HistoricalMullet: I *knew* “imminent threat” was out there…

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It’s been the big hullabaloo to toss around “imminent threat” in the debate on Iraq.

The Dem’s say Bush/Powell/Rumsfield said it (which they didn’t), the Rep’s say it was never implied (which it was), but what always nags me is that there’s a reference to the terminology “imminent threat” that I never heard come up in the debate.

I just spent a few seconds on google and found it, right where I suspected it would be. I doubt anyone cares though, it’s a historical debate at this point, what’s past is past. Just the historian in me wanting to pin down a source as real or not I guess….

It can be found, as I suspected it would, in the National Security Strategy published in September 2002 by the Whitehouse, Section V where the doctrine of preemption is established. Within that section, the phrase appears twice when laying out the case for preemption:

“Legal scholars and international jurists often condition the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of imminent threat – most often visible mobilization, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.” (page 15)

“We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.” (page 15)

Considering that the doctrine of preemption was the doctrine under which we invaded Iraq (as opposed to Afghanistan which was a reactive action) I can see now why this meme entered the common lexicon. Though no administration official spoke the words it was the underpinning of the doctrine itself, that the US has a legitimate right to preemptively act against enemies who present an imminent threat, even if the nature of that threat is not traditional (mobilization of armies etc.).

I really don’t sweat much over the imminent threat line though. I kind of see the wrangling over that as being the smoke and not the fire. To me the fire is contained in the last paragraph of the doctrine:

“The purpose of our actions will always be to eliminate a specific threat to the United States or our allies and friends. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just.”

The whole problem with me and preemption, from a foreign policy relations standpoint, is that A) intelligence must be accurate before you invade because B) you have to prove to the world after you invaded that you “eliminate(ed) a specific threat” and the reasons for the action remain clear.

Consider the following claim: “If we hadn’t done X, Y would have happened.” There is a need to prove Y would have happened or at least there was a reasonable chance to make preemption valid. Otherwise the doctrine of preemption is just an excuse for war, whatever the context may be.

The specific threats to the US and allies as articulated by Colin Powell before the UN: WMD, Al-Queda, and prohibited weapons development programs (long range missles) were the “Y”, what would happen if we didn’t invade. Of those only the long range missles development programs have been proven, and I’m not sure that even that program rises to the “specific threat”.

Furthermore, the “clear reasons” of preemption are no longer “clear” in Iraq. Did we invade to prevent the specific threat of WMD, Al-Queda, long range programs? Or did we invade to remove Saddam and instill democracy, or did we invade (and I shuddered when Powell said this) invade because Saddam gassed the Kurds in 1989, or did we invade because Saddam financially supported the families of Palestinian suicide bombers?

My fear is that our credible use of preemption in the future, and more importantly the recognition of our allies and neutral countries of our right to use it, in places we might really need to use it (Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, China etc.) has been undermined by fill-in-the-blank: poor intelligence, inability to produce the WMD/AQ connections, overeagerness to get Iraq, etc. The reason why we haven’t proven what we said was there (to date, always fingers crossed) really doesn’t matter. It’s past, it’s history. What matters now is US credibility and capability in bringing allies on board. I am worried by the growing trends of nations around the world to back off and let the US wriggle on the hook (Japan and South Korea joining France, Germany, Russia, China).

Remember regardless of the number of countries/organizations who honestly thought Iraq had WMD (including France and Germany) it was the US which decided to invade, which means the burden is on us. Claiming that France and Germany said there WMD and that’s why it’s okay to overthrow a recognized (if despicable) world leader is a grade-school response, not a thought out or well articulated foreign policy justification. Had we had the UN alongside of us the blame would’ve been shared amongst the security council, and our specific doctrine of preemption would have remained credible for future uses.



Bush (and others, of course) may have been wrong, but I don’t believe they lied.

And that is exactly my concern. There’s no “may have been wrong” in Afhganistan, we reacted appropriately to an already well expressed threat. As well in the Cuba missle crisis they were able to produce pictures of the actual missles, and in the end, the missles turned out to be there justifying the preemption of blockade. My fear is that the first time we use the preemption doctrine it ends up with a “whoops…guess they weren’t there” which is a stain on US international credibility. Though I don’t think it affects domestic credibility, it’s the international part I’m more concerned about, intenrational status is really important and carries over into the next administration, and the one after that etc.

We’d have had to gone in based on the same types of evidence we used for Iraq…limited intelligence, presumed intent, and past history. Like Iraq, it would have been the right thing to do, but there would >have been no way to prove it after the fact.

Very good point, and why I point out the inherent failings of a preemption doctrine without smoking gun intelligence. Had we invaded Afghanistan preemptively, we may have prevented 9/11 (we’ll assume for the sake of discussion it’s early enough that we prevented the cells from getting into the country). How many lives would the preemption save in NYC? 0. Because the act happened before the potential of the act. How many lives may the preemption have saved in NYC? 0-50,000

The actual cost of the preemption would have been any troops lost invading/occupying Afghanistan and any retaliatory measures by the terrorists or other countries to such a move. In short preemption without smoking gun evidence can’t be proven to save any lives, and can only be proven to have cost lives/resources. So how do we make it workable?

The model I see as working best for preemption is wherein a nation maintains “good world citizenship” status on a variety of non-critical issues without risking its ability to act in its own security interest. For example, in retrospect would abiding by the Kyoto treaty be worth the cost if it would have allowed us to preemptively invade Afghanistan and maintain world opinion and/or created an environment of international acceptance such that we could have had the UN when we went into Iraq? The answer is yes. The costs of the Kyoto treaty are minor compared to US security benefits of being able to wage pre-emption or gaining international support for other actions. As you can assume this is not a 1:1 argument, it’s much more complex than that but I think it works for discussion purposes.

So if a nation can maintain good international relations with a majority of the country it is free to use the preemption doctrine on a lesser standard of intelligence. That and improved intelligence capabilities (to prove the smoking gun when you can) would present a workable model in which preemption might be more feasible in.

Now you’re just ass-kissing.

I think you have a tendency to overeact when I say things like this and immediately jump to the belief that I’m advocating “ass kissing”, which I’m not.

There is a wide gulf of difference between making an effort to be diplomatic for the pragmatic approach of desiring future utility and simply trying to make friends to have friends. I’m advocating the former rather than the latter. The lion can kill the hounds but only the fox can avoid the traps. The prudent approach is to be both the fox and the lion.(1)

It’s the same concept that applies to interpersonal relations, relations at the workplace, relations amongst peers, relations in the community. The guy with the chip on his shoulder saying “I need no one, no one needs me” may have success in the short run, especially if he’s bigger/stronger/wealthier than the others. But inevitably it becomes a losing proposition. The guy who is bigger/stronger/wealthier but doesn’t push it in the face of others, and when it’s in his own interest throws a bone to public opinion maintains his position and success for the longer run.

Foreign policies is never a binary equation, which I’m afraid this administration has tried to dumb it down too.

The power of the United Nations is an illusion…

Very valid point and well taken. Indeed you may not realize it from my recent postings but my considered opinion on the UN is that it can’t/won’t/ever work the way it is intended. It’s the biggest illusion there is in international politics and I’m pretty sure most countries realize it. However, that being said, as long as we maintain a position of influence within the UN we can use that illusion to our advantage and really mitigate actions taken against us. There’s a post I made on Glas’s page about the artificiality of current world opinion, that the rule of law somehow supercedes the rule of force. However that’s a shared illusion and as long as everyone believes in it it persists…but that gets into a whole ‘nother tangential thread and this one has diverged enough as it is.

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