THE BEST DEFENSE: Preventive War

Thursday, May 26, 2005

In 2002, the Bush administration published a new National Security Strategy, which argued that, in the twenty-first century, it was necessary for the United States not merely to defend itself but to use military force to prevent threats such as terrorist attacks and weapons of mass destruction. Is preventive force just? Is it effective? And what can the biggest example of this doctrine in action, the war in Iraq, tell us about the future of preventive force? Peter Robinson speaks with Victor Davis Hanson, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Stephen Stedman.

Recorded on Thursday, May 26, 2005

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: an ounce...or two...of prevention.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the doctrine of preventive force.In 2002, the Bush Administration published a National Security Strategy arguing that in the twenty-first century the United States must defend itself not only when attacked but by preventing certain threats such as terrorist threats and weapons of mass destruction from arising in the first place. Is the doctrine of preventive force--striking before we're struck--just? Is it effective? And what can the biggest example of the doctrine in action, the war in Iraq, tell us about the future of preventive force?

Joining us today, three guests. Victor Davis Hanson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Stephen Stedman is a professor of political science at Stanford University and Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Title: Shoot First?

Peter Robinson: Analyst Gary Schmitt, "Well before Bush became president, prevention was a necessary policy option and it will remain one long after he leaves the White House for a very simple reason: the world is what it is." Prevention, a necessary policy option? Steve?

Stephen Stedman: No.

Peter Robinson: No. Anne-Marie?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: No.

Peter Robinson: Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. It's as old as the Greeks and the Romans. There was third Carthaginian War but there wasn't a fourth.

Peter Robinson: All right. Thank you very much. We'll discuss the doctrine of prevention in practice but first I'd like to talk about it for a moment or two in sweet theory. 2002 National Security Strategy says that we have to make an effort not only to respond when attacked but to prevent threats. Item number one, what's the difference between prevention and preemption. Who'd like to do some defining for us? Steve?

Stephen Stedman: Well the--first of all the way that you've used prevention so far, it doesn't imply force. I mean, we do a lot of preventive things all the time. Diplomacy is about prevention. But if you're talking about the preventive use of force versus the preemptive use of force…

Peter Robinson: I am.

Stephen Stedman: …generally what we talk about is preemptive use of force is against a threat that is imminent. And you use force to interrupt a threat that basically is in motion. Preventive force is against threats that are latent, not imminent.

Peter Robinson: Everybody agrees with that? We're fine with a working definition here?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. Now one of the traditional requirements for a just war is that any assault--force that is intended to forestall must indeed be imminent. So a preemptive war can very easily be a just war. All covered under just theory. How could a preventive war ever be just? Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Because there could be conditions--socioeconomic, political--that are coming to a fore that within a brief span are going to make the security of your country brought--come--brought into question. In other words, let me give you an example. If you know that a government is A: undemocratic, B: a rogue nation or lunatic, and C: about to come under nuclear weapons but has not stated any direct threat against your country, then that might qualify for a preventive act of force to forestall the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a North Korea, for example.

Peter Robinson: Moral theologian Michael Novak, "What does imminent mean when the attacking force is not launched through the mass mobilization of entire armies near a national border but by a single clandestine attacker? When did the attack of September 11th become imminent? Meaning, in the circumstances the United States finds itself facing now, this notion of imminence is no longer useful or it needs to be redefined. Right or not?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The reason you now need to talk about preventive war rather than preemptive war is because we are facing the kinds of threats where you're not going to be able to know when the threat is imminent. Preemptive war, the classic example is the Israeli war in 1967. The armies are amassing on the borders. You know they're about to strike and you strike first. That's preemptive war. That's--the threat is imminent. Now…

Peter Robinson: That's the old-fashioned--nobody has any trouble with that.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Nobody has any trouble with that. That's been part of international law for forever.

Peter Robinson: Gotcha.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Now the question is precisely that--take what happened 9/11 or take you think that some country is about to get nuclear weapons and they are funding terrorists and they are--so imagine the Taliban was about to go nuclear. Well at that point, you know that if you wait till the threat is imminent, it's too late. By then, you're not going to--if they've got a nuclear weapon, you're not going to wait around wondering when they're going to use it. So you have to strike beforehand.

Peter Robinson: Anne-Marie just gave a very impressive rationale for preventive force. So why did she say it wasn't necessary at the top of the show?

