Whatever Happened to Preemption?

The Bush Doctrine after Bush.

After 9/11, many wondered why the United States had not taken military action in Afghanistan earlier to avert the deaths of more than 3,000 innocents. It was the same question many asked after 9/1 — that would be Sept. 1, 1939, the date when Germany invaded Poland. The evil intentions of the Nazis, like those of al Qaeda, had been clear far in advance. Why had the civilized world not intervened before tragedy struck? Why had those in a position to act not listened to the anguished, urgent warnings coming from the likes of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in the case of the Nazis, or from Richard Clarke, Reuel Gerecht, and others in the case of the Islamists?

The answer is almost impossible to fathom in retrospect once we are aware of the consequences of inaction. Indeed, so convinced was U.S. President George W. Bush of the need to avoid making the same mistake in the future that he promulgated a doctrine of preemption that roiled traditional foreign-policy circles. Citing threats such as a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, the president’s 2002 National Security Strategy vowed, To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by [its] adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising its inherent right of self-defense. As recently as Dec. 9, speaking at West Point, Bush reiterated that after 9/11, We resolved that we would not wait to be attacked again. … We understood, as I said here at West Point in 2002, ‘if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long’ — so we made clear that hostile regimes sponsoring terror or pursuing weapons of mass destruction would be held to account.

The Iraq war was the first step toward making good on what became known as the Bush doctrine. Yet the very messiness of that intervention served as a warning of the costs of preemption. That perhaps explains why Bush, even as he continues to reaffirm that preemption is essential to U.S. national security, has failed to do more to deal with the gathering storms in Pakistan and Iran, which to future historians might stand, more than Iraq or the financial meltdown, as the greatest stains on his presidency.

In the years since Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has replaced Afghanistan as the leading refuge for al Qaeda and related scoundrels. Its territory has been connected to atrocities as far afield as the Mumbai attacks, which killed 170 people in November, and the London bombings, which killed 56 people in 2005. Other Pakistan-related plots have been stopped barely in the nick of time. These include Richard Reid’s attempt to bring down an airliner with a shoe bomb in 2001 and plans to carry out a series of bombings in Europe by 14 would-be terrorists, who were arrested in Spain in early 2008. A few of the masterminds behind these machinations have been caught or killed. Many others, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain alive and probably hiding in Pakistan. A handful of high-profile arrests notwithstanding, the Pakistani security services have made scant effort to root out jihadist networks that have long-standing links with Pakistan’s own Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

In its recent report, the congressionally chartered Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former U.S. Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, singled out Pakistan for special attention because many government officials and outside experts believe that the next terrorist attack against the United States is likely to originate from within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.

What is truly alarming is the possibility that such an attack could be carried out with weapons of mass destruction. If al Qaeda were ever to get its hands on a nuclear bomb, Pakistan would have to be considered a prime culprit. It is, after all, a state rife with Islamist extremists, and has a government unable to preserve even a modicum of order. Its capacity to safeguard its nuclear arsenal, even with the best of intentions, is in doubt. Already, the A.Q. Khan ring has been responsible for a frightening amount of nuclear proliferation. It takes a lot of credulity to imagine that Pakistan’s top nuclear weapons scientist could carry out these activities without the knowledge of anyone in the Pakistani government.

Another likely source for a terrorist bomb would have to be Iran. Iran’s own government admits to having more than 5,000 centrifuges in operation and plans to install many more. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that those centrifuges have already produced 630 kilograms, or 1,390 pounds, of low-enriched uranium. Once that material is purified into highly enriched uranium, it would be sufficient, or nearly sufficient, to make an atomic bomb. Intelligence estimates warn that could happen sometime in 2009. Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, is hardly a hard-liner, but even he says efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program have been a failure. We haven’t really moved one inch toward addressing the issues, he recently told the Los Angeles Times.

Considering that Iran is listed by the U.S. State Department as the world’s No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism (and Americans are one of its main victims), that is disquieting news. The dangers were well summed up by another bipartisan report, this one issued by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats: Iran’s nuclear development may pose the most significant strategic threat to the United States during the next Administration. A nuclear-ready or nuclear-armed Islamic Republic ruled by the clerical regime could threaten the Persian Gulf region and its vast energy resources, spark nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, inject additional volatility into global energy markets, embolden extremists in the region and destabilize states such as Saudi Arabia and others in the region, provide nuclear technology to other radical regimes and terrorists (although Iran might hesitate to share traceable nuclear technology), and seek to make good on its threats to eradicate Israel.

