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Pre-emption as American policy: issues and consequences

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 10 January 2003

In September 2002 President George W. Bush released his National Security Strategy of the United States of America. This document declared that "the United States can no longer rely solely on a reactive posture … To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our enemies, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively."

In theory, this means simply that the US will not sit still and allow itself to be attacked when it knows an attack is intended. It will prevent the attack by striking first.

This is fine provided that there is good evidence that the US was indeed under threat of significant attack. Then pre-emption is merely an extension of self-defence: if someone draws a gun on you, you don't wait to be shot at before defending yourself.


But in the absence of good evidence, pre-emption can look like a pretext for aggression. If the Americans cannot show a convincing and imminent threat, they have a problem. And so, maybe, could the world.

Adoption of a policy by the world's greatest power lends legitimacy to it. Already Australia has followed Washington's lead with its own small-scale version of pre-emption, causing considerable of disquiet in our region. The Prime Minister's statement last December even suggested that the UN Charter be amended to allow pre-emption against terrorism. There can be little doubt that in future other states, citing the US precedent, will seek to justify their military actions as legitimately pre-emptive (whether they are or not).

How does theory translate to practice? It seems we are in the process of finding out, as the American buildup in the Gulf region continues. The Iraq issue will provide a crucial test of pre-emption and of future US intentions.

Historically, Saddam Hussein's government cheated, lied, concealed, delayed and generally showed bad faith in implementing the UN Security Council resolutions it signed up to in 1991 as the price of peace after its failed conquest of Kuwait. This time, Iraq has shown hitherto uncommon sense in complying with the latest UN resolution. At the time of writing the UN inspectors have stated that they have found no evidence, no "smoking gun", of forbidden Iraqi weapons programs.

If Saddam really has discovered common sense he will continue as he has begun: he will comply scrupulously with all UN requirements, while rejecting any US demands going beyond what the UN has authorised. This strategy actually offers him the best chance not only of personal and regime survival, but of a political win over Washington.

If, when the UN inspectors report progress to the Security Council at the end of this month, there is still no smoking gun, Washington will be in a potentially embarrassing bind. It will be all dressed up for a war which it cannot justify except perhaps to its more servile allies like John Howard's Australia. What to do then?


This will be the acid test of pre-emption American style. Without a generally acceptable justification, the proper course for Washington will be to withhold military action. Of course this would be a political loss. American claims against Iraq regarding weapons of mass destruction would then be shown to be baseless. Baghdad would crow about US "fabrications" and American credibility could be seriously damaged.

The alternative is to do a latter-day Gulf of Tonkin exercise. To get Congressional approval for escalation of the Indochina war the Johnson administration blew up and elaborated on a minor naval incident. The Bush administration could seize on some trivial Iraqi infraction, or provoke an incident, and use it as a pretext for war. The Iraqis would certainly lose - I will say something in a later column about the losses they might cause while losing - but a goodly slice of world opinion, including many not automatically hostile to the US, could interpret the American action as thinly-disguised aggression.

Historically, American policy is far from unblemished. Its meddling in Allende's Chile and support for Pinochet, its unjustified invasion of Granada and the sordid saga of Indochina all show Washington's fallibility and misuse of power. Yet this is not the whole story. I cannot forget the US role in the war against fascism, its protection and reconstruction of post-fascist western Europe while Stalin's oppressive empire loomed large in the East, and its (admittedly selective) support for liberal democratic principles. Taken on the whole, though it has inevitably shown warts which should not be ignored, the US has been a positive force in the world. Those who doubt this might like to consider what sort of world it would be had the US been a right-wing military dictatorship when it confronted the Soviets.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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