- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

The debate in Congress about U.S. pre-emptive military action against Iraq was not an end but a beginning. If the war does take place, the historians are likely to be still looking for more facts 60 years hence. The full range of intelligence crown jewels the human intelligence or cryptanalysis that today's leaders may either rely on or try to explain away in deciding about pre-emptive action will likely never be displayed.

Even as Congress has supported the administration, there remains a campaign of leaking news stories first from the Pentagon, more recently from the intelligence community that appear designed to signal that some in those institutions are putting distance between their assessments and administration policies. If this is the case, it underlines factors seen in previous pre-emptive uses of military force. Those who may have to carry out the pre-emption may not wish to do so or wish to show they share the reasoning or motivation of the national leadership that led to pre-emption.

When Winston Churchill ordered a pre-emptive attack on the French Navy at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria in July 1940, he acted against the advice of most of his military leaders, who did not believe it likely that the Vichy government's warships would be made available to fight against Britain. Hindsight is today on the side of the admirals. But neither the admirals nor the historians had access to the full range of Churchill's intelligence sources. Nor did the admirals share what Churchill saw as the full range of his policy responsibilities at that moment. The admirals did not want to compound a difficult operational situation; Churchill had to win the war.

The pre-emptive use of military force sends a powerful message. Its impact is seldom intended to be limited to its target. Current or potential allies, adversaries or an internal audience are going to draw lessons from any use of military force, especially a pre-emptive one. These broader contexts of pre-emption may have value beyond the purely military impact.

Churchill had to consider how Mers-el-Kebir would look to the then-neutral United States, to Hitler and to defeatists in Britain and its government that contributed to the decision. Churchill saw the decision not simply in terms of Anglo-French diplomacy or the military utility of French battlecruisers, but what such an attack meant for the world conflict as a whole. Churchill had the leadership skills to make such a pre-emptive move a powerful demonstration of will that may have in the context of Britain's desperate situation in July 1940 outweighed the costs of the attack.

Finally, the types of actions that lead to pre-emption are not static. Actions or threat capabilities that could bring a country to launch a pre-emptive action may end up, in the future, having to be accepted as part of a changing security environment. Pre-emption today does not assure long lasting security. Rather, it gives the opportunity to recast a larger security environment where the threat that motivated pre-emption becomes irrelevant.

The United States was famously close to pre-emptive action against Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, but within a few years (and for the remainder of the Cold War) had to accept the reality of Soviet submarine-based missiles potentially lurking just as close off the coast. The arrival of Soviet-built jet bombers capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction in Nasser's Egypt was instrumental in persuading the British, French and Israelis to launch their ill-starred 1956 military action, aiming to pre-empt a potentially powerful new military capability emerging in the region. When pre-emption failed, these bombers and their capabilities were a reality for a generation.

Finally, capabilities that once moved leaders to pre-empt may prove with hindsight to be less than once feared. The pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum attacked by the United States in 1998 may have been legitimate. The French warships of 1940 or the Egyptian bombers of 1956 were never to win battles. We do know, however, that these were all capable of inflicting much less damage than a nuclear weapon.

To historians, Churchill's pre-emption may have been a rational response to critical intelligence, an unnecessary military blunder or a key element in mobilizing resistance. Today's decision-makers do not even have the virtue of hindsight to guide them; while they may be lucky if the future record says they made the right decision, it is also irrelevant. Difficult decisions like that of pre-emptive military action even when opposed internally remain the standard of judgment for political leadership.


David Isby is a Washington-based national security policy consultant.

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