Got Preemption?

The construct of the “no WMD” critique of the Iraq invasion has prevented a national debate on the real issue in that decision: whether to preempt Saddam, not whether he “had” WMD. The consequences of that rhetorical misdirection are injurious to our public discussion now of a nuclearizing Iran.

There is a national debate we have not had.  It is one we need to have, as the threats of nuclear proliferation and global terrorism mount.  It was preempted over the past decade by irresponsible politicization of the “Iraqi WMD” issue.  The Iraq case was precisely the one in which we should have had the debate, because we did not invade Iraq on the theory that Saddam possessed Soviet-scale WMD stockpiles; we invaded on the theory that he must be denied the capability to acquire WMD of any kind.  We invaded on a preemptive premise.  But politicians and the media have labored to ensure that we never debate the actual premise of preemption.  We have instead been stuck with a paralyzing meme of intelligence failure – one that assumes as its premise a historical fallacy:  that we invaded Iraq expecting to find WMD, as opposed to invading Iraq to prevent WMD.

In examining this subject, I do not excuse the Bush administration’s public information campaign about our reasons for invading Iraq, which ranged from ineffective to internally distorted.  President Bush himself always described his motives in very careful terms, speaking of the need to prevent Saddam Hussein, with his known ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, from acquiring the kinds of WMD that would be useful to terrorist purposes.  My online searches of Bush’s statements on this topic, performed at various times since 2004, have failed to turn up even one suggestion by him that Saddam had stockpiles of the kinds of WMD that the public now thinks haunted its imagination in the period before the March 2003 invasion:  large stockpiles of missiles with chemical or other warheads, nuclear programs underway in vast facilities, and so forth.  But no one today remembers anything Bush said except the “sixteen words” from the State of the Union speech.

Ironically, those sixteen words did not constitute an assertion that Saddam had WMD.  They asserted only that he continued to seek the materials for a nuclear weapon – and there were other intelligence data points indicating that.  In terms of rhetorical tactics, it was an error to highlight a single data point in this way; doing so made the whole case vulnerable to the mere casting of doubt on that piece of information.  But the larger and more significant reality is that this famous passage from Bush’s speech is not an assertion that Saddam had WMD.  Yet Americans believe they have memories of Bush making exactly such assertions.

The only claim by a Bush administration official that came close to a categorical assertion of that kind was the case made by Colin Powell in his speech to the UN, in January 2003.  Far more Americans have a specific memory of that speech, and its evocation of mushroom clouds erupting from Saddam’s imputed arsenal, than of any other statement from the administration on this subject.  It is worth pointing out that, technically, Powell did not say Saddam actually had the sort of WMD he created images of in his speech.  His emphasis was on the horrific consequences of Saddam obtaining such capabilities, and the likelihood that he would if he were not forcibly stopped. But it is understandable that average people might regard that point as splitting hairs.  And they would not be wrong to argue that the tenor of the speech was a warning of scary mushroom clouds, not an ordered case for preemption – and that the average person would remember it as such.

A certain rhetorical carelessness by the Bush administration thus did make it easier for his opponents, in politics and the punditry, to simply dismiss the real issue in the whole affair, which was always whether preemption was justified.  We never discussed the issue in nation-wide forums in those terms.  Bush made the case in those terms, but the rhetorical focus of pundits, analysts, and other politicians from both sides of the aisle was on the particulars of what Saddam had in the way of WMD.  The unspoken assumption was that the justification for war rested on proof or disproof of what Saddam already had or had done.  In spite of his own careful formulations, Bush never succeeded in making the debate about averting what Saddam could do.

If he had, we would remember the Iraq invasion not as the event that uncovered “no WMD,” but as the measure that ensured Saddam would neither obtain any more WMD, nor use them again (as he had in the 1980s and 1990s), nor provide them to terrorists.

Some Americans, of course, think of the Iraq invasion in those terms anyway.  But it remains significant to our politics that opponents of the Iraq invasion – whether their opposition today is retrospective or not – have not had to declare themselves on the topic of preemption.  By letting the debate be “about” what Saddam had before March 2003, we have let invasion opponents skate on the most important aspect of the whole issue.  Would they, or would they not, agree that preemptive action is necessary, in the case of a threat like Saddam Hussein?  They have avoided answering that question by changing the subject.

The truth of the Iraq campaign is that it was always about preemption.  It was not about hitting Saddam when we were precisely certain what his capabilities and inventory were.  Indeed, the nature of the problems of terrorism and WMD, and the nature of intelligence, are such that we are more likely than not to be faced with similar situations again.  These qualities of the problem are at the heart of the issue.  With both terrorism and WMD, the price of waiting for absolute certainty, about capabilities and intentions, is very high.  But both threats are in the category of things that intelligence, which is inherently ambiguous anyway, is likely to be more so on.

Terrorism, in particular, is a form of attack operations with a very small, usually ephemeral “footprint,” from the standpoint of detectability and identification by intelligence.  Even information acquired through human-collected intelligence – HUMINT – typically does not remain valid or useful for very long.  HUMINT is not a cure-all for any intelligence problem, and must always be cross-validated with other sources; the terrorism problem adds an element of greater perishability to much of the information gathered.

The detectable footprint of WMD programs at the national level is larger and better defined, but has many ambiguities associated with it, like dual-use facilities that can be used for either peaceful chemical or biological processing, or for the nefarious kind.  Finding a facility in use for commercial chemicals does not “prove” that it could not be used for WMD toxins, or that there is no intention to use it for that purpose.  Intelligence has to estimate the likelihood of such alternate uses, given clues that can be interpreted in different ways.  Such an estimate will be different for a chemical facility in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as opposed to one in India, Brazil, or Italy.

Nuclear programs are easier to identify and harder to hide; of all the aspects of this combined problem – terrorism and WMD – they are the most likely to identified early and understood accurately, at least for the purpose of focusing intelligence collection and interdiction planning.  There is, however, a sense in which intelligence cannot help the partisan who opposes preemption, and who will only agree to addressing threats ex post facto.  This sense, the opponents of preemption have taken full advantage of over the years:  the sense in which intelligence cannot present decisionmakers with a smoking gun before the trigger has been pulled.

Until a nation like, say, North Korea has actually exploded a nuclear device, the opponent of preemption can argue that North Korea has not acquired a nuclear weapons capability yet.  “Intelligence” cannot controvert this argument.  It can offer various forms of evidence that North Korea does intend to acquire nuclear weapons, but it cannot counter the assertion that North Korea does not have them yet.

I think of this as the “Zeno’s Paradox” approach to dealing with threats.  Until the gun is actually smoking, those who favor this approach will observe a motivated shooter, the outline of a gun, the arrival of the bullets, the loading of the clip, the seating of the clip, and the aiming of the weapon – but will continue to point out, as the “salient” issue, that the gun hasn’t been fired yet.  With or without ambiguity regarding precisely what is being observed, “intelligence” cannot overcome this mindset – nor can “intelligence” ever satisfy it.  Someone operating on the Zeno’s Paradox premise could be staring the gun and the shooter in the face, and continue to assert, until the trigger has been pulled, that the actionable fact is that the gun hasn’t been fired yet.

There is thus a very real sense in which the whole issue of preemption versus reaction is not about intelligence but about will.  It is vital that we come to grips with this reality, because preemption will always make special demands of intelligence:  demands that are obviated when the posture shifts to one of reaction.  Intelligence seems particularly important to preemptive decisionmaking – and this perception is not wrong, it is just dangerously incomplete.  Focusing on intelligence takes the focus off of the concept of preemption itself, and – as in the case of the Iraq invasion – can allow premises about our will to preemption to remain unexamined.

The Iraq case is especially useful for highlighting this dynamic, because there is such a division within our nation over the very question of what our intention was in invading Iraq.  A number of people believed, and still do, that we had a preemptive intention:  that intelligence on Saddam’s intentions with WMD was important, but was not the tiebreaker in making the decision to preempt.  Others believe that we invaded Iraq based specifically on a sort of intelligence estimate that would, almost mechanistically, drive us to take action; and that our will was determined for us – or our decision made for us – by the intelligence we thought we had.

This latter view implicitly posits the existence of a type of intelligence that would dictate our courses of action to us – something like the “triggers” that haunted the war plans of the combatants in WWI.  The former view operates, instead, on the premise that preemptive decisions are not dictated by specific pieces of intelligence, but by a posture of the will, arrived at through consulting political and moral ideas.  These ideas, in the former view, ultimately override the inherent ambiguity of intelligence (as well, we should note, as the endless recurrence of loaded guns that haven’t been fired yet).

The posture of the United States that Saddam Hussein could not be trusted to acquire WMD, while maintaining ties with terrorists, was not, in fact, based on “intelligence” in the first place.  We never needed “intelligence” to tell us Saddam could not be trusted with WMD, nor did we need “intelligence” to make it clear that a Saddam-terrorists nexus was a dangerous situation.  Suggesting that these general assessments were based on “intelligence” is like saying that we opposed the expansionist aspirations of the former Soviet Union, and therefore assumed our long-term posture in the Cold War, based on “intelligence.”  Of course we did not:  our Cold War posture was a decision based on politics, moral ideas, and ideology – and so was our posture on Saddam, from 1990 to 2003.  What we used “intelligence” for in the Cold War was to track specific Soviet activities – not to inform ourselves of what the Soviets were, as political actors, and how we should think about them.  The same applies to our political posture on Saddam, both before and after 9/11.

We never clarified any of this for ourselves in the rhetorical free-for-all surrounding the Iraq campaign.  Most of the entire national debate, other than the instances of President Bush making the case in his own words, has been couched in terms of intelligence driving us to invade Iraq.  The premise that we would all agree to invade if we knew “X” for certain about Saddam, but that not knowing “X” – or “X” being wrong – would necessarily mean that invasion was not justified, has never been examined.  We have not seriously considered the idea that intelligence did not, in fact, drive us to invade Iraq:  a decision to take preemptive action did.  These are two different phenomena, and the first – intelligence dictating our actions – did not even happen.  We have only been debating it, for the last six years, as if it did.

We have thus not clarified for ourselves what we think about preemption.  Is it wise?  Prudent?  Necessary?  Are we able to make a moral commitment to it that withstands criticism and second-guessing?  Are we, ultimately, able to choose it without demanding that intelligence present us with a smoking gun before a trigger has been pulled?

As we watch Iran progress toward developing nuclear weapons, this self-examination becomes more and more critical.  “Intelligence” cannot tell us whether or not to trust Iran under her current leadership.  That is a political and moral decision for which our political leaders must take responsibility.  They cannot hand it off to the intelligence community, as if, with all we know about the theocracy in Iran, its public actions and assertions, its oppressions of its own people, and its sponsorship of terrorism,  we require secret “intelligence” to be sure what kind of regime we are dealing with.

We have pretty good intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programs – better intelligence than we have ever had on North Korea’s, and much of it of the same character as what we had during the Cold War on Soviet weapons programs.  But I could undermine every single element of it, and leave readers questioning whether Iranians have ever even heard of the atom, by targeting individual data points with focused skepticism.  Like any form of human knowledge or assessment, intelligence could always be wrong.  That axiom can never be dismissed; it is always in operation.  Intelligence is not X-ray vision – if it were, we would not call it intelligence, and we would not, in fact, need “intelligence” at all.

Moreover, nothing – not intelligence, not visions from God – can make the gift to us of an Iranian nuclear detonation before there is one:  in other words, incontrovertible proof that Iran has been pursuing a nuclear weapon, before she actually develops it.  This logical impossibility is what opponents of preemption too often fall back on demanding.  We have certainly seen made, repeatedly up to now, the facile point that Iran has not developed the nuclear weapon yet.  Whether we are past it as a rhetorical device, at this point, will no doubt be determined by how much tacit public acceptance there seems to be of an impending nuclear break-out by Iran.  Intelligence can detect excellent indicators in this regard, of what is probably about to happen; but intelligence cannot get us out of the “hasn’t happened yet do-loop.  Only the will to make a decision can do that.

