Why a First Strike Will Surely Backfire
Published on Sunday, June 16, 2002 in the Washington Post
Why a First Strike Will Surely Backfire
by William A. Galston

As the White House moves closer to a brand-new security doctrine that supports preemptive attacks against hostile states or terrorists that have chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Iraq would be first on its list of targets. The Bush administration has argued before that the national security of the United States requires the elimination of Saddam Hussein's regime, by force if necessary. Democrats with national ambitions have been lining up to agree.

A preemptive all-out invasion of Iraq would represent one of the most fateful deployments of American power since World War II. Given the stakes, the policy discussion in official Washington has been remarkably narrow. To be sure, glib analogies between Iraq and Afghanistan and cocky talk about a military "cakewalk" have given way to more sober assessments: A regime change would likely require 150,000-200,000 U.S. troops, allies in the region willing to allow us to pre-position and supply them, and a post-victory occupation measured in years rather than months.

But hardly anyone in either party isdebating the long-term diplomatic consequences of a move against Iraq that is opposed by many of our staunchest friends. Fewer still have raised the most fundamental point: A global strategy based on the new Bush doctrine means the end of the system of international institutions, laws and norms thatthe United States has worked for more than half a century to build.

What is at stake is nothing less than a fundamental shift in America's place in the world. Rather than continuing to serve as first among equals in the postwar international system, the United States would act as a law unto itself, creating new rules of international engagement without agreement by other nations. In my judgment, this new stance would ill serve the long-term interests of our country.

I raise these doubts with the greatest reluctance, as a Democrat who believes that the global projection of American power has been, in the main, an enormous force for good. I strongly supported the Persian Gulf War, and I helped draft a public statement rallying intellectuals behind the Bush administration's initial response to the events of Sept. 11. I agree with the administration that the threat of stateless terrorism requires a new, more forward-leaning response.

But an invasion of Iraq is a different matter altogether. We should contain Hussein, deter him and bring him down the way we brought down the Evil Empire that threatened our existence for half a century -- through economic, diplomatic, military and moral pressure, not force of arms.

On June 1, in a speech at West Point, President Bush sought to justify the new doctrine. The successful strategies of the Cold War era, he declared, are ill-suited to the requirements of national defense in the 21st century. Deterrence means nothing against terrorist networks; containment will not thwart unbalanced dictators possessing weapons of mass destruction. We cannot afford to wait until we are attacked, he declared. In today's circumstances, Americans must be ready for "preemptive action" to defend our lives and liberties.

Applied to Iraq (although the president did not do so explicitly in his speech), the case for preemption runs roughly as follows: We do not know whether Hussein has yet acquired nuclear weapons or whether he has transferred them to terrorists. It doesn't matter. We know that he's trying to get these weapons, and his past conduct suggests that he will use them against our interests. The White House view goes on to say that the probability of the worst case is low but hardly negligible. And that we must not be held hostage to standards of proof better suited to courts of law than to circumstances of war. And that we cannot wait until one of Hussein's bombs, packed into a terrorist's suitcase, blows up Manhattan or Washington. We must act now -- do whatever it takes -- to eliminate this threat.

While the administration's arguments are powerful, they are less than persuasive. The proposed move against Iraq raises issues fundamentally different from those posed by our response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and to al Qaeda's attacks against New York and Washington. In those cases our policy fitted squarely within established doctrines of self-defense, and in part for that reason our deployment of military power enjoyed widespread support around the world. By contrast, if we seek to overthrow Hussein, we will act outside the framework of global security that we have helped create.

In the first place, we are a signatory to (indeed, the principal drafter of) the U.N. charter, which explicitly reserves to sovereign nations "the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence," but only in the event of armed attack. Unless the administration establishes Iraqi complicity in the terrorism of Sept. 11, it cannot invoke self-defense, as defined by the charter, as the justification for attacking Iraq. By contrast, in his speech justifying the April 1986 strike against Libya, President Reagan was able to say that "the evidence is now conclusive that the terrorist bombing of La Belle discotheque was planned and executed under the direct orders of the Libyan regime. . . . Self-defense is not only our right, it is our duty. It is the purpose behind the mission undertaken tonight -- a mission fully consistent with Article 51 of the United Nations charter." If the Bush administration has comparable evidence against Iraq, it has a responsibility to lay these facts before Congress, the American people and the world.

The broader structure of international law creates additional obstacles to an invasion of Iraq. To be sure, international law contains a doctrine of "anticipatory self-defense." But even construed broadly, that concept would still be too narrow to support an attack: The threat to the United States from Iraq is neither specific nor clearly established nor shown to be imminent. The Bush doctrine of preemption goes well beyond the established bounds of anticipatory self-defense, as many supporters of the administration's Iraq policy privately concede. They argue that the United States needs to make new law, using Iraq as a precedent.

But if the Bush administration wishes to discard the traditional criterion of imminence on the grounds that terrorism renders it obsolete, then the administration must do what it has thus far failed to do -- namely, discharge the burden of showing that Iraq has both the capability of harming us and a serious intent to do so. Otherwise, "anticipatory self-defense" becomes an international hunting license.

Finally, we can examine the proposed invasion through the prism of "just war" theories developed by philosophers and theologians over a period of centuries. One of just war's most distinguished contemporary exponents, Michael Walzer, puts it this way: First strikes are justified before the moment of imminent attack, at the point of "sufficient threat." That concept has three dimensions: "a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk." The potential injury, moreover, must be of the gravest possible nature: the loss of territorial integrity or political independence.

Hussein may well endanger the survival of his neighbors, but he poses no such risk to the United States. And he knows full well that complicity in a Sept. 11-style attack on the United States would justify, and swiftly evoke, a regime-ending response. During the Gulf War, we invoked this threat to deter him from using weapons of mass destruction against our troops, and there is no reason to believe that this strategy would be less effective today. Dictators have much more to lose than do stateless terrorists; that's why deterrence directed against them has a good chance of working.

It is not hard to imagine the impatience with which serious policymakers inside the administration (and elsewhere) will greet arguments such as mine. The first duty of every government, they might say, is to defend the lives and security of its citizens. The elimination of Hussein and, by extension, every regime that threatens to share weapons of mass destruction with anti-American terrorists, comports with this duty. To invoke international norms designed for a different world is to blind ourselves to the harsh necessities of international action in the new era of terrorism. If no other nation agrees, we have a duty to the American people to go it alone.

These are weighty claims, and it is not my intention to dismiss them entirely or lightly. But even if an invasion succeeds in removing a threat here and now, it is far from clear that a policy of preemption will make us safer in the long run. Nations cooperating with us in the war against terror might respond to a preemptive U.S. attack on Iraq by ceasing to arrest and turn over suspected terrorists, and by halting the sharing of intelligence. Our allies in Europe (and elsewhere) might respond by accelerating their diplomatic and military separation from us. Our adversaries might well redouble their efforts against us. New generations of young people -- including those of our erstwhile allies -- could grow up resenting and resisting America. One thing is certain: If we promote and then act on our new principles, nations around the world will adopt them and shape them for their own purposes, with consequences we will not always like.

We are the most powerful nation on Earth but we are not invulnerable. To safeguard our own security, we need the help of the allies whose doubts we scorn, and the protection of the international restraints against which we chafe. We must therefore resist the easy seduction of unilateral action. In the long run, our interests will be best served by an international system that is as law-like and collaborative as possible,given the reality that we live in a world of sovereign states.

William Galston is a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. From 1993 until 1995 he served as deputy assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy.

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