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Preventive Attacks Fail Test of History

October 20, 2002|Robert Dallek and Robert Jervis | Robert Dallek is a presidential historian at Boston University. Robert Jervis is Adlai E. Stevenson professor of international politics at Columbia University.

BOSTON -- The Bush administration asserts that an attack on Saddam Hussein would be a preemptive strike against a potential attacker. Deterrence and containment, which brought down the Soviet Union and its communist empire, are no longer viable options in a world of terrorists ready to use weapons of mass destruction, it says, and Hussein is a likely supplier if he can cover his tracks.

This is a specious argument. An attack on Iraq would not be a preemptive strike but a preventive action in response to a speculative and future, rather than visible and present, threat. The distinction is more than rhetorical: The recent history of U.S. preventive actions is not one of great success.

Preemption is a response to an imminent threat. President John F. Kennedy's quarantine of Cuba in 1962 and demand that Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev remove his missiles from the island preempted a dramatic change in the balance of military power in favor of the Soviet Union. The danger was clear and present.

Kennedy's preemptive response, it should be noted, did not include direct military action. Some of his advisors called for surgical airstrikes against the missile sites in order to minimize civilian casualties. Others wanted an invasion by U.S. forces. Kennedy resisted these recommendations. He believed air attacks would have blighted America's international reputation, and he feared that an amphibious assault might, like the invasion of North Korea in 1950, fall short of expectations and leave U.S. troops "bogged down."

In contrast, the Bay of Pigs episode in 1961 was a preventive action given legitimacy by national security guesswork. In the run-up to the invasion by Cuban exiles, who were financed, armed and transported by the U.S., CIA and military advisors told Kennedy that time was on Fidel Castro's side. The longer we waited, the harder it would be to overthrow him and the greater his opportunity to spread communism across Latin America. But this assessment was chiefly based on speculation about Castro's intentions and his ability to influence political developments in the hemisphere. As it turned out, the alarmist conjecture was unfounded. Castro could be contained and deterred.

Direct evidence of Hussein's involvement in Sept. 11 and of his eagerness to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction -- the basis for a preemptive strike -- is similarly weak. Instead, it's Hussein's reputed intentions that are at the center of the argument to topple him. Unfortunately, the CIA isn't too sure what the Iraqi dictator is up to. At a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, a CIA official said that the chances of Hussein using weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. are currently "low" but would greatly increase if we were to attack Iraq. Put another way, our threat to take preventive action against Hussein if he doesn't disarm may undercut the deterrence we now wield.

There are many recent examples of how preventive actions by the U.S. cost lives, squandered money and heightened international antagonisms. The CIA role in replacing the elected regime of Mohammed Mossadegh with that of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in 1953 is one. Mossadegh was an Iranian nationalist and neutralist in the Cold War, a stance that made him suspect in the eyes of the Eisenhower administration. But by "preventing" his jump to the Soviet side, the United States helped create the conditions for the eventual triumph of Islamic militants in 1979 who remain hostile to us.

The consequences of the Bay of Pigs invasion were similarly disastrous. Nearly 200 Cuban exiles died in the aborted attack, some 1,200 spent more than two years in Cuban prisons and the United States embarrassed itself before the world. Worse, when added to subsequent attempts to topple Castro, the invasion gave Khrushchev an excuse to ship missiles to his Cuban ally.

The U.S. invasion and occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965 was another preventive action that cost the United States and a presidential administration dearly. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Marines to the island to quash a "leftist" rebellion against a conservative, pro-U.S. government. He said the action was necessary to prevent a potential communist takeover. To support his case, the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo published a list of 54 "communist and Castroist leaders" of the rebels. Johnson went further: He claimed that the rebels had murdered "some 1,500 innocent people" and had assaulted several embassies, plus that of the U.S. The charges proved exaggerated, to the point that the president's credibility with the press and the American peopled suffered. Newsweek soon described him as "touchy, bitter" about the complexities and unmanageability of foreign events.

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