Voice

Caveat Preemptor

How Obama has adopted the Bush doctrine.

Truth may be the first casualty of war, but the language of strategic discourse has also suffered multiple serious wounds over the past decade -- none more grievous than that which has been inflicted on the time-honored concept of "preemption," the notion of striking first so as to thwart an adversary's own impending attack. The most egregious misuse of the term arose in President George W. Bush's 2002 national security strategy, which sought to expand its meaning to encompass the use of force against any who might one day pose a threat. Thus was the attempt made to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq as "preemptive."

But the attack on Iraq was not preemptive. In the strategic lexicon, the kind of action taken against Iraq is called "preventive war," which is about attacking before a threat becomes imminent. Moral philosopher Michael Walzer has parsed these matters neatly, noting that preemption focuses closely on the need to take action in a current crisis; preventive war has to do with worries about the future consequences of inaction. Generally, ethicists are open to the need to be able to take preemptive action. But the very concept of waging preventive war gets their backs up. It looks a little too much like naked aggression. Due to this concern, Bush and his senior advisers sought to defuse principled opposition to the use of force, in the absence of imminent threat, by arbitrarily expanding the definition of preemption.

Humpty Dumpty got away, for a while, with the bald-faced assertion that a word "means just what I choose it to mean." But for national leaders and diplomats, this looseness is a recipe for disaster -- as the ensuing costly debacle in Iraq suggests. Even more troubling than the facts that Americans are gone from Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and the killing has continued, is that President Obama has taken the same approach to preemption as his predecessor. He has ramped up the global drone war on terror with a many-fold increase in strikes on suspects. We are told that this is done with great care, and that the targets are being selected strictly on the basis of the imminence of the threats posed. But this is hardly believable, as scarcely a shred of evidence has been presented to the public in support of the notion that the victims of these attacks were on their way to hit American (or other) targets. Further, the frequent use of "signature strikes," hitting at sites simply on the basis of intelligence profiles suggesting they're populated by troublemakers, is highly problematic.

Another Obama administration application of preemption is emerging in cyberspace. Last fall, then-Secretary of Defense Panetta, in a major policy speech, explicitly spoke to the possibility of mounting preemptive attacks. For the most part, his qualifying "ifs" (if a cyber attack is perceived as imminent, and if it is likely to do great damage) suggest a degree of caution. But there has also been language in the administration discourse about striking first on the basis of "emergence of a concrete threat" that begins to move this policy more in the direction of using preventive force than just taking preemptive action. This is a serious concern, given how very hard it will be to detect an imminent attack. In cyberspace there are no troops massing on the border, no telltale signs of long-range missiles being readied for launch, no aircraft scrambling. Cyberattack comes with a simple click. Identifying the attacker ahead of time will require amazing forensic skills -- not in evidence yet even in the case of exhaustive post-incident investigations.

For all the current troubles with the slippage from preemption to prevention, it must be noted that the history of strategic thought about striking first to forestall an imminent attack has been very troubling in its own right. Nuclear preemption notions during the Cold War, for example, led to highly destabilizing ideas about the "launch on warning" of one's vulnerable missiles. The Soviet hierarchy's war plan for central Europe was just as high-risk, too, as it called for a preemptive series of nuclear strikes from the outset of any conflict, before NATO would be able to use its own atomic arsenal. Both sides eventually had the good sense to realize that nuclear preemption made no sense, and mutual deterrence eventually held sway -- as it still does today.

Even the classic case of preemption in a conventional conflict, Israel's opening operations in the Six-Day War of 1967, leaves much to question. One Israeli officer quoted at the time in the Associated Press noted simply, "Time is against us. Nasser said he seeks to destroy us. Why shouldn't we believe him?" This sort of reasoning is preventive in nature -- that is, it speaks to attacking before the odds of winning worsen. Cost factors also drove the action back then, as mobilization of Israel's citizen army ran about $20 million daily (big dollars in those days, for a small country). A lingering crisis was going to ruin the economy. Even so, the great Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion was not convinced that war was necessary, and wrote in his diary on the eve of the conflict: "I'm very worried about the step we're about to take. The haste involved here is beyond my understanding."

Indeed, it is hard to identify cases of preemption -- save for those "spoiling attacks" featured at the tactical level in many military campaigns -- that do lie within our understanding. Francis Bacon no doubt had it right -- in theory -- four centuries ago in his essay, "Of Empire," when he asserted, "there is no question but a just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war." But in practice, preemption has never made much sense as a strategic national policy. Further, the expensive misadventure in Iraq has made for real problems with the pursuit of preventive policies. Yet prevention may be the only rational way ahead, in terms of pursuing the twin goals of stemming proliferation -- in Iran and elsewhere -- and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists.

So it is time for senior leaders to fess up. The past decade has seen a lot of stumbling around, with wrongheaded preventive actions taken and a sustained, bipartisan effort at Newspeak that willfully mislabels prevention as preemption. Given the inherent problems with preemption, though, let's just be honest about the need to act forcefully and preventively against proliferators and terrorists -- even in the absence of imminent threats. How hard is it to admit this?

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images

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The great philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz was very clear about the resort to arms being a continuation of politics by other means, but he was more elusive about conflict outcomes. Because of factors like "friction" (a range that includes obstructions arising from bad weather and poor field coordination) and "the fog of war" (basically insufficient or inaccurate information), Clausewitz argued that chance reigned supreme, that the outcome of war was like "a game of cards." Yes, he thought that the genius of a great captain could overcome some of these problems. But later in On War he argued that contending sides, increasingly armed with the same sorts of weapons, would lead to an era in which sheer numerical advantage would determine war outcomes.