In sum, all the same features of the Iraq invasion are present in our contemplation of the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.  Something we have seen in the last week is a combination of inexplicit premises and the “hasn’t happened yet” do-loop:  as for example with Secretary Bob Gates’ testimony that “the” military option against Iran’s nuclear program would be ineffective (as if there is only one military option, rather than a spectrum of them, with differing degrees of potential effectiveness); and Hans Blix’s facile point (among others) that, essentially, Iran does not have nuclear weapons yet.  (See here, here, and here for good summaries on the relevant events.)  One is left with the nauseating sense that a narrative is being concocted that will, once again, exploit the inherent ambiguity of intelligence to score political points, assume premises not in evidence, and preempt (if you will) any honest discussion of preemption, through an oblique approach that seeks to undermine all the arguments in favor of it without actually presenting it for decision.  (Here is one interesting discussion of the evolving Obama administration narrative.)

In the case of Iran, the buried premises and the “hasn’t happened yet” do-loop are apparently being leveraged to take a preemption decision off the table.  In the case of the Bush administration and Iraq, they were used by opponents of the preemptive action to obscure the fact that that’s what it was:  preemption, not a reaction to intelligence.  In both cases, however, the debate we do not get to have is the one over preemption itself.

Regarding Iran, there is no discussion of the most important facet of preemptive decisionmaking:  the consequences of not intervening – regardless of exactly how many months it is until Iran has a nuclear weapon.  We are not, today, taking the opportunity to weigh those consequences against the costs of preemption.  The costs of preemption are unquestionably high, as I have discussed in my previous posts on Iran (the “Hit ‘em Hard” series, “The NIE is Dead,” and “Deterrence and the Superpower”).  It is wise and valid to have a critical discussion of them, and not to paper over their likelihood or their size.

But it is a one-sided and misleading discussion if we do not also examine the consequences of inaction.  A key reason why we are not demanding that examination is the absence of a healthy national debate on preemption as a concept – one that we should have had incident to the Iraq preemption, but did not.  Instead of being prepared to put the Iran issue in the terms of a preemption debate, we are accepting a mishmash of unexamined premises, and seem to be subconsciously waiting for an alignment of intelligence, triggers, tripwires – something to dictate a course of action to us, so that we do not have to choose it, but only have to react.  Unfortunately, reacting to a smoking gun perforce means that it has already been fired.  This is a ball that our eyes were effectively taken off of, by the “no WMD” flap in the wake of the Iraq invasion.  That consequence of the “no WMD” narrative is, in my view, by far the most tremendous disservice done by it to the American people, and our allies around the world.

6 thoughts on “Got Preemption?”

  1. You help frame the essential disappointment with the Bush Administration and it’s tragic “waste” of a security crisis. It’s no wonder that the new admininistration seems to be poking around in the dark, considering how opaque the national strategic discussion seems to have gotten.

    I often wondered during the build-up to the Iraq war and subsequently if a kind of politico-historical allergy to map-and-pointer strategy sessions was preventing President Bush from laying things out more clearly for the public. If many Americans can’t locate Iraq and Afghanistan on maps in any significant numbers, it’s not because they don’t care about war – they’re as fascinated with war and war-related subjects as human beings have always been – but because no one tried very hard to make a geostrategic case to them in a geostrategic format. We got Colin Powell’s overhead photography of suspected Iraqi emplacements, reminiscent of Cuban Missile Crisis aerial photographs, and also some melodramatic show-and-tell, but we never got anything similar, that I can recall anyway, to Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower with their maps of Southeast Asia. That kind of thing was reserved for armchair generals (like me) perusing web sites or taking the morning off to watch entire televised briefings.

