GIVE WAR A CHANCE   [Cont'd]
For the United States to act on a threat preemptively (or, in the case of Iraq, preventively) required a new national security doctrine. Aware of this, on September 20, 2002, the Bush administration articulated the need to act against "emerging threats before they are fully formed" in its new National Security Strategy . The advocacy of anticipatory self-defense is nothing short of a revolution in US foreign policy. Yale History Professor John L. Gaddis calls it "the most important reformulation of US grand strategy in over half-a-century." Recent presidents consideredand swiftly rejectedpreemptive attacks, following Truman's advice that "you don't prevent anything by war... except peace." The doctrine flies in the face of international and US law. As Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman points out ,
Aside from legal considerations, what are the practical ramifications of the Strategy? It is obviously a major destabilizing factor for dueling countries, eg, India vs Pakistan or China vs Taiwan. If X feels threatened by Y, it might be tempted by the use of preemptive self-defense. This alone might cause Y to feel threatened by X and, in turn, consider a preemptive strike on X. But, of course, this would only add to X's original mistrust, thus fueling a self-reinforcing feedback loop of mutual suspicion. The Strategy also encourages dictatorships everywhere to follow the North Korea model and speed up the development of nuclear weapons in order to deter a US invasion.
As Ackerman reminds us, the limited doctrine of self-defense enshrined in traditional law goes back to the Nuremberg trials, whose main focus was not, as is commonly believed, the prosecution of genocide but the condemnation of aggressive wars. The classic case of preventive warfare is Pearl Harbor. Japan was under a US-imposed oil embargo in 1941 and felt threatened. Was it thus justified in attacking the United States? The UN Charter says no. The National Security Strategy says yes.
No one disputes the intuitive appeal of preemption: Hit 'em before they hit you. But how sure are you they have it in for you? What if you attack them because of a threat of WMD only to discover later that they have no such weapons? (Not that this would ever happen to us, of course.) Bush's solution to this conundrumand to the Pearl Harbor paradoxis the sort of exceptionalism that does not even pass the laugh-test. It goes like this. The risks of error are, indeed, high enough that preemption should be the exclusive right of the good guys (that's us). The National Security Strategy puts it more delicately :
Which brings us back to Iraq. The Strategy had no legal value, so what did the law say? International lawyers are unanimous : The war was illegal. In no way did UN Resolution 1441  or any of its predecessors give legal authority for an attack on Iraq. Those who disagree are about as numerous as the WMD buried in Saddam's backyard.
Legalism, shmegalism! Didn't Tony Blair speak of WMD deployments on 45 minutes' notice? Didn't Condi Rice famously suggest that the smoking gun might come in the shape of a mushroom cloud? Don't talk to us about legalism!
 The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, September 17, 2002.