Nowhere in his work did Clausewitz see conflict as primarily posing a design challenge -- a puzzle to be solved about what kind of force to build. Nor have other great thinkers about war focused on design solutions. From Clausewitz's contemporary and rival, the Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, to modern strategists like B.H. Liddell Hart, the central aim has been to cultivate "genius" through mastery of a particular set of principles thought to govern war outcomes. For all the thousands of pages written about how to win wars, there are but few hints of the need for "design thinking."

Yet if one considers the long history of armed conflict from the standpoint of design, it is apparent that questions about how to arm one's forces, and how to exploit an enemy's technological points of vulnerability, have always been of crucial importance. In his Histories, for example, Herodotus lingers over the debate among the Athenians about whether to build a navy to fend off the threat from Persia, and what kind of ships to build. The Greeks decide to craft a fleet of small, maneuverable vessels, and to lure the Persians with their larger ships into a fight in narrow waters. The ensuing victory over the invaders from the East at Salamis was a striking affirmation of the power of design thinking.

Later, the Romans showed a deep appreciation for taking a design approach in the long struggle with Carthage. When they first went to sea, the Romans simply tried to imitate Carthaginian technology and tactics. Results were poor, as the hard-fighting Romans had limitations as sailors. But they soon found a design solution: the corvus, or "crow," a grappling device that allowed them to fix a Carthaginian vessel in place and board it. Rome soon had command of the sea, a factor that would prove decisive.

And so it goes throughout history. Design factors are almost always there, playing decisive roles. The British victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 is all about design, as the ships of the Navy Royal (its name in the 16th century) and the "sea dog" privateers were both more maneuverable and more capable of firing at the enemy from standoff range. Gustavus Adolphus, in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), skillfully blended pikemen, musketeers, and light, mobile artillery in new ways, changing the course of a long and indecisive struggle and bringing Sweden onstage as a great power.

In the 19th century, there were some interesting insights into the design process, suggesting that it was not simply governed by technical advances. Abraham Lincoln, for example, understood that the railroad, which enabled the movement of massive forces over great distances, and the telegraph, which allowed coordination of their operations, implied a wholly different strategy from the one that his senior generals wanted. Where Union military leaders preferred to follow the Jominian principle of massing forces in one place, Lincoln insisted that the new technology overturned this principle, allowing instead a "cordon offense" striking at the South from several points simultaneously. After years of costly defeats, Lincoln finally found a general, U.S. Grant, who was willing to embrace his design for victory. The war was soon won.

In the years after the American Civil War, Otto von Bismarck demonstrated back in Europe that design principles could be applied at a very high level of statecraft. He made a point of very carefully isolating the targets of his aggression so that when Prussian forces marched against them they would have no allies to come to their rescue. Thus the chances of victory in wars against Denmark, Austria, and France were enhanced by Bismarck's grand strategic design approach. It is highly ironic that Germany, which rose to world power on the shoulders of Bismarck, so soon forgot his principal lessons, and ended up fighting and losing two world wars against the overwhelming hosts of opposing alliances.

But Germany and its Axis partner Japan had other design problems as well in World War II, as Paul Kennedy's marvelous new history, Engineers of Victory, makes clear. His is perhaps the first major study that poses a great war as a design challenge. From how to master the U-boat wolfpacks, to countering German blitzkrieg tactics, and beyond, Kennedy hones in on the ways in which design innovations were able to change the course, conduct, and outcome of battle. And his focus on the middle years of World War II, when Axis defeat was hardly a given, helps make clear that design factors made the difference between victory and defeat.

Coming closer to our time, it seems to me that design thinking would go a long way toward explaining the American debacle in Vietnam, where over half a million troops and massive firepower failed to defeat a badly outgunned foe. The design angle in this war is best viewed from the North Vietnamese side, where simple design innovations like loading bikes with hundreds of pounds of ammunition and rice and pushing them along a dirt path proved beyond the American ability to counter. Whenever the Ho Chi Minh Trail was bombed, some bike pushers were lost and potholes were created. But potholes were easily filled, and there were always more bikes and men. Thus the insurgency remained armed and fed, on its feet and fighting, until the frustrated Americans gave up and left.

Something similar is going on today, in this new age of irregular wars. The American instinct has been, all too often, driven toward massiveness in design -- large field forces and tremendous firepower. Our enemies have persisted by means of designs that focus on creating lots of little Ho Chi Minh Trails, or "ratlines," and by making a wide variety of explosive devices that allow them to inflict casualties from a distance -- that is, with little risk to their own forces. In Iraq, for a while, this was countered by the design solution of creating a physical network of small outposts and a social network based on convincing many of our enemies to switch sides. In Afghanistan, something similar is contemplated today, in the form of small outposts in villages and diplomatic deals with many tribal leaders. But we have to admit that our enemies' designs have proved quite robust.

Still, in an era of looming budgetary constraints, awareness of the value and power of design thinking in military and security affairs may prove to be something of a secret weapon. Thus sequestration, far from crippling our military, might actually spur the sorts of design innovations that will enable victories to be won over enemy hosts who have, so far, been unimpressed with the "overwhelming force" approach of the Americans. It seems clear that only skillful new designs will lead to victory; it is just as clear that design thinking can allow us to do more, and do better, at lower cost. It's worth a try.

U.S. Army photo/1st Lt. Jonathan J Springer, 2-320th Field Artillery Regiment