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Ounce of Prevention

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 06.11.03

Fear of the United States in the rest of the world has become palpable. The latest Pew Global Attitudes survey, which followed the war with Iraq, revealed that "majorities in seven of eight Muslim populations surveyed express worries that the U.S. might become a military threat to their countries. Even in Kuwait, where people have a generally favorable view of the United States, 53% voice at least some concern that the U.S. could someday pose a threat."

It's not hard to explain these fears--they're wrapped up in the anxiety over the Bush administration's doctrine of preemption, enshrined in the September 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS). The Bush strategy dictates that "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed." For those who fear U.S. power, the war with Iraq was merely the first implementation of this strategy. Last week, for example, the Director General of Pakistan's Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad warned that "the U.S. is heady with the arrogance of military power and it feels that it can impose U.S.-friendly governments on people--especially in the Muslim world which it has identified as the focus for its preemptive interventionist doctrine." Likewise, it's also the implementation of preemption that's so alluring for those who love American power. According to historian Niall Ferguson, "The radical aspect of the doctrine is not the theory but the practice. When Mr. Bush says he is prepared to fight terror in 'every corner of the world,' he really can. And he really does."

Indeed, Saddam's statues barely had time to fall before American hawks began suggesting other candidates for preemption. The war of words with Syria began simultaneously with the liberation of Baghdad. Although that front has died down, the hostile rhetoric towards Iran has since heated up. And North Korea seems hell-bent on provoking the United States into taking precipitous action.

Meanwhile, it's not as though the barriers to preemption are so high. The combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom was relatively easy. The United Nations and other multilateral bodies were powerless to stop the United States. Why shouldn't one expect further preemptive action?

The answer is that, despite America's hegemonic power, preemption is just not feasible as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. As a result, it would be very surprising both if there were another preemptive war during this administration--and if the doctrine of preemption survived into the next one.

Among other things, it's unclear whether the administration itself takes the doctrine seriously. While the security strategy discusses preemption, the idea is noticeably absent from the administration's follow-up document, the December 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction. The administration's rationale for preemption is the nexus between WMD proliferation and terrorism, so one would have expected some mention of the doctrine. But the section in the December document on strengthening nonproliferation mostly discusses the key roles of bilateral diplomacy, strengthening existing multilateral regimes, and even negotiating new ones. As for states tagged as "dedicated proliferators," the document merely pledges "country-specific strategies." The word "preemption" never appears.

An empty change in rhetoric, critics would say. But as Lawrence F. Kaplan observed last week, the administration is pursuing a doggedly multilateral track to isolate Iran. And it's pursuing a similar course of action against North Korea: Paul Wolfowitz, the administration's leading neoconservative, noted in late May that one difference between Iraq and North Korea is that multilateral sanctions could compel regime change in the latter case. These are remarkably sanguine approaches to countries that are clearly further along in their nuclear programs than Hussein's Iraq.

Why the change in tone? The answer has a lot to do with Iraq itself. The invasion and its aftermath have revealed a few hard truths for the Bush administration. The first is that every successful war requires a successful occupation, and those tend to take longer and require more manpower than the combat phase of operations. Right now, the U.S. military simply could not fight another war even if it wanted to: Too high a percentage of active American units are currently stationed in Iraq, and they will not--and should not--be going anywhere for a while. The military's air transport infrastructure is also currently stretched to the limit.

Even if the U.S. could muster the troops, both the uniformed brass and the civilian leadership in the Pentagon loathe the idea of assigning nation-building tasks to the military. For Rumsfeld, such an idea clashes with his vision of a lean warfighting machine. "I think nation-building does not have a brilliant record across the globe," he observed in November 2001. Then after the war with Iraq ended, he concluded, "I don't think anyone can build a nation but the people of that nation." Similarly, the military's objections to non-combat operations are longstanding and have shown no signs of subsiding since 9/11: Over the past six months, the Army managed to shut down the one military institute devoted to peacekeeping. Without alternative forces willing to mop up after U.S. combat operations, the uniformed services will resist any effort to fight another Iraq-style war.

One way out of this is to have a division of labor between the United States and its allies--America fights the wars and the allies keep the postwar peace. This seems to have been the original plan for Iraq. But, of course, such an arrangement requires allies who are willing to go once more into the breach, which leads to the final problem.

In order for the administration to attract allies willing to participate, it must make a good-faith effort to work through multilateral organizations. The gears of multilateralism grind slowly, however, and the likely candidates for additional preemptive action are just now starting to be discussed in the proper U.N. organs. It will take some time before other states are prepared to discard measures short of war (particularly after the embittering experience of the last war). By contrast, Iraq had been the subject of 17 different U.N. resolutions prior to the U.S. attack. Ironically, the Bush administration was able to attract the international support it got on Iraq because it could make a strong case that Iraq was in violation of international law.

Of course, the United States could always resort to military attacks short of war, such as Israel's 1981 bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor. But these are unlikely to work for the states in question. North Korea ostensibly has nuclear weapons already--and if they don't, the 10,000 artillery shells they have aimed at Seoul function as a more-than-sufficient deterrent. As for Iran, there is no guarantee than such an attack would wipe out all of the countries questionable facilities. The performance of the intelligence community vis--vis Iraq does not fill one with confidence.

Finally, the chances of the preemption doctrine living on become even more remote once this administration leaves office. No president will ever categorically rule out the preemptive use of force to protect Americans. On the other hand, no president needs a doctrine spelling out that fact so plainly. Bush's successor is likely to issue a new strategy just to signal his or her differences in foreign policy style. Needless to say, the current National Security Strategy will have a shorter shelf life than Paul Nitze's articulation of the containment doctrine in the famous NSC-68 document.

Not that the disappearance of the preemption option will affect U.S. foreign policy in the short run. The symbolic value of the Iraq war was significant in the Middle East--which explains both Syria's pledge to crack down on Palestinian terrorists and the reaction of the region's leaders when President Bush visited there last week. Down the road, though, the irony will be impossible to avoid. With preemption off the table, the Bush administration's success at defending the country from weapons of mass destruction will rest on its ability to engage in multilateral diplomacy.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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