Preemptive Action: When, How, and to What Effect?

By Bunn, M. Elaine | Strategic Forum, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Preemptive Action: When, How, and to What Effect?


Bunn, M. Elaine, Strategic Forum


Key Points

The Bush administration's concept of preemptive action has become a lightning rod in domestic and international politics. Proponents see it as a prudent response to terrorism and rogue states, which may not be deterred from threatening or using weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Critics contend that the concept will exacerbate distrust of the United States on the part of allies and potential partners and may make rogue states more risk-prone.

There is a good deal of misunderstanding and confusion about this concept. Preemption usually is associated with military strikes, but financial, diplomatic, and law enforcement measures also can be used in preemptive ways to enhance security.

Preemption is not a new option. U.S. officials have contemplated preemptive military actions against WMD several times, usually without taking action. What is new is open discussion of preemption.

Successful preemptive strikes require precise, prompt actions with decisive effects. Thus, the United States must be prepared to invest in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, planning assets, and, potentially, new military forces.

The National Security Strategy of the United States does not establish clear criteria for preemptive military action. Apprehension about the current policy might be assuaged with an elaboration of the general conditions and circumstances, or the factors to be weighed, for the preemptive use of force.

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What role should preemptive action play in U.S. national strategy? In the wake of the first public statements by President George W. Bush in June 2002, and in the buildup to military action against Iraq, the issue quickly became a lightning rod for controversy. While some commentators hailed preemption as a valuable concept whose time had come, others condemned it as a dangerous precedent that could damage American interests, strain our relations overseas, and make the United States a feared unilateralist in the international system. All the hue and cry has done little to clarify the issues and choices that policymakers face in weighing the utility and limits of the concept.

The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (September 2002) states that "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively" to prevent rogue states or terrorists from threatening or using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the United States or its friends and allies (see page 2). Yet there is much misunderstanding and confusion about the administration's concept of preemption, which has led to a great deal of apprehension. Some of the confusion is self-inflicted, some is circumstantial, and some results from willful misreading.

While the administration was laying out a general concept, it did so against the backdrop of Iraq. It is not surprising, then, that some have failed to distinguish between the two. Iraq may be the first case study in the new policy--although some argue that action against Iraq was not preemption but a preventive war, while others argue it was a continuation of action from the 1991 Gulf War. In any event, Iraq is not the sum total of the policy.

In the popular mind, preemption is synonymous with the use of force, and specifically with military strikes. But the concept has a broader meaning and application, as implied by the administration's careful emphasis on preemptive action. To preempt is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "to prevent from happening or taking place: forestall; preclude." Many of the preemptive actions that the United States is likely to undertake will be nonmilitary. And the nonmilitary methods of preemptive action are likely to be less controversial than military preemption.

Historical Antecedents

There are a number of historical examples of the United States contemplating preemptive military actions including against WMD-armed adversaries (at least partially motivated by preemption or prevention, sometimes in addition to other motives), but only a small number of examples in which preemptive military action was actually taken. …

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