Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dissecting preemption (again)

The Bush administration is almost over, but debate, scholarly and otherwise, about the Bush foreign policy will continue for a long time to come. Take the so-called preemption doctrine -- really a doctrine of preventive war -- codified and publicized in the famous 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), and reiterated, though with less enthusiasm, in the 2006 NSS. The 2002 document announced that the administration would not wait until perceived threats from so-called rogue states possessing (or trying to possess) weapons of mass destruction became imminent; rather, it would deal with those threats while there was still time to neutralize them. In words for which Condoleezza Rice may be better remembered than almost any others she uttered during the past eight years, the administration would not wait for "a smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud."

What was the point of articulating a somewhat ambiguous, broadly worded doctrine of preventive war and then applying it to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein? Was it just to deal with the perceived threat from Saddam? In a recent article ("Preemption in the Bush Doctrine: A Reappraisal," Foreign Policy Analysis 5:1, 2009, pp.1-16), Hakan Tunç argues that in the minds of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and certain other key policy-makers, the point of toppling Saddam was, in large part, to send a signal to Iran and secondarily North Korea. "Watch out, or you might be next." This insistence on signaling the other members of the so-called "Axis of Evil" that the U.S. was not to be trifled with may help explain the Bush administration's apparent rush to war in the early spring of 2003. If they had let Hans Blix back in to finish the inspections and waited for his report, who knows what the outcome might have been? For those members of the Bush administration who were determined to show that the U.S. could exercise its military power effectively, Iraq presented the apparently ideal target; they were not going to risk its becoming more benign in the public's eye by waiting for further inspections.

Tunç does not say that exactly, but he does say this:

"It is clear that beyond labeling Iran and North Korea as members of the 'Axis of Evil,' the Bush administration did not develop a separate policy for them. Invading Iraq was the policy for Iran and North Korea as reflected in the formulation of preemption. Making an example of Saddam through a flamboyant display of American military power was presumably a better approach to maximize the credibility of [U.S.] threats with respect to [rogue states' behavior on] proliferation and terrorism." (p.9)
With a nod to Thomas Schelling, Tunç labels this strategy "demonstrative compellence":
"In strategic studies, the concept of compellence has been applied exclusively to...circumstances in which two actors...are involved.... As the elaboration of preemption/prevention in the Bush Doctrine indicates, however, employing military force with demonstrative purposes for third parties can become the heart of compellence strategy. In other words, 'demonstrative compellence' as an offensive strategy entails the use of force in an exemplary manner to induce adversaries to revise their calculations and agree to change their behavior." (pp.9-10)
The essence of this argument, minus the political-science language, was made by Charles Krauthammer in a December 2002 Weekly Standard piece quoted by Tunç: " 'Overthrowing Saddam because of his refusal to relinquish these weapons [which many people at the time mistakenly assumed him to have] would be a clear demonstration to other tyrants that attempting to acquire WMD is a losing proposition. Not only do they not purchase you immunity (as in classical deterrence), they purchase you extinction. You will be not only disarmed but dethroned.' " (p.10)

Did the strategy of "demonstrative compellence" work? While the toppling of Saddam might have had some impact on Libya's decision to abandon any WMD ambitions, the strategy did not work with respect to its intended targets, Iran and North Korea. Tunç argues that one major reason it failed is that the administration didn't realize that the demonstration effects of its initial military success in Iraq were not going to last long. Thus the administration missed an opportunity to negotiate with Iran "from a position of strength" in spring 2003 when Iran proposed a deal involving possible denuclearization in return for normalization of relations. (p.13)

Tunç seems to be largely right about the motives and thinking of the hardliners in the Bush administration, but was "demonstrative compellence" ever sensible, even in theory? Here he could have probed a bit deeper, it seems to me. If, as Tunç says, the U.S. never intended to use force against Iran and North Korea, didn't that in itself tend to undermine the desired demonstration effect? North Korea already had a probable nuclear weapons capacity in the period in question, making it much less susceptible from the outset to a demonstrative compellence strategy. In any case, Tunç's article will not be the last word on all this -- that much is certain.

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