- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration’s latest National Security Strategy was released. What made headline news was a paragraph on page 18 that stated in part: “[T]he United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense.” Pre-emption always has been a policy option for the United States and the 2002 security strategy statement made direct reference to it. A year later the United States invaded Iraq, although it was not a pre-emptive strike in the precise meaning of the term.

At the press conference announcing the current strategy, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley pre-empted obvious questions by stating that this policy was not directed at Iran. But many still wondered: If diplomacy did not yield a breakthrough in containing Iranian nuclear ambitions to peaceful uses, would the administration resort to some form of pre-emption?

Pre-emption, preventative war and striking first are all related. Pre-emption is attacking an enemy prior to his launching a strike first. Preventative war is attacking an enemy first to eliminate a future threat. And striking first is simply that.

Hitler struck first in September 1939 against Poland and in June 1941 against the Soviet Union. He lost. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 in a combination pre-emptive/preventative strike to destroy the U.S. fleet based on the presumption that America would quickly capitulate. Japan failed. In August 1914, with Prussia’s lightening victory over France in 1870 as the relevant military model, both the Central and Allied powers raced to mobilize in order to strike pre-emptively, before the other could. In a sense, there were no real victors of World War I.

The Middle East abounds with examples of pre-emption. The 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars reflected degrees of pre-emption. While Israel “won” each militarily, in 1973 Egypt, which along with Syria struck first, gained a political victory by exchanging peace for return of the Sinai captured in 1967. And when Israel pre-emptively went into Lebanon in 1982, it was forced to withdraw, in essence losing. However, the region is still stalemated and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved despite the use of pre-emption.

Of course, the United States launched a preventative war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein to keep that “grave and gathering threat” from metastasizing into something much worse. The jury is still out on whether that war will produce triumph or tragedy.

Coincident with the U.N. Security Council deliberating over the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report on Iranian circumvention of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the reiteration of a pre-emption doctrine in the National Security Strategy therefore attracted attention. Presumably, diplomacy to restrain Iran’s nuclear potential will be given time to run its course. But should diplomacy fail and the international community deadlock on taking further action to compel Iranian compliance with the treaty, military force inevitably becomes the option of last resort.

Proponents of striking Iran first, whether for pre-emptive or preventative reasons, are concerned at least as much with the political and strategic fallout of Tehran obtainingnuclear weapons as with the actual possession of one. Iran most probably can be deterred from using nuclear weapons. But the broad ramifications of an Iranian nuclear bomb within the region, in this view, are totally intolerable and thus more damaging than the consequences of any military strike now or in the near future to delay that prospect.

But before any decisions are even debated, three points are important to keep in mind. First, as this brief historical excursion shows, striking first fails more often than it works. The “then what next question” as we are seeing in Iraq had better be answered now, not later.

Second, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two major nuclear powers, even though Britain, France and later China possessed weapons making the nuclear relationship bilateral. Regarding Iran, there are now many more interested nuclear powers. India, Pakistan and Russia have roles to play as well, as the three other nuclear states, not including Israel. Hence, multilateral, rather than unilateral or bilateral action may prove more effective.

Third, while many see Iran as the central danger, suppose a fundamentalist or Taliban coup removed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf? Pakistan already possesses some number of nuclear weapons. A radical regime in power in Pakistan would be at least as and probably far more dangerous than a nuclear-armed Iran. In that case, irrespective of pre-emptive thinking by India, the possibility of a nuclear war in which millions or hundreds of millions were killed no longer is inconceivable.

We have arrived at a point where the dangers of nuclear proliferation are very real. Whether we will have the skill to react intelligently with or without recourse to striking first may be the most pressing security issue of the decade.

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