Title: United (Nations) We Stand

Peter Robinson: On the opening question when I said is preventive war a necessary option, you both said no. So what you're suggesting is that it can be a useful option but it is not always necessary? Why did you say--you just made such a lovely argument for the use of prevention…

Stephen Stedman: Can I give my answer on that?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: No, I'm going to give mine.

Peter Robinson: Go ahead. You may be thinking, Anne-Marie.

Stephen Stedman: My feeling is that the threats that we face today, I could envision circumstances under which preventive force should be used.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Stedman: My belief is that the proper institution and proper authority for the preventive use of force should be collectively done and it should be the United Nations Security Council. Now that would mean a revolution in how the Security Council does its business because it's traditionally a reactive body. It reacts to threats. In the future, given the threats that we face, it is going to have to be proactive. So given the scenario that Anne-Marie described, a state that felt threatened should go to the Security Council and lay out why this particular latent threat is so dangerous that it is a threat to international peace and security and therefore needs a collective response.

Peter Robinson: Right. So your--the reason you answered no to the opening question was you don't want the United States engaging in preventive force on its own?

Stephen Stedman: Right.

Peter Robinson: Okay. And is that your answer as well?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: No, my answer was--the quote was that it's always been an option and always will be. I think we really are facing a new class of threats. I mean, if you--the--probably the best example of preventive war before 9/11 or a powerful example is Pearl Harbor. So Japan attacks us because they know--they think sooner or later, we're going--they're going to be at war with us and they want to strike first to weaken us. Now that strikes me as not something you want to encourage. And I think before now, it was not a good idea to allow preventive war, to allow for the possibility of preventive war because what you were effectively doing was licensing states to attack other states. Now we face a world in which individuals can create the kind of damage that only states could create before. And in that kind of a world, you can't wait for an imminent attack because they're not going to use armies.

Peter Robinson: Let's take a couple of case studies.

Victor Davis Hanson: Can I just reply real quickly?

Peter Robinson: Yeah, of course.

Victor Davis Hanson: Absent from this argument is any singular appreciation of democracy and constitutional government. Your example about Japan is interesting because Japan was a military dictatorship. United States was a constitutional government. And the same thing applies to the UN. Imagine we're going to go to the UN and ask the Security Council of which Communist China has a veto power which Communist China itself may well preempt democratic Taiwan, at least it's threatened to. And it also has North Korea on a leash which is threatening the security of the whole Asian region. So the problem we have with all this, it sounds fine in theory but when you look at the abstract way the world works, there's--democracies act a particular way and either collective autocracies or autocracies…

Peter Robinson: Next: case studies in the use of preventive force.

Title: Torah Torah Torah

Peter Robinson: Case study number one, the smallest one. 1981, Israel launches an air attack against Iraq destroying the reactor at Osirak. The Israelis acted to prevent Iraq from developing the capacity to use enriched plutonium, which it might then have used in developing nuclear weapons. Was the attack on the Osirak reactor justified--justified and was it wise? Anne-Marie?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: It was not legal under the--of the law at the time. Was it justified? I think it was justified. I'm not certain--there's a real debate about whether it was effective because when we invaded in 1991, we found that the Iraqis had a flourishing nuclear program and there's some evidence that they would double their efforts afterwards. On the other hand, it almost certainly bought time. You know, we don't know. It's counterfactual but if they hadn't struck in 1981, maybe the Iraqis would have had a nuclear weapon by 1985 when they were fighting the war against Iran. So it did buy time. And I think from the point of view of Israel, very worried that here was a country sworn to the destruction of Israel to prevent it from getting that capacity. As a political matter, I think it was justified.

Peter Robinson: Steve?

Stephen Stedman: I would largely concur with that. I mean, in terms of the legality of it, it was not legal. And our Ambassador Gene Kirkpatrick actually said so at the United Nations.

Peter Robinson: Right. There's an important question as Israel is the actor here so the notion of going to the UN which had passed resolution after resolution after resolution against the military existence of Israel. This is not an option.

Stephen Stedman: Well, but it's part of a larger point which is states are only going to use a collective security mechanism if they have confidence in the performance of that mechanism. If they have no confidence whatsoever, then they're not going to use it.

Peter Robinson: So given the reality of the UN as it existed in 1981, Israel did right?

Stephen Stedman: I would say that it was justified for what it did.

Peter Robinson: Victor?

