The next time we fight a preventive war, it would help to decide what we want to prevent.
President Bush justified the U.S. attack on Iraq by arguing that it was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks in the future. The horrible suicide bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad last week made it clear that we have created the terrorism we wanted to prevent.
"The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed," the president said March 17, in his final speech to the nation before the war began two days later.
Well, Saddam Hussein is overthrown and disarmed, to the extent that he had any arms in the first place. He is on the run, his two sons are dead and most of his top aides have been captured--his vice president was nabbed just a few hours before the UN bombing.
The result is a murderous chaos. The war destroyed not just a regime but also a society, however repressive. In its place, it created a quagmire without water, electricity or the other basics of life, an utterly lawless land, populated by increasingly terrified and humiliated Iraqis, and policed by frightened American troops, tragically untrained for their task and comprehending neither the language nor the culture of the country they now rule.
We know now that the war and the occupation are producing more terrorism, not less, just as throwing a rock into a hornets' nest can make things worse, not better.
Islamist warriors are reported to be flooding into Iraq, 3,000 from Saudi Arabia alone, to fight the infidel invader, just as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. A group called Ansar al-Islam, linked to Al Qaeda, formerly contained in northeastern Iraq beyond Hussein's rule, fled to Iran after U.S. planes destroyed its bases. It is reported to be filtering back and may have carried out the UN atrocity.
This wasn't the way it was planned. When the administration enshrined preventive warfare as a centerpiece of the U.S. national security strategy, it meant to make us more secure, not less.
Preventive war is often called "pre-emptive war," but that's wrong. Pre-emptive war means attacking another country when we have ironclad evidence that it is about to attack us. Such attacks are permitted under international law, so long as they respond to an imminent threat. In the eyes of the law, this imminence is crucial.
Preventive war, though, doesn't mean hitting the other guy before he hits you. It means hitting him before he even gets the gloves on. It means reacting to the possibility of a threat, to the chance that, somewhere down the road, another country intends action against us.
As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said, every president "has quietly held in reserve" this possibility of "anticipatory self-defense." But never before has it been brought front and center and turned into the basis of policy.
This is what the Bush administration did in its National Security Strategy paper, issued last September.
The paper argued that deterrence--the threat of retaliation--worked against the Soviet Union, but it won't work now against terrorists or hostile states, which combine "radicalism and technology" to create a new and different threat
"As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed," it said. "Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture . . . We cannot let our enemies strike first."
The new stance embraced "anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainly remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack."
Policy ignores law
The paper conceded that this policy violated international law and the concept of "imminence" but said that only means that the law must be changed.
"We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries," it said.
In the mood after the Sept. 11 attacks, this made sense to many Americans. So how did it go so wrong?
There are at least two reasons.
First, the National Security Strategy was framed by the same neo-conservatives who had been determined for years to overthrow Hussein and who used the doctrine of preventive war to achieve this end. Seeking a tool, they seized on a flawed principle.
Second, the doctrine is a recipe for panic and paranoia. It practically demands that Washington seek threats, no matter how remote, and hit them now.
The paper said preventive war must be based on "the best intelligence and . . . deliberation" but in a time of paranoia, intelligence can be faked and deliberation ignored.
Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld exemplified this thinking when he told a news briefing last year that "there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
"But there are also unknown unknowns," Rumsfeld said, "the ones we don't know we don't know."
If Rumsfeld meant anything by this, it probably was that we should be prudent and watchful. But what he really said was that we must be constantly frightened and must strike out at any imagined threat.
This was the spirit that propelled the war. Many critics, American and foreign, argued that Hussein posed no imminent threat and could be contained without attack. The administration disagreed.
It is fashionable now to argue that the war was justified because it destroyed a terrible dictatorship and gave Iraqis a chance for a better future. Considering that most Iraqis now seem to feel that their lives were better under Hussein, that justification can be disputed. But valid or not, it certainly wasn't the reason for the attack.
In his televised speech before the attack, Bush devoted 20 of the speech's 26 paragraphs to the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
If Hussein remained in power, Bush said, it would lead to terrorist attacks on "innocent people in our country or any other." By acting now, he insisted, "we will set a course toward safety." Otherwise, "in one year or five years the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over."
In a phrase that sounded better then than now, the president added that the U.S. had to act because the UN "has not lived up to its responsibilities."
We know now that Hussein had neither anything resembling the power to harm the U.S., nor the intention to turn it over to terrorists. We also know that many of Bush's critics were wrong when they predicted a protracted full-scale war, or Iraqi use of chemical weapons, or the government's destruction of its own oilfields or an Iraqi attack on Israel.
None of this happened. But many things that the administration didn't expect have happened, especially one thing that the critics got right: that an American attack on an Arab country would ignite the flammable pool of Mideastern radicalism.
Preventive war is a blunt weapon and its use tells us nothing about the results. Getting rid of a dictatorship does not create a flourishing democracy. Instead, it wipes out an existing government and leaves a civil void.
The U.S. has filled the void with a military occupation. An American-sponsored provisional authority is in place, but what Iraqis see are foreign soldiers occupying their cities, setting up roadblocks, frisking ordinary citizens, kicking down doors in the dead of night, rounding up suspects who turn out to be innocent, even killing women and children by mistake. It's impossible to blame the soldiers: they are lost innocents,far from home, thrust into an impossible situation. Bush still thinks the terrorist attacks are a reaction to U.S. "progress" in Iraq. But commanders in Iraq seem to get the picture, even if Washington doesn't.
General concedes point
The chief U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, admitted to The New York Times that "maybe our iron-fisted approach to the conduct of ops was beginning to alienate Iraqis. . . . When you take a father in front of his family and put a bag over his head and put him on the ground, you have had a significant adverse effect on his dignity and respect in the eyes of his family."
Most Iraqis, thus humiliated, will react the same way they did to Hussein's regime, by shrugging and trying to stay out of trouble. But Sanchez admitted that others have "to act because of their value systems against us in terms of revenge." In other words, they become terrorists.
There is no way that the U.S., having created this situation, can cut and run. We're stuck.
This is the reality of preventive war--an anarchic void in which terrorism breeds. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan produced a similar reality and the U.S. paid the price. It seems certain now that the preventive war in Iraq, like that war in Afghanistan, will end up making Americans less secure, not more.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune