Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Our Last Pre-emptive War?

Steven Meyer


March 8, 2004

In the National Security Strategy (NSS) published in September 2002, the Bush administration lays out its justification for pre-emptive and preventive war. Stunned by the tragedy of 11 September 2001, the administration promised that we would never again be caught flatfooted by a terrorist attack or threatened by a "rogue" state. Iraq was the first full-scale test of that doctrine.

Exclusive of so-called "surgical strikes" that were typical of the Clinton administration, Iraq is likely to be the last pre-emptive or preventive war—at least for a very long time. There are three major reasons for this.

First, our military, especially the Army, is stretched very thin. Because of deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, the Balkans, and dozens of other places around the world, we will not have the capacity—in terms of both manpower and equipment—to engage in another Iraq-type operation any time soon. For example, between January and March, eight and a half of our 10 Army divisions have been or will be in transit to and from Iraq. Moreover, we have dug deeply into the most critical units in the reserves and National Guard, causing very serious retention and reenlistment problems in these units as well as the Army itself—especially for troops returning from Iraq. One Pentagon source argues that National Guard retention rates will drop by nearly 10 percent over what they normally are.

Second the role of intelligence, or more accurately, the administration's use of intelligence, has been dealt a serious blow. Arguably, the administration's decision to go to war with Iraq was made independently of conclusive intelligence, and intelligence was sought afterward to support that decision. The absence of weapons of mass destruction and the lack of any clear connection to Al Qaeda—the two most important arguments for going to war—have left the administration with a devastating credibility problem. Although the administration is trying to make the best of a bad situation, the interaction between intelligence and the policy process is now so discredited that it would be very difficult to persuade Congress, prospective allies, and the American public of another "imminent" threat.

Third, and perhaps most important, the post-war environment in Iraq has been far different from what the administration hoped for and predicted. Despite administration assurances that we would be treated as liberators and that peace and stability would follow pretty quickly once Saddam was gone, the post-war environment (especially in the Sunni triangle) has been deadly and unstable. More than 500 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqi's are dead, the possibility of civil war is real—especially if the Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis do not get what they want from a new political order. Everything from vital infrastructure to political and social institutions are so devastated that it will take years of U.S. occupation and hundreds of billions of dollars to establish an environment of "normalcy."

Moreover, terrorism against U.S. troops is likely to increase from Baathists and other disgruntled Iraqis as well as from outsiders. Even though Al Qaeda was not in Iraq before the war, they are there now. Iraq has become a "target-rich environment." If you want to kill Americans, Iraq is the ideal place to be.

Not only do these realities drain resources away from our fight against terrorism, they are likely to fatally undermine any extension of pre-emptive or preventive Iraq-type war in the future. If the administration thought it necessary to conduct major operations against, say, Iran or Syria or North Korea, it would be unable to do so because of its war against an Iraqi regime that was shown to have been absolutely no threat to the U.S.

—Steven E. Meyer, Professor of Political Science
    National Defense University

    (The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.)


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”