Tag Archives: preventive war

Preemption, Preventive War, and Iran

Talk of a preventive strike against Iran has reached a fever pitch in Washington. But is it a good idea?

In the wake of last November’s UN report indicating Iran is working toward a nuclear weapon and rising tensions between Western countries and Iran, the debate over striking Iran has reached a fever pitch in Washington.  In the pages of Foreign Affairs, the preeminent U.S. foreign policy journal, scholars and policymakers have recently advocated a range of options including (1) a limited military strike on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, (2) a broader military campaign aimed at regime change in Tehran, (3) waiting on war until all other options have been tried, and (4) reliance on containment and deterrence.

At root, much of the debate hinges on different strategic judgments about the relative costs of (a) allowing Iran to develop a nuclear bomb versus (b) using force to prevent such an outcome.  In other words, the debate revolves around whether the benefits of anticipatory military action outweigh its costs.

Political scientists have distinguished between two types of anticipatory action which are often confused: preemption and preventive war.  Preemption refers to action taken in anticipation of an imminent, certain threat to your country’s interests.  A good example is the 1967 Six Day War, in which Israel saw Egypt and Syria preparing to attack and struck first, achieving a dramatic victory.  Preemption is commonly viewed as equivalent to self-defense and is typically seen as legitimate under international law and Just War Theory: if you are about to be attacked, you are under no obligation to sit there and “take the first punch,” when striking first can reduce your losses.

In contrast to preemption, preventive war occurs when action is taken in anticipation not of any certain imminent threat, but of some likely future threat.  Historically, declining hegemonic states have contemplated preventive war against rising challengers so that the war would happen on their terms, while they still had military superiority.  Because preventive war targets some future, uncertain threat it is much more controversial, ethically and legally, than preemptive strikes.  The post-9/11 “Bush Doctrine,” as articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States and manifested in the 2003 Iraq War, actually focused on preventive war although it was commonly referred to as “preemption.”  Given the absence of any imminent nuclear threat from Iran (as all sides acknowledge), the current debate over striking Iran centers on preventive war as well.

What do you think?  What would be the consequences of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons?  What would be the repercussions of a preventive strike against Iran?  Do the costs of preventive war outweigh the benefits in this case?  And can a first strike against a country that has not attacked the U.S. directly be justified in moral and legal terms?

Israel, Gaza, and the Challenge of Deterrence

Israeli medics evacuate a person injured in the attacks of August 18.

Thursday’s deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, allegedly perpetrated by militants from Gaza, illustrate the limits of deterrence.  Deterrence involves the use of threats to prevent undesired actions.  Deterrence threats take the form “don’t do X, or else,” where X is the undesired action and the “or else” is the threatened punishment.

Israel has relied on the threat of costly retaliation to prevent militants in Gaza from attacking Israelis, but recent changes in the security environment have made these deterrence efforts much more difficult.  Specifically, the chaos in post-Mubarak Egypt has reduced Egypt’s ability or willingness to police the Sinai Peninsula, opening up a vast new territory from which Gazans (who can easily escape Gaza through tunnels into Egypt) can attack Israel.

Successful deterrence requires the ability to pinpoint the actor who took the undesired action so that actor may be targeted for retaliation.  However, as noted in a Christian Science Monitor article on Friday, “Unlike attacks launched from Gaza – a small, densely populated territory run by Hamas – attacks launched from the Sinai are potentially harder to trace to a specific group, and thus harder to assign ultimate responsibility for.”

This problem of identification and accountability is the reason why some scholars and policymakers, particularly since 9/11, have concluded that we cannot rely on deterrence to prevent states from giving weapons of mass destruction to non-state, terrorist organizations.  That is, if a state’s leaders believe the weapons it gives to terrorists can’t be traced back to the source, they will not be deterred from doing so.  This, of course, is a key argument in support of preventive war, as articulated by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.  Preventive war involves striking an enemy (or potential adversary) before the threat has fully materialized.

What other factors besides the problem of identification/accountability may undermine efforts to deter unwanted behavior in world politics?  Is there any way to overcome these problems?  When deterrence cannot be achieved, is preventive war the answer?