TCS Daily

Preemption Confirmed

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 1, 2004 12:00 AM

The hearings held last week by the 9/11 Commission have engendered a great deal of commentary over America's pre-9/11 preparedness to combat terrorism. Especially controversial were the claims of former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke that the Bush Administration did not make fighting terrorism a high enough priority, that the Administration may have missed a chance to stop the 9/11 attacks, and that it ultimately undermined American security by seeking to remove Saddam Hussein's regime.

Clarke's allegations have received a lot of return fire by Republicans and the Bush Administration. Questions have been raised over whether Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 Commission may have contradicted previous sworn statements given elsewhere -- thus raising the possibility that Clarke perjured himself.

But beyond the political fight surrounding the Clarke testimony, something very important appears to have been overlooked in the analysis of the work of the 9/11 Commission: Many of the statements and recommendations put forth by Commission members would, if accepted, effectively enshrine the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemption as a lasting national policy. Indeed, the commissioners have provided significant intellectual ammunition in favor of the preemption doctrine.

Many of the commissioners -- most notable among them, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey -- have questioned members of both the Clinton and the Bush Administrations on why the United States did not take the fight to al Qaeda in Afghanistan before the September 11th attacks. Certainly, there is a legitimate question as to whether the necessary political support could have been garnered for a war on al Qaeda and in Afghanistan prior to the terrorist attacks. As Donald Rumsfeld testified before the 9/11 Commission, many of the same arguments against war in Iraq could have been used to undermine any war effort in Afghanistan. Without the September 11th attacks to provide background and justification, those arguments may well have succeeded at preventing a war by swinging public support both at home and abroad against such a war.

But today the desire on the part of the American people to ensure that another September 11th-style attack never occurs again is understandably quite high. As such, the doctrine of preemption is not nearly the controversial and difficult-to-sell proposition that it would have been prior to the terrorist attacks. Indeed, the statements of the commissioners lamenting the fact that there was no preemptive war in Afghanistan on al Qaeda have made the preemption doctrine far more palatable.

The palatability of preemption is obvious -- both on a policy level, and on a nakedly political level as well. Politically speaking, no future Administration will have the excuse that preemption is not a feasible policy since a calamitous attack has already occurred on American soil, and has made the preemption of future such attacks an imperative. Quite obviously, no future Administration will want to be perceived as having failed to respond to any potential threat or having failed to nip a terrorist plan in the bud. This nakedly political calculation -- which envisions the probability that absent preemption, another future investigative body or commission might condemn an Administration for failing to preempt terrorism -- will make the doctrine of preemption all the more mainstream a policy option.

As to the policy level, there is every incentive to save innocent lives by acting as swiftly as possible in order to counter terrorist threats. Because of the fact that intelligence is imperfect and imprecise by its very nature, we cannot be sure when a terrorist scheme will achieve the level where it can be executed. As such, it is only logical to assume a "better safe than sorry" attitude, and preempt a credible threat once we receive verifiable and -- using the phrase made famous in the 9/11 Commission hearings -- "actionable" intelligence. The United States quite obviously cannot afford to wait until the knife is at her throat before action is taken to protect American citizens and interests.

Certain things must be done to facilitate preemption. Military transformation policies must ensure that American forces and materiel can be deployed both rapidly and in overwhelming numbers in order to carry out any preemptive war. We need to increase the number of qualified people in the clandestine services. The United States continues to be woefully lacking when it comes to having sufficient human intelligence assets, and the augmentation of American intelligence in general -- along with the specific upgrading of the ranks of the clandestine services -- is vital to the prosecution of the overall war on terrorism. Finally, as discussed during the course of Secretary Rumsfeld's testimony before the 9/11 Commission, there must be major reform when it comes to the confirmation process regarding new members of an incoming national administration. Currently, the confirmation process is exceedingly expensive for nominees, unduly intrusive into private lives (well beyond the point of any national security interest in the background of nominees), and simply takes too long. National security suffers when a new administration has to carry out the traditional review of past foreign and national security policy without having key administration officials in place as soon as possible.

Once the current political debate over the Clarke testimony has died down, the 9/11 Commission may be best remembered for having helped fully legitimize the preemption doctrine. It would be a good legacy for the Commission to have, as it makes no sense for America to lie back and wait for an attack before responding. To make preemption most effective, certain aspects of American national security and governing policy need to be reconfigured and reformed. Once they are, the United States will have in place a policy that maximizes what can be done to meet and defeat the terrorist threat.


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