TCS Daily

Preempting 'Preemption'

By Ken Adelman - June 26, 2002 12:00 AM

The counterattack has come. Months ago, some of us advocated "preemption" as the best U.S. security policy to replace "containment" and "deterrence." We predicted that, if adopted, it would eventually become far more controversial than those two Cold War strategies.

Weeks ago, President Bush, adopted "preemption." And just days ago, the counterattacks began, most prominently in the lead editorial of the Sunday New York Times.

Left unanswered, such counterattacks swiftly gain legitimacy. That's what happened to Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative," which Ted Kennedy and the New York Times sneeringly (and effectively) dubbed "Star Wars." It took decades for missile defense to recover the respectability it deserved.

In its provocatively titled editorial "Striking First," the Times augustly offers four "standards to which we intend to hold" President Bush. It admits to being "uncomfortable with the idea of Mr. Bush's giving himself carte blanche to make any military intervention he thinks necessary without seeking outside approval."

The first "standard" goes: "The less immediate and direct the threat against America, the weaker the case for preemptive military action." This is a surprisingly isolationist sentiment for an editorial page that consistently criticizes isolationism. It discourages a president from preempting terrorists poised to launch a nuclear or biological attack against Israel, Britain, Japan - or even against Canada.

This approach would largely reverse the post-war security system. American presidents would primarily protect Americans by preemption. This would be disastrous, especially for our friends and allies who would surely loosen their ties to us. Meanwhile, our joint enemies would feel freer to attack civilization elsewhere.

Second, and even less sensible, is the Times' "standard" which would entail the loss of all surprise against threatening terrorists. Preemptive actions would require that "Congressional leaders of both parties... be consulted and listened to before military action is taken." This would ideally involve "a vote of support from Congress" but could mean consultations with Senate and House leaders.

Either would inform poised terrorists, perhaps prompting them to launch more quickly. Regardless, the value of our preemption would be gone, or severely degraded, as terrorists could then move their weapons of mass destruction, switch targets, or revise their plans once learning of our plans.

Lest the Times leave a sliver of possible surprise in U.S. preemption, its "standards" include that "American allies... be consulted before any offensive military action." This would yet again delay and publicize the attack.

Hence the very allies left mostly unprotected by the Times' first standard are now given a say in an American president using force to protect Americans. How this squares with the president's constitutional responsibilities -- or plain common sense -- is tough to say.

(The Times' two other standards are fine. Any administration should indeed be able to "justify any offensive attack" by showing some "proof... that something deadly was about to happen without immediate intervention." And I concur that U.S. nuclear weapons are not the preemptive weapons of choice.)

While beginning by addressing a strategic "shift with profound implications," the editorial ends in the lofty Times tone: When "adjusting its military strategy to the new realities of the post-September 11 world, America must be careful to preserve its core values, its alliances and its constitutional systems of checks on unrestrained executive war-making."

My reading of U.S. history sees loads of "unrestrained executive war-making." Presidents throughout history have ordered hundreds of military engagements, few gaining a Congressional declaration of war. But nearly all have been quite responsible. To me, U.S. foreign policy has suffered more by isolationism than adventurism. Regardless, it would be tough for America to "preserve its core values [and] its alliances" under the Times' standards.

Let the counterarguments to the counter-attack begin. Otherwise, we'll watch the good new doctrine of preemption go bad fast.



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