    There were no doubt multiple reasons for White House communications decisions, but, whether it was the pol’s sense that the Domino Theory and Cambodia were losers, but the Cuban missiles big winners, or whether it was an unwillingness to highlight American strategic exposure, or something else, the American people received only a muted request to think strategically about the conflict: Bush made frequent strategic pronouncements, but refrained from exploring their implications except via rhetorical flourishes that fewer and fewer people were buying, or even paying attention to. When, on the other hand, Gen Petraeus effectively took over the war, and provided his own charts and painstaking, rational presentation before a national audience, public opinion and political resistance began to turn – not back to its early super-majoritarian pro-war stance, but away from absolute reflexive opposition. You could feel the theme move from “We can’t take it anymore make it stop!” to “OK, one more chance, let’s see how this works.”

    Needless to say, the facts gradually began to help the General, but geography is also factual. The events of history, the names and orders of battle of allies and opponents, and so on, are also factual. Even a faulty or superseded strategic presentation – contemporaneous popular discussion of war plans and strateges during previous wars sometimes read as comical – at least gets people thinking strategically, putting their minds around broader considerations. As we’ve also seen, the convenient focus on the politically volatile fact or factoid – WMD! – is also subject to revision, but, once revised, may not leave even a framework for rational discussion in place.

  2. wanted to add because it’s highly relevant to Iraq: resources (oil), their location and economics, are also highly factual! (Also wanted to tick the e-mail follow-up box.)

  3. CKM — your comments are well taken. The image created by the White House info campaign to justify the Iraq invasion was of missiles and mushroom clouds. But that didn’t actually match what Bush SAID. A better-matching image would have been of terrorists releasing Sarin or ricin in subway tunnels — or using a “dirty bomb” against downtown LA or NY.

    The map image Petraeus used matched the objective and elements of the surge strategy much more closely. It’s a really good lesson, that images of the conflict matter so deeply, and you have to take control of the ones you’re creating.

    I had your comments running through my head as I composed my new post on Iran’s attempt on the chokepoints. Maybe it will help at least some Americans understand that this is OUR national security problem, and not just Israel’s, or even the Middle East’s, or Europe’s.

  4. Didn’t Vice President Cheney say there could be “no doubt” that Sadam had weapons of mass destruction? This quote:

    “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”

    Dick Cheney August 26, 2002

    1. The Saddam regime’s material breach on WMD was confirmed by UNMOVIC to establish casus belli and then corroborated by the Iraq Survey Group. On the law and the facts, the decision for Operation Iraqi Freedom was correct.

      You’re correct, though, that Bush officials improperly characterized the pre-war intelligence as “evidence” rather than its normal and proper role as indicators and, at times, presented the pre-war intelligence estimates inapposite of their limited ancillary role in the operative enforcement procedure.

      At the same time, the pre-war intelligence, per the normal role of intelligence and its actual role in the Gulf War ceasefire enforcement, correctly indicated the Saddam regime was engaged in proscribed armament and terrorist activity that breached the Gulf War ceasefire.

      I address the Bush administration’s error of presentation with the pre-war intelligence estimates here.

  5. You’re on the right track, but your framing of the issue is missing the operative context of the Gulf War ceasefire enforcement. The defense justification was already baked into the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441), which was purposed to resolve “the threat Iraq’s non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles poses to international peace and security” (UNSCR 1441) that was established with the Gulf War.

    President Bush’s invocation of the preemptive defense doctrine in response to the 9/11 attacks was an extension of the preemptive defense doctrine that President Clinton had implemented in response to the “unacceptable” danger of terrorists acquiring WMD in light of the Islamic terrorist campaign that escalated throughout the Clinton administration and culminated in the 9/11 attacks. That national security priority featured Saddam’s distinctive combined WMD-and-terrorism threat, which President Clinton named to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Pentagon staff on February 17, 1998: “the very kind of threat Iraq poses now: a rogue state with weapons of mass destruction, ready to use them or provide them to terrorists, drug traffickers, or organized criminals, who travel the world among us unnoticed”.

    As such, the casus belli for Operation Iraqi Freedom was not preemption, but rather Iraq’s evidential material breach of the Gulf War ceasefire, which incorporated defense in the basis of the “governing standard of Iraqi compliance” (UNSCR 1441) for renouncing terrorism and disarmament mandated by UNSCR 687.

    I invite your review of my explanation of the law and policy, fact basis for Operation Iraqi Freedom drawn from the primary sources of the mission.

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