Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Before War

| Mar. 14, 2003

Iraq is the first test of the new Bush doctrine of preventive war. Because it represents a dramatic   departure in American history, it is crucial that we set the right precedent.

President Bush's national security strategy makes a plausible general argument for preventive war. Technology has increased the lethality and agility of terrorists, and the trend is likely to continue. In the 20th century, malevolent individuals such as Hitler and Stalin needed the power of governments to be able to kill millions of people. If 21st-century terrorists get hold of weapons of mass destruction, that power of destruction will for the first time be available to deviant groups and individuals. This "privatization of war" is not only a major change in world politics; its potential impact on our cities could drastically alter our civilization. And the fear is that certain deviant states, such as Iraq and North Korea, might become enablers of such terrorist groups. This is what the new Bush strategy gets right.

What the administration has not yet sorted out is how to go about implementing its new approach. It is deeply divided between assertively imperial unilateralists on the one hand and more multilateral and cautious realists on the other. Since 1945, Article 51 of the U.N. Charter has enshrined a broad consensus that a state's use of force should be restricted to individual or collective self-defense. Preemption in the face of imminent attack -- such as Israel faced in 1967 -- is widely regarded as acceptable self-defense, but preventive war has not been accepted.

Now, as Bush has argued, with the new threat of transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the cost of waiting may be too high. The test of "imminence" must be broadened. But the price of moving from preemption to prevention should be some form of collective legitimization, preferably under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which is concerned with threats to the peace as well as acts of aggression. Multilateral preventive war may be justified when unilateral preventive war is not. Otherwise the awful lessons of the first half of the 20th century would be lost, and any state could set itself up as judge, jury and executioner. That precedent would come back to haunt us.

We also need a careful checklist of criteria to limit the number of future cases. Iraq meets these criteria. The regime has a history of aggression that has already been condemned by the Security Council. It has used weapons of mass destruction. It has been a state sponsor of terrorism. It lacks a pluralistic political system that allows internal restraints. A war would meet the standard of a just cause. Moreover, the military means we would use can discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, and there is a reasonable prospect of success. So far, the missing criterion is a broad coalition of allies. Without it, Iraq could be a case of the right war at the wrong time.

Impatient hawks say that our military buildup is costly to maintain and that we must act before hot weather arrives in the Persian Gulf. But cool weather comes more than once a year. As the world learned in 1914, military timetables should not determine such momentous decisions.

The Bush administration has made a strong moral argument for action, but it must be more attentive to the political benefits of moving with a broad coalition. It is unlikely that calling in more inspectors would persuade Saddam Hussein to choose between disarmament and his survival, but it could help to broaden the coalition. Given the administration's rapid military buildup and our blustery diplomacy with France, it is likely war will come soon. But if more time would produce a broad coalition, it would be worth it.

Public opinion polls show that the American people are willing to support the use of force, but only if the United States acts with broad support. President Bush has raised the right question about preventive war. Now he needs the patience and diplomatic skill to complete the full checklist if he is to produce the right answer.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph.“Before War.” The Washington Post, March 14, 2003.