No wonder there is general agreement across the U.S. political spectrum that, as President-elect Barack Obama said in the second presidential debate in October, We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Yet what is he actually prepared to do to stop the mullahs?

Bush relied on tough talk and toothless diplomacy conducted by France, Britain, and Germany. Those negotiations went nowhere, but that doesn’t discourage Obama from vowing to place even more emphasis on diplomacy once he takes office. He has vowed to use sticks as well as carrots but, given the opposition of China and Russia in particular, there is scant cause to think that he will be any more successful than Bush in putting real multilateral pressure on Iran. Indeed, an Iranian spokesman has already rejected Obama’s approach, saying, Tehran’s stand is the same as before; that is, if they [the U.S. administration] want suspension, we have repeatedly announced that we will not suspend [enrichment activities].

The likelihood is that the Iranians will continue to string Obama along, as they’ve strung along the Europeans, drawing out the negotiations to give themselves time to produce a bomb. Once they actually go nuclear, they realize from observing North Korea’s experience that their leverage to demand concessions from the West will soar and the West’s capacity for an effective response will plummet. (North Korea is another country where Bush has done little to head off a serious threat.)

For all the empty talk of tough diplomacy, the uncomfortable reality is that there is only one option that in the short term is likely to forestall Iran from going nuclear: airstrikes on its atomic installations. That is hardly an ideal solution, and, given how dispersed and protected Iran’s nuclear facilities are, not even a series of sorties is likely to eradicate the threat. But bombing could at least set back the Iranian program for a number of years, which is more than diplomacy is likely to accomplish.

Bush has implicitly threatened such a strike when he has said time after time that all options are on the table, but he has never made any moves to prepare either the U.S. military or the U.S. public for such action. Some reports suggest he went so far as to discourage Israel from mounting its own raid.

No doubt President-elect Obama is listening to the numerous voices inside and outside his incoming administration that cite the many drawbacks of an attack on Iran. And, no question, the drawbacks are real. These range from the possibility of the Iranian people rallying around the mullahs to the possibility of the mullahs closing the Strait of Hormuz or carrying out terrorist strikes on U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, or as far afield as Europe or the Americas.

There are even greater potential pitfalls associated with a serious attempt to stamp out terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Preemption lite — the current approach of picking off terrorist leaders with armed Predator drones — can help to weaken and slow the jihadists, but it can hardly defeat them. That would, in all likelihood, require an invasion of western Pakistan, perhaps accompanied by preemptive airstrikes on Pakistan’s nuclear installations. That is an undertaking so daunting as to make even the most hawkish of analysts turn dovish.

Pakistan is, after all, a country of 160 million people with nuclear weapons and more than 600,000 active-duty military personnel. Even if most of its armed forces could be convinced not to resist a large-scale, U.S.-led incursion (and that is by no means a certainty), the invading troops would have to deal with the nightmarish prospect of pacifying the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This region is home to more than 6 million Pashtuns living amid treacherous, mountainous terrain that has never been fully brought under control by any outside power. Next door is the North-West Frontier Province, which has a population of 20 million and has also become a playground for jihadists. Sending U.S. troops to take on such a difficult task would be virtually unthinkable, barring another tragedy on the scale of 9/11.

And that’s precisely the point. We Americans shy away from preemptive action because we can imagine all too clearly the costs of action. But we lack the imagination to see the costs of inaction. Or, rather, we can imagine the costs, but we tell ourselves, fingers crossed, that we may never have to pay them. Perhaps we will not live to see a major attack, emanating from Pakistan or Iran, on our soil or the soil of an allied country. Perhaps we will indeed dodge the bullet — or, more aptly, the bomb. Or perhaps not.

In a prosperous democracy it is all too easy for our leaders to succumb to the same soothing narcosis as the general populace, content to imagine that problems do not really exist because they have not yet fully materialized. That is the illusion that Churchill fought against in the 1930s and Clarke in the 1990s. They both failed. Now, as the United States and our allies fail to act decisively against present-day dangers, we know why.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” Twitter: @MaxBoot

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