Victor Davis Hanson: Nothing's changed since 1981. Since 1981, we've seen Srebrenica, we've seen Rwanda, we've seen Darfur and all we know about the UN is that it's never preempted or prevented any war. And…

Stephen Stedman: Well that's not true because there have been plenty of crises in the world where people could say ah ha, I see a threat and we need something to happen. Now they don't take a decision to use force but they use preventive diplomacy, they use mediation, they use a whole lot of different tools short of war.

Victor Davis Hanson: Give me one major case where the lives of million of people were at risk where the United Nations intervened to prevent genocide or a major war breakout.

Stephen Stedman: Well, I mean, the one time where they did use troops for preventive deployment was Macedonia.

Victor Davis Hanson: Macedonia, a quarter million people died in the Balkans and the UN didn't do anything. The UN…

Stephen Stedman: No, but you just asked me when have they used force in a preventive manner and I'm giving you an example.

Stephen Stedman: And then you're saying but they didn't use it over here. It doesn't…

Victor Davis Hanson: …what stopped the Balkan crisis.

Peter Robinson: It's true it wasn't…

Stephen Stedman: You look at the next domino in the Balkans and it never fell.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: And it never was.

Victor Davis Hanson: What stopped the Balkans crisis was the United States Air Force. There had been a quarter million people killed until United States intervened. And I will say intervened unilaterally and without the sanction of the U.S. Senate. And as I said earlier, Bill Clinton, I think, was quite right in doing that and people who were very angry about Iraq and questioned its legality were quite silent about the lack of the UN resolution or a congressional resolution.

Peter Robinson: Victor brings us to the big case study, the war in Iraq.

Title: Altogether…Not

Peter Robinson: Anne-Marie, let me quote you to yourself. "I conclude that the invasion of Iraq was both illegal and illegitimate. The coalition's decision to use force without a second Security Council resolution cannot stand as a precedent but rather as a mistake." Okay. Explain yourself.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The first thing I said was it was illegal. I do think it was illegal. But it was potentially legitimate. If we had found weapons of mass destruction, if we had been greeted with open arms by the Iraqis, if we'd gone back to the UN, I was saying even though we didn't have the--we did not have authorization, I thought it was potentially legitimate.

Peter Robinson: Obvious question. If we went in believing that there were weapons of mass destruction there and then discovered that our intelligence--the best intelligence available and it was--the impression seems to be shared by other intelligence agencies--was simply mistaken.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: That makes it tough. It seems to me when the basis for why we were going in and why we were asking the UN to authorize what we were doing was we were saying there are weapons of mass destruction. It is not an imminent threat but if we don't act now, we're going to be in big trouble. And other countries said, I think in retrospect with some justification, well are you sure of your intelligence and why don't we send the inspectors back in and why don't we adopt a much more rigorous regime. And for them--for us then to go in and discover that there really wasn't anything, it essentially--it certainly hurt our credibility but it--it meant why didn't we wait. Why couldn't we have waited a little bit longer?

Peter Robinson: Okay. So what I'm just trying to--I want to tease out the two strands of thought here. One is the intelligence was faulty and we ought to have known that it was not good enough at the time?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: An awful lot of people were challenging us and we did not give--one of the reasons we did not get that resolution was the people decided that it--we were not going to wait, that we were not going to wait, that we were going to go to war no matter what. And that…

Peter Robinson: And then the second strand is that the United Nations has to be behind something before it's legitimate. You'd tend to agree with Stephen on that?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I think that we have paid a real price. In the end, I mean, I am very happy to see Saddam Hussein gone and I hope deeply for the future of Iraqi democracy. However, we paid dearly for not having UN support. We paid in terms of not being able to go in through Turkey which would have made it easier. We have not been able to get the burden sharing that we need. We haven't gotten the international support that we need. It's been an uphill battle and we've paid with American lives and lots of American dollars.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So the intelligence was lousy…

Victor Davis Hanson: There's a couple of things…

Peter Robinson: …and we ought to have worked the UN harder. What do you make of that?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, in October of 2002, the U.S. Senate voted to authorize force to be used against Iraq and they listed twenty-three different reasons why that was a good thing and it included everything from a potential assassination attempt on George Bush, violations of the 1991 armistice, the UN violations, genocide. And when Colin Powell went to the UN, he mentioned three or four other criteria for war besides so-called WMD. And as far as Turkey opposing the…

Peter Robinson: Hold on.

