Caveat Preemptor

How Obama has adopted the Bush doctrine.

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but the language of strategic discourse has also suffered multiple serious wounds over the past decade -- none more grievous than that which has been inflicted on the time-honored concept of "preemption," the notion of striking first so as to thwart an adversary's own impending attack. The most egregious misuse of the term arose in President George W. Bush's 2002 national security strategy, which sought to expand its meaning to encompass the use of force against any who might one day pose a threat. Thus was the attempt made to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq as "preemptive."

But the attack on Iraq was not preemptive. In the strategic lexicon, the kind of action taken against Iraq is called "preventive war," which is about attacking before a threat becomes imminent. Moral philosopher Michael Walzer has parsed these matters neatly, noting that preemption focuses closely on the need to take action in a current crisis; preventive war has to do with worries about the future consequences of inaction. Generally, ethicists are open to the need to be able to take preemptive action. But the very concept of waging preventive war gets their backs up. It looks a little too much like naked aggression. Due to this concern, Bush and his senior advisers sought to defuse principled opposition to the use of force, in the absence of imminent threat, by arbitrarily expanding the definition of preemption.

Humpty Dumpty got away, for a while, with the bald-faced assertion that a word "means just what I choose it to mean." But for national leaders and diplomats, this looseness is a recipe for disaster -- as the ensuing costly debacle in Iraq suggests. Even more troubling than the facts that Americans are gone from Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and the killing has continued, is that President Obama has taken the same approach to preemption as his predecessor. He has ramped up the global drone war on terror with a many-fold increase in strikes on suspects. We are told that this is done with great care, and that the targets are being selected strictly on the basis of the imminence of the threats posed. But this is hardly believable, as scarcely a shred of evidence has been presented to the public in support of the notion that the victims of these attacks were on their way to hit American (or other) targets. Further, the frequent use of "signature strikes," hitting at sites simply on the basis of intelligence profiles suggesting they're populated by troublemakers, is highly problematic.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but the language of strategic discourse has also suffered multiple serious wounds over the past decade — none more grievous than that which has been inflicted on the time-honored concept of "preemption," the notion of striking first so as to thwart an adversary’s own impending attack. The most egregious misuse of the term arose in President George W. Bush’s 2002 national security strategy, which sought to expand its meaning to encompass the use of force against any who might one day pose a threat. Thus was the attempt made to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq as "preemptive."

But the attack on Iraq was not preemptive. In the strategic lexicon, the kind of action taken against Iraq is called "preventive war," which is about attacking before a threat becomes imminent. Moral philosopher Michael Walzer has parsed these matters neatly, noting that preemption focuses closely on the need to take action in a current crisis; preventive war has to do with worries about the future consequences of inaction. Generally, ethicists are open to the need to be able to take preemptive action. But the very concept of waging preventive war gets their backs up. It looks a little too much like naked aggression. Due to this concern, Bush and his senior advisers sought to defuse principled opposition to the use of force, in the absence of imminent threat, by arbitrarily expanding the definition of preemption.

Humpty Dumpty got away, for a while, with the bald-faced assertion that a word "means just what I choose it to mean." But for national leaders and diplomats, this looseness is a recipe for disaster — as the ensuing costly debacle in Iraq suggests. Even more troubling than the facts that Americans are gone from Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and the killing has continued, is that President Obama has taken the same approach to preemption as his predecessor. He has ramped up the global drone war on terror with a many-fold increase in strikes on suspects. We are told that this is done with great care, and that the targets are being selected strictly on the basis of the imminence of the threats posed. But this is hardly believable, as scarcely a shred of evidence has been presented to the public in support of the notion that the victims of these attacks were on their way to hit American (or other) targets. Further, the frequent use of "signature strikes," hitting at sites simply on the basis of intelligence profiles suggesting they’re populated by troublemakers, is highly problematic.

Another Obama administration application of preemption is emerging in cyberspace. Last fall, then-Secretary of Defense Panetta, in a major policy speech, explicitly spoke to the possibility of mounting preemptive attacks. For the most part, his qualifying "ifs" (if a cyber attack is perceived as imminent, and if it is likely to do great damage) suggest a degree of caution. But there has also been language in the administration discourse about striking first on the basis of "emergence of a concrete threat" that begins to move this policy more in the direction of using preventive force than just taking preemptive action. This is a serious concern, given how very hard it will be to detect an imminent attack. In cyberspace there are no troops massing on the border, no telltale signs of long-range missiles being readied for launch, no aircraft scrambling. Cyberattack comes with a simple click. Identifying the attacker ahead of time will require amazing forensic skills — not in evidence yet even in the case of exhaustive post-incident investigations.

For all the current troubles with the slippage from preemption to prevention, it must be noted that the history of strategic thought about striking first to forestall an imminent attack has been very troubling in its own right. Nuclear preemption notions during the Cold War, for example, led to highly destabilizing ideas about the "launch on warning" of one’s vulnerable missiles. The Soviet hierarchy’s war plan for central Europe was just as high-risk, too, as it called for a preemptive series of nuclear strikes from the outset of any conflict, before NATO would be able to use its own atomic arsenal. Both sides eventually had the good sense to realize that nuclear preemption made no sense, and mutual deterrence eventually held sway — as it still does today.

Even the classic case of preemption in a conventional conflict, Israel’s opening operations in the Six-Day War of 1967, leaves much to question. One Israeli officer quoted at the time in the Associated Press noted simply, "Time is against us. Nasser said he seeks to destroy us. Why shouldn’t we believe him?" This sort of reasoning is preventive in nature — that is, it speaks to attacking before the odds of winning worsen. Cost factors also drove the action back then, as mobilization of Israel’s citizen army ran about $20 million daily (big dollars in those days, for a small country). A lingering crisis was going to ruin the economy. Even so, the great Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion was not convinced that war was necessary, and wrote in his diary on the eve of the conflict: "I’m very worried about the step we’re about to take. The haste involved here is beyond my understanding."

Indeed, it is hard to identify cases of preemption — save for those "spoiling attacks" featured at the tactical level in many military campaigns — that do lie within our understanding. Francis Bacon no doubt had it right — in theory — four centuries ago in his essay, "Of Empire," when he asserted, "there is no question but a just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war." But in practice, preemption has never made much sense as a strategic national policy. Further, the expensive misadventure in Iraq has made for real problems with the pursuit of preventive policies. Yet prevention may be the only rational way ahead, in terms of pursuing the twin goals of stemming proliferation — in Iran and elsewhere — and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.

So it is time for senior leaders to fess up. The past decade has seen a lot of stumbling around, with wrongheaded preventive actions taken and a sustained, bipartisan effort at Newspeak that willfully mislabels prevention as preemption. Given the inherent problems with preemption, though, let’s just be honest about the need to act forcefully and preventively against proliferators and terrorists — even in the absence of imminent threats. How hard is it to admit this?

John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.

Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.

His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).

Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”

In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.