Preserving a clear distinction between preemptive and preventive warfare is an indispensable requirement in international politics nowadays to prevent unnecessary military conflict. The history of these concepts date back centuries, their differences enshrined in The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and in the United Nations Charter. In 2002, however, President George W. Bush significantly altered the definition of the terms. Now, under the Obama administration the Department of Defense (DOD) has completely obliterated these differences. This is worrisome. A preemptive attack is regarded as a morally and legally (by international standards) justifiable means for one nation to defend its security against an enemy; a preventive attack is not. Disregarding this distinction makes warfare more palatable as it removes constraints on questionable political and military behavior.
Prior to 9/11/01 the term preemption was hardly used in US military doctrine while prevention was utilized in generic terms such as, conflict prevention, efforts to prevent the use of mass destruction weapons, preventive diplomacy, etc. All along DOD had maintained a vital distinction between the two concepts. It defined a preemptive attack as, one initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent, and a preventive attack as, a war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk. (Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 1994, online). As late as in 2006 DOD’s dictionary preserved the distinction between the two concepts. Nonetheless, in 2010 DOD’s amended version of its dictionary eliminated the definition of a preventive attack while leaving intact the above definition of preemptive attack. Oddly enough, in the 2015 edition of the dictionary, both terms have been deleted.
How did all this happen?
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed the political and military landscape. In September 2001, the Joint Chiefs of Staff inserted the term preempt in its Quadrennial Defense Review Report but without defining its scope: The U.S. must deter, preempt, and defend against aggression targeted at U.S. territory, sovereignty, domestic population, and critical infrastructure,…(p. 69)
Then, in his 2002 National Security Strategy for the United States President George W. Bush craftily altered military doctrine by conflating the inherent features of both preventive and preemptive action. He emphasized, US right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country (p. 6), reasoning that, Given the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons … [w]e cannot let our enemies strike first. We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed (p. 14). As prevention became equated with preemption the distinction between the two terms began to fade. President Bush explained that he had to adjust US warfare strategy to terrorists’ new ways of operation and called for making adaptations to the traditional definition of preemption: Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack. We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries (p. 15).
In effect, President Bush distorted the essence of a preemptive attack by substituting a sufficient threat (Bush’s words) for incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent (DOD’s definition), and adding the essential characteristic of a preventive attack (belief as opposed to certainty) to the concept of preemption: The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively (p. 15).
From then on, to vindicate the justness of US military engagements, a preventive attack would become known as preemption: The reasons for our actions will be clear, President Bush said, the force measured, and the cause just (p. 16).
At the time, President Bush indicated that, The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats, nor should nations use preemption as a pretext for aggression (p. 15). Who could have predicted that President Bush’s apparent thoughtfulness in 2002 would give way to the US invasion of Iraq one year later under the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?
Soon, President Bush’s alterations gradually found their way into the public square. During the last decade U.S. Government officials, political and military pundits, and newscasters have continued to echo the blunder by referring to the initiation of a military conflict, particularly those undertaken by the United States or our allies, as being preemptive in nature even when having all the characteristics of a preventive attack.
By 2004 the Joints Chiefs of Staff’s National Military Strategy of the United States of America already incorporated the Bush Doctrine by using the two terms, preemption and prevention, interchangeably. To compound the confusion, in the 2005 National Defense Strategy approved by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conflation of the two terms rendered their operational meanings, well, meaningless: This strategy is intended to provide the President a broad range of options. These include preventive actions to deny an opponent the strategic initiative or preempt a devastating attack (p. 10).
In the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States President Bush again conflated the two terms by evoking a doctrine of preventive attack under the semblance of preemption: [u]nder long-standing principles of self-defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. (p. 23).
Such subtle revisionism threatens the international order as other governments could feel validated by US doctrine. DOD’s 2015 National Military Strategy of the United States, for example, makes no mention of what types of military attacks would be considered justifiable. Ironically, its introductory paragraph alludes to the danger posed by rogue states indicating that, the United States needs to counter revisionist states that are challenging international norms as well as violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that are undermining transregional security. Pot-kettle?
During President Obama’s administration there have been noticeable—yet nuanced—changes that altogether fail to clarify the issue. In his US National Security Strategy in 2010 and 2015 (only ones produced), the use of force is ambiguously stated. Use of force: a) is employed when other options are exhausted and in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy (traditional preemptive action); b) will be unilaterally, if necessary, and in line with international standards (also traditional preemptive action; c) yet retaining all options to achieve the objective of preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon (clearly alluding to preventive action); d) entails taking decisive action, when there is a continuing, imminent threat, and when capture or other actions to disrupt the threat are not feasible (possibly referring to traditional preemptive action but without the certainty element that would lead to preventive attacks); e) embraces the post-World War II legal architecture—from the U.N. Charter to the multilateral treaties that govern the conduct of war (likely indicating traditional preemptive action); f) will reflect a clear mandate and feasible objectives, ensuring our actions are effective, just, and consistent with the rule of law .. in a way that reflects our values and strengthens our legitimacy (not clear whether it refers to preemptive or preventive action) (p. 8).
Existing ambiguities in US military doctrine could lead to serious outcomes. Precisely because the U.S. is committed to a nuclear ‘first strike,’ under the guise of a just and morally permissible preemptive option, a preventive conventional attack becomes more enticing as it can be politically easier to justify. Moreover, under such conditions nuclear saber-rattling by any of the nuclear powers would increase the odds of such an impossible-to-imagine scenario taking place.
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