Holding the Government Accountable

Bush, Kerry, Preemptive War, and the "Global Test"

While Kerry has spoken of a “global test,” a vague standard with which Bush takes umbrage, Kerry also has declared that, like Bush, he would not subject U.S. national security to another country’s veto. Presumably referring to vetoes in the UN Security Council, Kerry implies that, like Bush, he might be willing to go to war without explicit Security Council support.

In short, neither candidate has explained how threatening a gathering threat has to be, what threshold has to be crossed, to legitimize in his mind a preemptive military response. And even as both have invoked the significance of alliances, and the need to make diplomacy and other nonmilitary alternatives strategies of first resort, they also have not outlined parameters for the evolving role of the Security Council or non-UN multilateral alternatives like NATO or the G-8.

To be fair, today's "global tests" remain diverse and arguably unreliable.

With respect to the United Nations, the UN Charter as drafted envisioned the Security Council nipping emerging threats in the bud by applying a flexible range of preemptive or preventive measures, military and nonmilitary. The hope was that the United Nations might provide not simply formalized structures but practical impact in a real world context. By that measure, the United Nation’s results have been questionable.

And now reports that corruption undermined the UN-centered Iraq oil-for-food sanctions program, offered as an alternative to force, could damage the UN organization’s credibility, weakening confidence in its capacity to serve as a disciplined and reliable security partner.

In contrast to the United Nations, the Bush administration points to an effort like its Proliferation Security Initiative as an activity rather than an organization. The administration refers to the need for effective cooperative action among sovereign states, as opposed to international bureaucracy that exists for its own sake. Some voices in the administration perhaps hint at a desire to head more strongly in this direction.

Meanwhile, a high-level UN panel assessing threats and prospects for reform is expected to report back in the coming months. But abstract philosophizing about institutions should be overshadowed by the immediacy of real-world choices over the dangers cited by Bush and Kerry in their televised debates.

Both recognize weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and WMD terrorism as the greatest threats to national security, with the most dangerous players including Iran, North Korea, and violent non-state actors, and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Exemplifying some of the unique challenges to today's “global tests” is Iran, a known state sponsor of terrorism reputed to be pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Security Council veto-holder Russia, an Iranian nuclear contractor, has been resisting U.S. efforts to have the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) refer the Iranian problem to the Security Council. Instead, the European Union’s “Big Three,” Britain, France and Germany, have struggled to engage Iran with support from the G-8. A rumored offer to provide Iran nuclear fuel in exchange for abandoning its enrichment program, echoed by Kerry, thus far has been rebuffed.

As the matter heads towards a November IAEA showdown, it threatens to open a preemptive war Pandora’s box. The failure of U.S. leaders to spell out the limits of preemption does not help. Even as U.S. preemptive war doctrines are left nebulous by Bush and Kerry, Israel has hinted it might be willing to carry out preemptive strikes against Iran, aided by newly acquired U.S.-made bunker-buster bombs. In turn, Iranian generals reportedly have raised the prospect of Iranian preemptive attacks on U.S. or Israeli forces.

The dangers and uncertainties surrounding the Iranian problem highlight the fact that preemptive war remains a poorly defined and unpredictable concept, not only for the candidates, but for a global security system lacking unified leadership or a consistent and reliable framework for addressing today's threats. In the past, the United States has contributed mightily to the formation of modern international law and cooperative security frameworks, and America is called to help take the lead once again. Both presidential candidates need to do more to share their vision for how this can be accomplished.

Author: Steven C. Welsh, Esq