Pre-emptive attacks are prudent foreign policy

ABy David Simon

according to Sean Misko’s letter titled “Bush’s U.N. speech offered no new reasons to invade” in last week’s Daily, “never in its history has this country launched a pre-emptive military attack against another nation.” This statement is factually inaccurate.

Pre-emption, even against terrorism, is not a new policy for the United States or the world. Nearly 20 years ago, former Secretary of State George Shultz asked, “Can we as a country, can the community of free nations, stand in a purely defensive posture and absorb the violence dealt by terrorists? I think not. From a practical standpoint, a purely passive defense does not provide enough of a deterrent to terrorism and the states that sponsor it. It is time to think long, hard and seriously about more active means of defense – defense through appropriate prevention or preemptive actions against terrorist groups before they strike.”

Indeed, the United States and its allies have employed pre-emption by military force as a means of protecting their homelands from attack by weapons of mass destruction for quite some time. For example, during World War II, the United States and its allies destroyed German nuclear facilities and heavy water supplies that were components of Germany’s effort to develop an atomic bomb. Similarly, U.S. strategic bombers attacked the important Japanese nuclear research laboratory in 1945.

During the Cold War, the United States also seriously considered launching pre-emptive military attacks on several occasions. For example, in the early 1960s, the United States considered taking pre-emptive action against China to prevent that nation, which was then regarded as a rogue state, from acquiring strategic nuclear weapons. And of course, in 1962 the United States also considered launching a pre-emptive strike against the nuclear missiles deployed in Cuba by the Soviet Union. However, in both these situations, U.S. presidents chose to combat the danger through other means, and in both cases accomplished the objective in a much less risky manner. Probably the best known pre-emptive military attack against another state in modern times was Israel’s June 7, 1981, attack on Iraq’s French-built, Osirak-type nuclear reactor that generated plutonium. Given Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s subsequent use of chemical weapons and his Scud missile attacks, the world should have welcomed the Israeli attack. But that was not the case.

Even the United States, Israel’s closest ally, claimed that Israel’s destruction of the reactor jeopardized the Middle East peace process, stated that relations with Israel were being reassessed, and actually voted in the Security Council to condemn the Israel attack. The State Department canceled meetings with Israeli officers and temporarily suspended delivery of military equipment, including F-16s which had been used to destroy the reactor. The New York Times argued that Israel had embraced “the code of terror” and called the attack “inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.”

While the raid received a great deal of attention, it was probably not Israel’s only pre-emptive attack against Iraq to prevent that nation from acquiring nuclear weapons.

In April 1979, saboteurs blew up nuclear parts awaiting shipment to Iraq at a French port, and, in the summer of 1980, an Egyptian-born nuclear physicist who had been involved in Iraq’s nuclear program was assassinated in Paris.

Even before the events of Sept. 11, the U.S. government had institutionalized its pre-emptive efforts. On Dec. 7, 1993, former Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced that the Pentagon was creating The Defense Counter Proliferation Initiative. He argued that this initiative was a necessary response to the number of radical regimes that appeared to be on the verge of acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly Iraq and North Korea. According to Aspin, the CPI would provide improved U.S. capability in dealing with a “Saddam Hussein with nukes.” Although the United States would not make pre-emption the primary means of dealing with such a situation, it would not hesitate to employ it when no other option was better. Aspin’s successor as defense secretary, William Perry, warned North Korea that the United States would employ the CPI if that nation persisted in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

The decision to strike first is one the United States reserves for situations in which application of alternative foreign policy tools – diplomacy and deterrence – will be met with an insufficient result. While questions remain as to whether Iraq indeed possesses nuclear weapons, we are certain it harbors stockpiles of chemical weapons. In the face of an Iraqi “use-it-or-lose-it” policy, the United States is prudent to temporarily modify its foreign policy platform to effectively disarm Hussein.