Preemptive War Is the Wrong Weapon

Team Bush's rationale for invading Iraq -- to thwart terrorists before they strike -- runs dangerously counter to international law

By Stan Crock

If you want to see how cynical President Bush's growing legion of critics are about the Administration's Iraq policy, take a gander sometime at the electronic newsletter sent out by Chuck Spinney, a retired Pentagon analyst. He starts out with a quote from the late journalist H. L. Mencken: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Spinney then quotes Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, who explained at his Nuremberg trial how easy it is for leaders to get the people to do their bidding. "All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger," Goering said. "It works the same way in any country."


  Spinney's perspective is clear, if a bit overstated. Still, even if you don't share this malevolent view of what the Administration has done, you have to wonder if Bush's notion of preventive warfare matches the real risks the nation faces post-September 11. More and more, I fear Team Bush needlessly challenges the 350-year-old foundations of international order.

Take Vice-President Dick Cheney's Oct. 10 speech at the Heritage Foundation defending the decision to topple Saddam Hussein in the pursuit of a safer American homeland. The specter he evoked -- of terrorists acquiring weapons of mass destruction -- could not have been more apocalyptic. "Instead of losing thousands of lives, we might lose tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of lives in a single day of war," Cheney said.

He declared that the strategy of Cold War deterrence used against the Soviet Union no longer is viable: "There is only one way to protect ourselves against catastrophic terrorist violence, and that is to destroy the terrorists before they can launch further attacks against the U.S."


  O.K., but what does that have to do with toppling Saddam? Cheney connected the threat of terrorism not just to possible nurturing from brutal dictators but to those who "would prevent our own country from acting with friends and allies, even in the most urgent circumstances." No mistaking the target of that jab: the U.N. Security Council, whose rules allow any one of its permanent members to veto resolutions and whose mission is to protect members' sovereignty.

Easy, Mr. Vice-President. That's stretching the point too far. Did the U.N. stand in the way when the U.S. wanted to respond after the September 11 attacks? Hardly. It quickly passed several resolutions condemning the attacks and recognizing the right of self-defense. After the U.S. went into Afghanistan, the U.N. moved quickly to help restore the country. So when the circumstances were urgent, the U.N. was no obstacle. Cheney's remarks were a cheap shot.

Without the imminent threat of biological and nuclear weapons in Iraq ever having been truly established after the U.S. invasion, the Administration is still trying to justify the military action by linking it to the war on terrorism. Fighting terrorism, however, has nothing to do with invading another country. It involves a broad campaign to get countries to cooperate on intelligence and law enforcement, and to crack down on the financing of terrorist organizations.

And which institution, less than a month after September 11, set up a mechanism for monitoring cooperation with these efforts and insisted it's the obligation of all countries to root out terrorism? The U.N. By Stan Crock


  I'm no apologist for the U.N.: It isn't always a paragon of international responsibility. Different countries often have different agendas. But the U.N. has posed a huge problem for the Bush Administration only on Iraq. Other countries on the Security Council didn't believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or ties to terrorists or posed an imminent threat. In retrospect, it looks as if they were closer to the mark than the U.S. was. So maybe the obstacles thrown up by the U.N. were justified.

Even if threats of further, more horrible terrorism are real, the U.S. doesn't face the possibility that its government will somehow be overthrown and that the country will be seized by a foreign power -- a threat to American sovereignty that could justify the Administration's heated rhetoric. That's an important distinction in international law. Protecting the sovereignty of nations lies at the heart of the U.N. charter established after World War II, and it has been the foundation of international law since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

Cheney & Co. have pushed the Bush doctrine of preemption beyond protection of sovereignty into new, dangerous territory, in my view. The U.N. certainly wouldn't stand in the way if terrorists threatened the U.S. rule of law and way of life. It's Washington that's threatening an international rule of law from which it benefits, by intervening where there's no such danger.


  It's instructive, to me at least, that Bush isn't talking about military action in Iran or North Korea, the other two members of his "axis of evil" -- even though American intelligence about the nuclear activities in those two countries seems a lot better than the info on Iraq. Both Tehran and Pyongyang seem far ahead of whatever Baghdad was doing on the nuclear front. Yet the Administration's response has been far more cautious and casual, bordering on paralytic.

What this suggests is that the White House has no standard for determining when America will respect sovereignty and when it will ignore it. The implication is that the whole notion of preventive action applies only when a country is not only a rogue state but when it's vulnerable, after years of sanctions render it impotent. This is opportunism, not a policy.

What standards would be appropriate for U.S. intervention? When an attack is imminent, for sure. Retaliation also would be justified, as in Afghanistan, when a foreign government would not take steps to punish people responsible for the loss of thousands of American lives.


  The U.S. can't go in everywhere simply because a despot is in power, however. That would mean scores of invasions around the globe. Thus, I think justifying Saddam's ouster by falling back on the argument he was brutal doesn't fly. But if evidence shows that Saddam wanted to rebuild his chemical- and biological-weapons capability after sanctions were lifted, that could distinguish him from other tinhorn dictators and provide a reasonable basis for the invasion.

As it stands, this Administration has built a bridge too far. It should get back to the art of diplomacy, as it's doing with North Korea and Iran, and trying to enlist international cooperation in Iraq, all in defense of U.S. national interests.

Despite the Vice-President's jibes, the existing system still works. The best strategy for countering terrorists will involve intelligence-sharing, freezing bank accounts, and law enforcement -- not invasions of other countries. What's needed now is for the Bush team to step back from its doctrine of preemption and for common sense, rather than regrettable rhetoric, to prevail.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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