Real Prevention: Alternatives to Force

Will military force work to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction? The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy issued last fall states that the United States will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to destroy threats abroad before they reach U.S. borders. In the document’s words, the United States asserts its prerogative to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively. In some grave cases, the United States moves beyond traditional notions of self defense, attacking first to forestall or prevent hostile acts by adversaries.

The strategy’s embrace of the preventive use of force has been widely faulted as being illegal, immoral and destabilizing. The administration argues that the risk of transfer of weapons of mass destruction from adversaries like Iraq, to global terrorists, like Al Qaeda, justify preventive action. Better now than later, they reason, when the risk of disastrous attacks on both civilians and military will be far greater. Critics regard a strategy of pre-emption as unnecessarily provocative and a dangerous precedent for international affairs. If the U.S. claims a right to preventive attack to guard against W.M.D., they ask, how can India and Pakistan be persuaded they do not have such a right?


Just War Assessments

The United Nations Charter (including Article 51, which affirms the right to self-defense), customary international law and precedent-setting case law all take a narrow view of the use of force for self-defense. They grant an exception for pre-emptive action only when the threat of attack is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation. On these grounds, the American Society of International Law has questioned the legality of the administration’s expansive definition of anticipatory self-defense.

For their part, contemporary just war theorists, like Michael Walzer of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, question the morality of the new policy. According to Walzer, the just war tradition does not permit the preventive use of force to stop another’s increase in power. The just war theory, he asserts, warrants pre-emptive force only when there is 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. These conditions, Walzer judges, are not met in the case of Iraq.

President Bush, Walzer notes, repeatedly states that war with Iraq is neither imminent nor unavoidable. W.M.D. may narrow the gap between impermissible preventive and permissible pre-emptive interventions, but it does not erase it. Despite the administration’s arguments that the war against terror is a totally new kind of war, W.M.D. have been around for centuries. Biological weapons have been used for hundreds of years, chemical weapons since at least World War I, and nuclear weapons have been with us for over 50 years. Moral limitations do not disappear in light of technological innovations.

Past and present policy makers also raise concerns about the preventive strategy. The critics include General Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of the Central Command (Middle East and Central Asia) and currently special representative to the Middle East; Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor under President George H. W. Bush; George Tenet, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former vice president Al Gore. They argue that the preventive force policy directed at Iraq distracts U.S. attention and resources from more pressing threats, such as the battle with Al Qaeda and instability in Pakistan and the Middle East.

Will Pre-emption Work?

Whatever their merits, these critiques miss perhaps the most fundamental objection to the policy: its ineffectiveness. The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes conjures up the 1981 Israeli air strike against an Iraqi nuclear weapons site. While other countries complained about Israeli aggression at the time, it was privately approved for having set back the Iraqi nuclear program many years. To execute a disarming attack effectively, however, forces need to know where to go and what to target. But Iraq and other would-be proliferators learned from the Israeli attack. W.M.D. sites are now decentralized, hardened and hidden much more effectively. In 2003 the United States is faced with uncertainty as to both the location and the contents of potential W.M.D. sites.

The fog of war is catastrophic where W.M.D. are concerned. Attacking without certain knowledge of the contents or location of potential W.M.D. sites risks provoking the very dirty chemical, biological or radiological attacks on U.S. troops and allies (depending on dispersal patterns) that such use of force intends to prevent, because the enemy enters a use it or lose it decision-making logic. The C.I.A. director, George Tenet, broached this problem during congressional hearings last fall. Tenet noted that an attack on Iraq would likely trigger the use of W.M.D., especially against a regional rival and U.S. ally like Israel.

Cooperative Threat Reduction

Aside from the issue of unintended consequences, the preventive force strategy is unlikely to succeed because it is a reactive approach attacking the problem too late in the proliferation cycle. By the time a potential adversary has the capacity to threaten the U.S., knowledge of how to build such devices and the material to create them would likely already be widely dispersed beyond the targeted sites. The strategy turns out to be not very strategic. It proposes a last-ditch attack at the end point of the supply chain after the adversary’s materials, knowledge and intentions have already been significantly assembled.

