"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Preventive and pre-emptive force

Via Uncommon Knowledge, I would direct readers to an engaging debate about the role of pre-emptive and preventive force in international affairs, featuring Anne-Marie Slaughter, Victor Davis Hanson and Stephen Stedman. The debate is considered in tone and balanced in composition.

The important distinction is this: pre-emption uses force to interrupt a threat that is in motion. Preventive force is against threats that are latent, not imminent. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, I would argue, was preventive rather than pre-emptive, Blairite rhetoric notwithstanding. The concept of imminence is much less useful today than in the past. The most deadly threats confronting states are, and will continue for the foreseeable future to be, clandestine. A pre-emptive strike, in the correct meaning of that phrase, requires knowledge that one's adversary is about to strike. During the debate, Anne-Marie Slaughter offers the following rationale for preventive force:
"take what happened 9/11 or take you think that some country is about to get nuclear weapons and they are funding terrorists and they are - so imagine the Taliban was about to go nuclear. Well at that point, you know that if you wait till the threat is imminent, it's too late. By then, you're not going to--if they've got a nuclear weapon, you're not going to wait around wondering when they're going to use it. So you have to strike beforehand. " (my emphasis)
The italicised words represent, in my view, the strategic merit of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Slaughter's thought experiment also illustrates why the Pentagon is updating the logistics of a strike on recalcitrant Iran's nuclear programme. On that subject, France's foriegn minister, Philip Douste-Blazy made the following comments yesterday: "Today it is very simple: no civil nuclear programme can explain Iran's nuclear programme. So it is a clandestine military nuclear programme." This mirrors German prime minister Angela Merkel's statement in Washington last month that Iran's recent behaviour had "crossed a red line"; it also follows Tuesday's joint statement from the prime ministers of France and Russia, Messrs Villepin and Putin, calling on Iran to halt uranium enrichment. The Iranian crisis was up for discussion between British prime minister Blair and Ms. Merkel in Berlin today, but no significant public development emerged.

The likelihood of force being used against Iran by the United States, within the next three or four years at the outside, is, I suspect, quite considerable. The prospects for such an action gaining approval at the UN Security Council, as currently constituted, seem slight. China's energy ties with Iran, as well as its seemingly impenetrable policy of non-coercion in international relations suggest as much.


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