December 23, 2003 | Op-ed

Point: Preemption

Authored by Matthew Louchheim  

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States faced an unfamiliar threat that warranted a bold strategy to confront the murky dangers to international peace and stability. The actions of the nineteen terrorists who partook in the attack could not have further demonstrated the consequences of pursuing a foreign policy grounded in appeasement, inaction, and delusion.

As the gaping hole in Manhattan reminds us today, we can no longer turn away from the terrorists that seek to murder innocent civilians in the thousands. Nor can we shy away from rogue states that not only brutalize their own people, but also violate international treaties, sponsor global terrorism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. If anyone took note of the United States' inability to uphold the stipulations of its 1991 ceasefire with Iraq when President Clinton ceased Operation Desert Fox in 1998 to focus on a more “intimate” matter, it was terrorists and rogue states who detected American weakness and moral decay.

In recognition of a new, lethal triangle-terrorist organizations, rogue states, and weapons of mass destruction-the Bush White House released its National Security Strategy on September 17, 2002. This document projects an ambitious vision of American foreign policy based on promoting democracy, human rights, and free markets. Unfortunately, many of its critics have been bogged down by the sentence advocating preemption: “We cannot let our enemies strike first.”

And yet preemption is not new to American foreign policy. Consider what President John F. Kennedy said to the American public in the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 22, 1962: “We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation's security to constitute maximum peril.” The destructive power of nuclear weapons forced the Kennedy administration to consider whether it would tolerate a Soviet first strike that could instantly murder millions of Americans. In accordance with the principle of preemption, Kennedy imposed a naval blockade around Cuba, by which the United States Navy threatened to sink any ship that approached the island. The United States did not accept nuclear missiles off the Florida coast, and violated international waters with its quarantine. Some considered this an act of war. As cooler heads prevailed, the Cuban Missile Crisis ushered in the strategy of deterrence that would dominate American and Soviet strategies throughout the Cold War.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, President George W. Bush recognizes that deterrence is no longer adequate when the main challenges to international security emanate from rogue states and terrorist organizations. During the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction were considered weapons of last resort. Today, however, rogue states seek them as “weapons of choice.” For example, the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il applies his nuclear ambitions to exploit the international community, while millions of his citizens die from starvation. The threat of retaliation is impotent when rogue dictators or terrorists, who target civilians, place no value in human life. Therefore, the United States has an obligation to ensure that these rogue states and other state-sponsors of terrorism never develop such weapons-even if it requires launching a preemptive attack.

Other critics have argued that preemption is not permitted by international law, even though the security strategy explicitly maintains that “for centuries, international law has recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack.” To be more specific, Hugo Grotius, the seventeenth century “father of international law” affirmed the legality of “[killing] him who is preparing to kill.” In modern times, the United Nations has also asserted the right to preemption. Following Israel's preemptive strike against its Arab neighbors in 1967, both the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly rebuffed a motion condemning Israel. However, as the Six Day War aptly demonstrates, countries acting preemptively often act alone.

When countries execute preemptive attacks, they yield the perceived “moral high ground.” Although the security strategy clearly states that the “United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community,” America must be prepared to act unilaterally. We therefore must ask ourselves: How many lives and how much security can we jeopardize to assemble a multi-national coalition? Sometimes, we may discover that seeking the moral high ground is itself immoral. ¨

Matthew Louchheim is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the past president of Yale College Students for Democracy.