An effective strategy of prevention would aim earlier in the supply chain, foreclosing opportunities to acquire and assemble W.M.D. in the first place. The sources of chemical, biological and nuclear materials and expertise are widely known. Nuclear scientists from Pakistan have been advising Al Qaeda on how to create a nuclear capacity. Cash-starved governments in the former Yugoslavia have been supplying Iraq with crucial components for its delivery systems.

The problem of supply was first addressed by former Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the end of the cold war. When the first Bush administration did not take steps to stop the flow of W.M.D. from the former Soviet Union, Congress acted to pass the historic Nunn-Lugar legislation for nuclear threat reduction. Despite being chronically underfunded, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program has removed nuclear weapons from the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and it continues to improve materials protection, control and accountability at remaining military and civilian nuclear labs and sites.

The program has expanded to include chemical and biological weapons, storage and research sites, although presidential and congressional restrictions on the program have slowed these efforts. Coupled with programs from the Department of State and the Department of Energy to employ out-of-work Soviet scientists so they will not sell their W.M.D. expertise to potential proliferators, these programs provide an excellent basis from which to work. Senator Lugar argues that these programs, initially aimed solely at the former Soviet states, need to be expanded globally beyond the former Soviet states, beginning immediately with Pakistan and India.

Pakistan and India pose significant threats for proliferation of nuclear technology. Like the United States and the U.S.S.R. at the advent of the nuclear age, these Asian adversaries, in their haste to develop weapons, have given safeguards and security short shrift. They pose a particular concern, because both countries face explosive domestic conflicts and endemic poverty and, in the case of Pakistan, significant infiltration by Al Qaeda.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration proposed $100 million in budget cuts for these programs and listed them for reviews for further cuts. After Sept. 11, Congress restored the cuts. While the administration proposed a modest 4 percent increase for 2003, funding was halted repeatedly in 2002, hardly the continuity needed for effective efforts.

Expansion of cooperative threat reduction programs and increased funding to them is a bargain. They received $400 million in 2002. Compare that to the $6 billion to $13 billion price tag for a single month of war against Iraq, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. The Yale University economist William Nordhaus says the cost of war with Iraq could be much higher, one trillion six hundred billion dollars over the next 10 years.

The Political Economy of Proliferation

Earlier the Bush administration made an important contribution to advancing counterproliferation programs at the G-8 meeting in Canada in June 2002, announcing the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. The G-8 initiative hopes to gain a commitment of up to $20 billion over 10 years from all G-8 countries combined. The United States has promised to continue present spending levels of nearly $1 billion yearly for 10 years to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction, primarily in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The initiative is a step in the right direction. Even if all signatories keep their promises and increase future contributions, however, the initiative does nothing to protect against proliferation outside the former Soviet states, especially in risky Pakistan.

These cooperative counterproliferation programs have always been suspect in the eyes of some conservatives as undesirable multilateral foreign aid. But in fact, the programs deliver U.S. expertise, equipment and materials, not cash, to the former Soviet states, to avoid the opportunity for diversion of funds. Direct purchases of weapons grade materials and facilitating the legitimate hiring of key scientists by private sector research or pharmaceutical companies are market-based solutions to the proliferation problem. They remove W.M.D. materials and expertise from the international black market.

The United States helped build the global economy. This globalized market, licit and illicit, now facilitates proliferation. Only a global approach that is commercial as well as political promises to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Companies, not just countries, must be included in efforts to stem proliferation. As one former U.S. ambassador to the Middle East noted, the significant military efforts by the world’s largest superpower have been unable to stem Iraqi proliferation, but the cooperation of a few major companies would make all the difference.

U.S. Catholic bishops have voiced serious concerns with the preventive use of force against Iraq. They have counseled the importance of expanding and strengthening non-military tools to combat the spread of W.M.D. and terrorism. Foreign-policy hawks criticize the bishops’ stance as dovish and naïve. But questions of the morality and legality of the Bush doctrine aside, preventive use of force is unlikely to work.

The bishops’ encouragement of alternatives to the use of force to prevent proliferation is more realistic than the administration’s policy; they offer more stable, sustainable and effective means to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Regardless of how much the U.S. administration favors the image of a Lone Ranger, there are no silver bullets for this problem. The National Security Strategy is right to note that the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather, but preventive use of force is not an effective way to combat the dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

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