In September 2002 President George W.
Bush released his National Security
Strategy of the United States of America.
This document declared that "the
United States can no longer rely solely
on a reactive posture … To forestall or
prevent such hostile acts by our enemies,
the United States will, if necessary,
In theory, this means simply that the
US will not sit still and allow itself
to be attacked when it knows an attack
is intended. It will prevent the attack
by striking first.
This is fine provided that there is good
evidence that the US was indeed under
threat of significant attack. Then pre-emption
is merely an extension of self-defence:
if someone draws a gun on you, you don't
wait to be shot at before defending yourself.
But in the absence of good evidence,
pre-emption can look like a pretext for
aggression. If the Americans cannot show
a convincing and imminent threat, they
have a problem. And so, maybe, could the
Adoption of a policy by the world's greatest
power lends legitimacy to it. Already
Australia has followed Washington's lead
with its own small-scale version of pre-emption,
causing considerable of disquiet in our
region. The Prime Minister's statement
last December even suggested that the
UN Charter be amended to allow pre-emption
against terrorism. There can be little
doubt that in future other states, citing
the US precedent, will seek to justify
their military actions as legitimately
pre-emptive (whether they are or not).
How does theory translate to practice?
It seems we are in the process of finding
out, as the American buildup in the Gulf
region continues. The Iraq issue will
provide a crucial test of pre-emption
and of future US intentions.
Historically, Saddam Hussein's government
cheated, lied, concealed, delayed and
generally showed bad faith in implementing
the UN Security Council resolutions it
signed up to in 1991 as the price of peace
after its failed conquest of Kuwait. This
time, Iraq has shown hitherto uncommon
sense in complying with the latest UN
resolution. At the time of writing the
UN inspectors have stated that they have
found no evidence, no "smoking gun",
of forbidden Iraqi weapons programs.
If Saddam really has discovered common
sense he will continue as he has begun:
he will comply scrupulously with all UN
requirements, while rejecting any US demands
going beyond what the UN has authorised.
This strategy actually offers him the
best chance not only of personal and regime
survival, but of a political win over
If, when the UN inspectors report progress
to the Security Council at the end of
this month, there is still no smoking
gun, Washington will be in a potentially
embarrassing bind. It will be all dressed
up for a war which it cannot justify except
perhaps to its more servile allies like
John Howard's Australia. What to do then?
This will be the acid test of pre-emption
American style. Without a generally acceptable
justification, the proper course for Washington
will be to withhold military action. Of
course this would be a political loss.
American claims against Iraq regarding
weapons of mass destruction would then
be shown to be baseless. Baghdad would
crow about US "fabrications"
and American credibility could be seriously
The alternative is to do a latter-day
Gulf of Tonkin exercise. To get Congressional
approval for escalation of the Indochina
war the Johnson administration blew up
and elaborated on a minor naval incident.
The Bush administration could seize on
some trivial Iraqi infraction, or provoke
an incident, and use it as a pretext for
war. The Iraqis would certainly lose -
I will say something in a later column
about the losses they might cause while
losing - but a goodly slice of world opinion,
including many not automatically hostile
to the US, could interpret the American
action as thinly-disguised aggression.
Historically, American policy is far
from unblemished. Its meddling in Allende's
Chile and support for Pinochet, its unjustified
invasion of Granada and the sordid saga
of Indochina all show Washington's fallibility
and misuse of power. Yet this is not the
whole story. I cannot forget the US role
in the war against fascism, its protection
and reconstruction of post-fascist western
Europe while Stalin's oppressive empire
loomed large in the East, and its (admittedly
selective) support for liberal democratic
principles. Taken on the whole, though
it has inevitably shown warts which should
not be ignored, the US has been a positive
force in the world. Those who doubt this
might like to consider what sort of world
it would be had the US been a right-wing
military dictatorship when it confronted