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Is a Preemptive National Security Strategy Viable?

by Roger Carsten, Center for Emerging National Security Affairs


The release of President George W. Bush's national security strategy raised questions (and eyebrows). Immediate questions arose as to the legality of his new preemptive doctrine. Did the policy pass the scrutiny of international law and were there precedents that might lend legitimacy to it? But a more compelling question is whether a preemptive strategy is viable -- can it be executed? And to answer that, we must assess whether the United States has the requisite power, political will, and popular support to undertake such a strategy.

Militarily, a preemptive strategy is practicable. Given the capabilities of its 10 Army divisions, 12 carrier battle groups, 12 Air Force fighter wings, and 3 Marine expeditionary forces, the United States has unparalleled military might. Together with integrated joint doctrine, digital and satellite communications, and cutting-edge operational concepts, this impressive mix leads to the conclusion that U.S. forces can support the President's strategy with relative ease.

U.S. strategic culture has shifted dramatically from a traditionally reactive posture to an aggressive stance. Henceforth, various U.S. special operations and conventional forces -- such as this F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter landing at RAF Lakenheath, England -- will spearhead intense military operations to preempt enemy plans and actions.

Financially, we are positioned to back almost any preemptive war the President desires. Our current Department of Defense (DoD) budget is 3.5% of the more than $10 trillion gross domestic product (GDP). Next fiscal year, the DoD budget will grow to $380 billion, while the GDP will rise by a projected 3.5%. Contrast these figures with World War II, when the defense budget was 35-40% of GDP; or Vietnam, when it took 10% of the GDP. Thus, international economic issues aside, the nation has the bankroll to pursue a preemptive strategy.

In terms of political will, we seldom have had national decision makers so poised to use military force to accomplish national security goals. No doubt, the 11 September terrorist attacks put the finishing touches to a reactive national mood that was shaped by 20 years of terrorism directed largely at the United States. Rather than showing U.S. displeasure at a breach of its security by firing a cruise missile at a group of tents, the Bush administration prefers to quickly dispatch special operations units, Central Intelligence Agency operatives, and conventional military forces as its way of "sending a strong message" to our enemies.

The wild card in national security policy continues to be the support of the people. In the past, our nation has had pronounced isolationist tendencies. It was slow to anger; but once angered, it responded with overwhelming force. Such distinctive and consistent expressions of a nation's outlook on the use of force are termed a "strategic culture" -- it is long lasting and derived from the perceptions of the public and the nation's decision-making elites.

In the early years of the United States, gathering information about the affairs of the world was a difficult process. Many people did not have the ability, interest, or time to read newspapers for glimpses of the world and the U.S. role in it. With steadily improved journals and the advent of around-the-clock news sources -- such as CNN, Fox News, and the Internet -- today's average citizen is bombarded with complex foreign policy concerns that often are boiled down to their essences by experts with opposing views. The result is a populace who better understands the interrelationship of economics, domestic politics, diplomacy, and military force. The man on the street often can converse articulately on the oil price shock that might result from a preemptive attack on Iraq, or knowledgeably discuss the effects of an Iraqi regime change on the House of Saud.

Regrettably, however, a sophisticated understanding of the tapestry of international affairs does not guarantee a collective wisdom -- witness the disagreement between Dr. Henry Kissinger and General Brent Scowcroft over U.S. policy toward Iraq. The larger lesson is that there is a multitude of opinions held by everyone from the National Security Advisor to the mechanic who fixes your car. Armed with increasing amounts of information, millions of average citizens have changed their views about the efficacy of the use of force. It is clear that the U.S. strategic culture has shifted dramatically. And given a population far more attuned to current events than even 20 years ago, it is no wonder.

In On War, Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz stated that a nation's ability to successfully wage war is dependent on the synergistic relationships among the populace, the military, and the government. He termed these relationships the "fascinating trinity." Our enemies no longer can count on our traditional reluctance to use force before being attacked. The U.S. trinity -- unlike years past -- is geared for preemptive warfare.

Major Carstens commands a U.S. Army Special Forces company at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

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