Pre-Emption and Post-Analysis; Hindsight Is the High Price of Decision-making.(OPED)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 22, 2002 | Go to article overview

Pre-Emption and Post-Analysis; Hindsight Is the High Price of Decision-making.(OPED)


Byline: David Isby, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The debate in Congress about U.S. pre-emptive military action against Iraq was not an end but a beginning. If the war does take place, the historians are likely to be still looking for more facts 60 years hence. The full range of intelligence crown jewels - the human intelligence or cryptanalysis - that today's leaders may either rely on or try to explain away in deciding about pre-emptive action - will likely never be displayed.

Even as Congress has supported the administration, there remains a campaign of leaking news stories - first from the Pentagon, more recently from the intelligence community - that appear designed to signal that some in those institutions are putting distance between their assessments and administration policies. If this is the case, it underlines factors seen in previous pre-emptive uses of military force. Those who may have to carry out the pre-emption may not wish to do so or wish to show they share the reasoning or motivation of the national leadership that led to pre-emption.

When Winston Churchill ordered a pre-emptive attack on the French Navy at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria in July 1940, he acted against the advice of most of his military leaders, who did not believe it likely that the Vichy government's warships would be made available to fight against Britain. Hindsight is today on the side of the admirals. But neither the admirals - nor the historians - had access to the full range of Churchill's intelligence sources. Nor did the admirals share what Churchill saw as the full range of his policy responsibilities at that moment. The admirals did not want to compound a difficult operational situation; Churchill had to win the war.

The pre-emptive use of military force sends a powerful message. Its impact is seldom intended to be limited to its target. Current or potential allies, adversaries or an internal audience are going to draw lessons from any use of military force, especially a pre-emptive one. These broader contexts of pre-emption may have value beyond the purely military impact.

Churchill had to consider how Mers-el-Kebir would look - to the then-neutral United States, to Hitler and to defeatists in Britain and its government - that contributed to the decision. Churchill saw the decision not simply in terms of Anglo-French diplomacy or the military utility of French battlecruisers, but what such an attack meant for the world conflict as a whole. …

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