Victor Davis Hanson: …there were other rea…

Peter Robinson: On WMD, did the Bush Administration then make a prudential mistake…

Victor Davis Hanson: Absolutely. They…

Peter Robinson: They should not have rested the case so heavily on WMD.

Victor Davis Hanson: They privileged one of the twenty-three criteria that the senate had passed because they thought that had the most resonance. In their defense, people were saying that up until they did that--if you go back and look at the record, people were saying they were using a shotgun approach to use anything that would stick to go to war.

Peter Robinson: So the question is--layman's question--it's further to Victor's point but the layman's question is it looked and felt to me as though we were working the UN about as hard as anybody could reasonably have been supposed to work the UN. And that the French and others were simply being obstructionists and had made up their minds. Now how do you--we had to make a decision and do something. The UN was simply being obstructionist. That's the way it felt to this layman. How do you answer that charge?

Stephen Stedman: First of all, we--the United States never made a case to the Security Council that we were, for instance, imminently threatened or we were invoking this out of self defense.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Stedman: The argument that the United Kingdom and the United States made was that this was a question of enforcing Security Council resolutions that were already outstanding and that is why it got tied, in large measure, to WMD although I think that was a--that was something that was a real concern. Saying that--given all the various resolutions that have been passed and given the fact of non-compliance, something has got to give.

Peter Robinson: Just as Victor says, the Bush Administration should not have rested so much of its argument so heavily on WMD. Was this an error to rest so much of the argument before the United Nations on those X number of preceding resolutions? Or that was the right way to go?

Stephen Stedman: I actually think that that was a completely appropriate way to go. The question comes down to given the fact that in March of 2003, you did not have agreement. Right.

Peter Robinson: At the UN?

Stephen Stedman: At the UN.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Stedman: Was there reason to go to war in March of 2003, just prudentially? Would it have been worthwhile waiting, for instance, for Hans Blix to come back with a new report on the status…

Peter Robinson: Six weeks, six months…

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Three weeks is what the British wanted.

Stephen Stedman: Would that have mattered? Would that have actually turned the ta--it wasn't just France and Russia, of course. We didn't have the majority of votes on the Security Council.

Peter Robinson: Let's move on to another key consideration, the broader consequences of preventive force.

Title: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire

Peter Robinson: Preventive Force Working Group here at Stanford, "The decision to utilize preventive force could deter potential target sites but it could also cause potential targets or states to act in anticipation of a preventive attack." Sir, after we invaded Iraq, North Korea and Iran both began to hustle to develop nuclear weapons. North Korea, it's now widely believed has succeeded in doing so. Iran, it is widely believed may succeed very soon. So by taking preventive action against Saddam Hussein, we took care of Saddam Hussein, the question is did we create two conceivably even graver threats in the process?

Victor Davis Hanson: No, because you don't create a nuclear weapon in the space of a year. Both the nuclear programs in Iran and in Korea had a long pedigree well before Iraq. And if you look at…

Peter Robinson: Would you deny that they hustled? They stepped up the program once we went into Iraq?

Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, I would also say…

Peter Robinson: You do deny that?

Victor Davis Hanson: That they hustled?

Peter Robinson: Yeah.

Victor Davis Hanson: I don't know what--I don't have access to the information of what degree they started to work harder but they had been working very hard because they saw there were dividends in getting nuclear weapons as Pakistan proved. And the point is after we went into Iraq, we did have some positive ripples as well you're omitting. I don't think Mr. Khadafi would have come clean. I don't think Mr. Khan would have come clean. I don't think…

Stephen Stedman: Mr. Khan didn't come clean.

Victor Davis Hanson: I don't think there would have been…

Stephen Stedman: He was arrested.

Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, well there wouldn't have been pressure for--Pakistan wouldn't have metamorphosized from a neutral or belligerent…

Peter Robinson: Mr. Khan is the nuclear scientist...

Stephen Stedman: Well no they did that after 9/11 where we made it very clear what was expected of them. It had nothing to do with an invasion of Iraq.

Victor Davis Hanson: 9/11 was--if we had not gone into Afghanistan or Iraq, nobody would have cared.

Stephen Stedman: Afghanistan is different from Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Hold on. Victor, I want to see how you weigh this. I had the feeling certainly as a--regarding this as a layman--the general feeling is that North Korea and Iraq really put the pedal to the metal on their nuclear programs once we went into Iraq. Let's stipulate that they hustled at least a little bit. So the question is how do you, thinking through the doctrine of preventive force, weigh this matter that by attacking here, you may help to call into being threats here and here. How do you weigh that? How do you address it?

