration has been forthright in explaining the character of the innovation it has proposed and is now acting on with regard to Iraq. Its national strategy document notes that international law recognizes that a nation does not have to suffer an attack before it responds. It notes as well, however, that according to international law the threat to which a nation responds must be imminent, “a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.” But in a world where weapons of mass destruction “can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning,” the strategy argues, “we must adapt the concept of imminent threat.”

In other words, in the past the fact that an enemy had an army, navy or air force was not sufficient to justify attacking him. These forces had to be poised to attack. Today, more destructive power than military forces of the past possessed can be contained in a few vials or a small device that can be concealed and used clandestinely. Therefore, the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction, along with hostile intent, makes a country a legitimate target for military action. This is what the Bush national strategy means and what the war on Iraq exemplifies.

The logic of the Bush administration’s position is unassailable. But we should not underestimate its consequences. For example, as we have seen in the case of Iraq, it will make international cooperation more difficult, because it is harder to reach consensus about when to act to counter threats that are less evident than massed military forces on someone’s border. In addition, much of the material used in producing weapons of mass destruction can also be used for peaceful purposes, which will introduce more ambiguity into assessments of threats. The cost of war will discourage capricious use of this new doctrine, but even so, less international cooperation will mean a more contentious and possibly more violent world.

But wars of preemption are not all that will occur, if we follow the new doctrine. In fact, the logic of the new strategy and the cost of war should make us willing to intervene early in the chain of actions that lead to possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). We should be willing to use military force to prevent the production or shipment of material that could be used to produce such weapons. This would mean conducting raids to destroy production facilities and seizing ships at sea. In short, the Bush administration’s strategy, if consistently applied, points to a world in which violence is more prevalent but justified by the hope that it will prevent the greater violence of a WMD attack in the United States.

The Bush administration’s strategy is a revolution because it reverses the now centuries old effort to restrict the freedom of sovereign states to use military force outside their borders. Such a strategy is necessary but, whatever the outcome of the war in Iraq, we should understand it to be a sad necessity.

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.