Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 February 2003
Issue No. 624
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Bush's 'anticipatory' war

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed discusses the legitimacy of war launched in anticipation of a threat

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed In the aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, US Vice-President Dick Cheney visited 12 Arab and Islamic countries to convince their leaders of the need to take on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as soon as the Afghan chapter of the war on terror was over, on the grounds that he represented no less critical a threat than Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qa'eda organisation, and that his hidden cache of banned weapons of mass destruction could eventually be passed over to terrorist groups. At the time, the sudden primacy accorded by the Bush administration to the Iraqi problem over the Palestinian problem met with the astonishment and disapproval of all the Middle Eastern leaders the US vice-president met.

With war preparations against Iraq proceeding full speed ahead, there is no longer any doubt that the Iraqi problem has taken precedence over all other issues in the Middle East, eclipsing even the Palestinian issue, which everyone recognises as the main source of conflict in the region. The reshuffling of priorities is reflected in Washington's decision to postpone publication of its roadmap for the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks indefinitely. One can only wonder why an 'anticipatory' war against Iraq is being given precedence over the more immediate threat posed to regional stability by the crisis in Palestine. Why the rush to wage a war that is still the object of widespread reservations among wide sections of world public opinion and many political leaders in the world?

The aggressive doctrine of 'anticipatory war', (which contemplates not just preemption in the narrow sense, when an attack seems imminent, but preventive action taken before a threat even emerges), became a principle of US foreign policy even before the events of 11 September. It was formulated in the wake of the collapse of the bipolar world order symbolised by the breakdown of the Berlin wall in 1989, followed by the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp. Suddenly, the United States emerged as the unique superpower. With no other state capable of challenging its military might, the balance of terror suddenly vanished. Nothing could hold Washington back from striking the first blow in case of war. Thus, the United States could wage an anticipatory strike -- a preemptive war -- with total impunity, without fear of any retaliatory measures.

This sense of invincibility was shattered by the events of 11 September, as America reeled from the devastating blow not only to the main symbols of its economic and military might but to its prestige and self-image. A new sense of vulnerability set in as Americans realised that the breakdown of the old world order based on the confrontation between capitalism and communism had not brought an end to all forms of bipolar confrontation, and that there were forces opposed to the new US-led world order. Driven by disillusionment, frustration and despair at the continued division of the world into rich and poor, into privileged and marginalised, and the continued deterioration of the material and spiritual state of wide segments of the global community. These forces were not above resorting to violence and terrorism in answer to discrimination and injustice.

But the doctrine of anticipatory wars had already been formulated long before 11 September. At the beginning of the 1990s, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dick Cheney, then serving as defence secretary in the administration of Bush the father, had his aides draft a document setting down what he thought should be the US's strategic policy in the post-Cold War era. Known as the Defence Planning Guidance, the document included many of the controversial themes that the current administration has embraced. One of the architects of the new policy was Paul Wolfowitz, then a Cheney aide and now deputy defence secretary. The document argued that the US should be prepared to use force if necessary to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, that the goal of American policy should be to maintain American primacy and discourage the emergence of a rival superpower and that military coalitions should not necessarily be based on formal alliances but rather on ad hoc assemblies of nations, a practice that meant that Washington would not necessarily be bound by the view of its allies.

When Cheney first came forward with his new security strategy in the early days of the unipolar world order, America was basking in the glow of its new status as the sole remaining superpower on the world stage, and the document did not receive much attention. Shelved for a full decade, it came into its own after the events of 11 September, which renewed interest in the theories propounded by the Cheney team. The terrorist attacks prompted Bush aides to develop a more aggressive strategy for contending with threats to the United States and gave hard-liners a fresh opportunity to press for their old agenda of removing the Saddam Hussein regime. Bush's State of the Union address last year, in which he cast Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of an "axis of evil", was an early sign of his administration's whole-hearted adoption of the Cheney vision. Bush followed with a speech in June at West Point in which he argued that deterrence and containment were no longer adequate, that the United States had to be proactive to prevent threats from emerging.

The more elaborate expression of the doctrine is in the administration's National Security Strategy, issued in September 2002, which stressed the need for taking 'anticipatory action' to defend the US before the adversary attacked and do so even if there was some uncertainty about the timing of enemy plans. The US claims that Iraq is not a case of preemption, and that it is acting multilaterally to enforce the will of the international community. However, it is obvious that the spirit of the anticipatory action doctrine is driving Bush's Iraq policy, and that he is prepared to act in the face of allied objections and without the explicit authorisation of the Security Council.

Not surprisingly, the preemption policy has fuelled a wide-raging debate. The main argument used by its proponents is the possibility that a 'rogue' state like Iraq might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, who would use them to attack the United States. In such a case, US authorities would have no way of knowing who had sponsored the attack. According to one of its most vocal proponents, Paul Wolfowitz: "Containment and deterrence go back to an era when the only use of force we worried about was one in which the use of force could be directly associated with a country, and that country had an address... The whole thing that terrorists introduce is that you not only do not see the threat coming, but you do not know where it came from."

This argument is refuted by critics who say that Iraq and other countries would be taking a huge risk by giving such weapons to terrorists since the plot might be uncovered. They also point out that the administration's insistence that it has the right to take preemptive action against potential threats has exacerbated the strains between the United States and its allies, particularly since it comes amid unease over the United States' status as the sole military superpower and an obvious unilateralist streak in the Bush administration's policy. Tapping into the sense of vulnerability that gripped America in the wake of 11 September and responding to the American people's expectation that their government will take action to eliminate threats, the Bush administration has turned preemption from an option into a cardinal principle of its foreign policy.

Many prominent Americans have spoken out against the doctrine, including the first President Bush's National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who pointed out that while "It has been common knowledge that under certain circumstances the US would preempt... as a declatory policy, it tends to leave the door open to others who want to claim the same right."

Perhaps the most articulate argument against the doctrine comes from Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Adviser, who accuses it of fuelling anti-American sentiment and goes on to say: "I am a great supporter of American power.. But our power is not so enormous that we can afford progressively to lose the element of legitimacy of that power." To do so, he might have added, would be to replace right by might.

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