The Slippery Slope to Preventive War

By Crawford, Neta C. | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Slippery Slope to Preventive War


Crawford, Neta C., Ethics & International Affairs


The Bush administration's arguments in favor of a preemptive doctrine rest on the view that warfare has been transformed. As Colin Powell argues, "It's a different world ... it's a new kind of threat." (1) And in several important respects, war has changed along the lines the administration suggests, although that transformation has been under way for at least the last ten to fifteen years. Unconventional adversaries prepared to wage unconventional war can conceal their movements, weapons, and immediate intentions and conduct devastating surprise attacks. (2) Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, though not widely dispersed, are more readily available than they were in the recent past. And the everyday infrastructure of the United States can be turned against it as were the planes the terrorists hijacked on September 11, 2001. Further, the administration argues that we face enemies who "reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands." (3) Although vulnerability could certainly be reduced in many ways, it is impossible to achieve complete invulnerability.

Such vulnerability and fear, the argument goes, means the United States must take the offensive. Indeed, soon after the September 11, 2001, attacks, members of the Bush administration began equating self-defense with preemption:

   There is no question but that the United States of America has every
   right, as every country does, of self-defense, and the problem with
   terrorism is that there is no way to defend against the terrorists
   at every place and every time against every conceivable technique.
   Therefore, the only way to deal with the terrorist network is to
   take the battle to them. That is in fact what we're doing. That is
   in effect self-defense of a preemptive nature. (4)

The character of potential threats becomes extremely important in evaluating the legitimacy of the new preemption doctrine, and thus the assertion that the United States faces rogue enemies who oppose everything about the United States must be carefully evaluated. There is certainly robust evidence to believe that al-Qaeda members desire to harm the United States and American citizens. The National Security Strategy makes a questionable leap, however, when it assumes that "rogue states" also desire to harm the United States and pose an imminent military threat. Further, the administration blurs the distinction between "rogue states" and terrorists, essentially erasing the difference between terrorists and those states in which they reside: "We make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbor or provide aid to them." (5) But these distinctions do indeed make a difference.

Legitimate preemption could occur if four necessary conditions were met. First, the party contemplating preemption would have a narrow conception of the "self" to be defended in circumstances of self-defense. Preemption is not justified to protect imperial interests or assets taken in a war of aggression. Second, there would have to be strong evidence that war was inevitable and likely in the immediate future. Immediate threats are those which can be made manifest within days or weeks unless action is taken to thwart them. This requires clear intelligence showing that a potential aggressor has both the capability and the intention to do harm in the near future. Capability alone is not a justification. Third, preemption should be likely to succeed in reducing the threat. Specifically, there should be a high likelihood that the source of the military threat can be found and the damage that it was about to do can be greatly reduced or eliminated by a preemptive attack. If preemption is likely to fail, it should not be undertaken. Fourth, military force must be necessary; no other measures can have time to work or be likely to work.

A DEFENSIBLE SELF

On the face of it, the self-defense criteria seem clear. …

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The Slippery Slope to Preventive War
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