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, I think it's a little bit irrelevant. That's how I would address it because I think whether we went into Iraq or not, the question of whether Iran or North Korea were going to go nuclear was going to be based always on the attitude of the United States and China or its--the geopolitical situation in that region. Us going into Iraq did not mean that Iran was going to go nuclear or go not nuclear. And I would also weigh another thing. That there were Syrians outside of Lebanon, there was women voting in Kuwait, there's question…

Peter Robinson: Positive results.

Victor Davis Hanson: There's talks about elections in Egypt and everything from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan--people are talking for the first time in parts of Asia and the Arab world about democracy. That didn't happen…

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Well, there were definitely positive parts of Iraq but the question is could you have avoided the negative sides because in Iran…

Peter Robinson: How would you have done so? How would you have done so?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: …for instance, you have a whole bun--a number of reformers who actually don't want a nuclear weapon. The minute we go into Iraq, that then becomes a nationalist issue and legitimately the hardliners can say there are U.S. troops on our border. They would never have invaded Iraq if they'd had a nuclear weapon which goes back to Steve's point. Preventive war is, I think, a necessary doctrine but it is a very dangerous doctrine and you gave the best example. If you said preventive war, any state can just engage in preventive war, there is nothing to stop China from going into Taiwan. There is nothing to stop Arab…

Victor Davis Hanson: Well, there's nothing stopping China going to Taiwan tomorrow. No, the only thing that stops China from going into Taiwan is the United States military.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Look, you need the United States military but you also need the fact that the idea that they would do that would cause them to sacrifice all the influence they are working at so hard to build up.

Victor Davis Hanson: I don't think they would lose anything at all. I think if tomorrow the United States military said we have no obligations to Taiwan, China would take it over and the world would be trading with it in two days.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: Fine you can take any example you want. The point is to legitimate preventive war, to let other countries decide. We don't like--we're going to go in and take out a threat. It may be necessary in certain circumstances but it's like a loaded gun. You don't want it lying around. So the reason you need collective authorization is that Iraq--Iran wouldn't be so worried if they didn't think it was just the United States making that decision.

Peter Robinson: Finally, how to amend the doctrine of preventive force.

Title: …A Pound of Cure

Peter Robinson: We have this 2002 National Security Strategy out there. It says we need to think carefully about the doctrine of preventive force and from time to time possibly use preventive force. If you could amend that document in a sentence or two--you could amend the thinking of this administration or if you could amend something about the United Nations, what would you do?

Stephen Stedman: I would say that in the future when a threat is latent but of sufficient danger, that we should take the case to the Security Council and in the future, the job is to make the Security Council a much more effective arbiter of when collective force should be used.

Peter Robinson: Victor, what amendment would you make?

Victor Davis Hanson: I have a little clause that says we take the state--we take the step reluctantly because the United Nations is not a democratically constituted body.

Peter Robinson: But you'd take the step?

Victor Davis Hanson: I would leave that doctrine intact and just add a qualifier regret that because we can't act in concert with the United Nations because it's a sum of its parts.

Peter Robinson: See this is moving your way in a big way because what we're having here is a ratification of the Slaughter doctrine and what would you--what amendment would you make?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I would say that A: we do need it. I agree with this. I would say we should go to the United Nations but we should expect that the United Nations is going to, in fact, act effectively for threatened security.

Peter Robinson: How come the two of you…

Anne-Marie Slaughter: And if not, then they…

Peter Robinson: How come the two of you don't kick and fuss and scream about the UN the way Victor does? We've got--half the members of the United Nations are tinpot dictators, autocracies, plutocracy, I just don't see the resistance to you or the urge to reform it.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: We both think it needs to be dramatically reformed. Steve has spent the last year trying for dramatic reform but the fact is, as I said, imagine Iraq--if the UN had been with us--it would have been cheaper, it would have been more effective, we would have had a much greater ability to achieve our aims. And when the UN has been with us, we have enjoyed all of that. The first Gulf War, they were completely with us. So what we need is a UN that works and that works in our interest.

Peter Robinson: Anne-Marie just got the last word, Victor. I'm terribly sorry.

Victor Davis Hanson: It's okay.

Peter Robinson: You're at no loss for forums in which to speak, Victor.

Peter Robinson: Victor Davis Hanson, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Stephen Stedman, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.