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How effective a tool is pre-emption in addressing WMD proliferation?
    Max Boot                VERSUS               Harald Müller

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow for national security studies at The Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Harald Müller is director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.



Dear Harald,

It's a pleasure to participate in this debate with you. The question of using pre-emption to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is certainly a timely one — all the more so because the debate over Iraq has heated up. As of the time of this writing, not much evidence of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes has been found, beyond two suspected bio-weapons trailers. This has, of course, led many to suggest that the Iraq War was a needless one and that the doctrine of pre-emption has been discredited.

I disagree. In my view, our inability so far to find WMD discredits not the pre-emptive war, but the policy of inspections that its opponents pushed as an alternative. If we can't find WMD in liberated Iraq what chance would 100, or even 1,000 inspectors, have had in a country still controlled by a totalitarian regime? Of course it's possible that there was nothing to find, that Saddam had genuinely destroyed all his WMD stockpiles — or, more alarmingly, moved them out of the country. But, to my mind, the state of his current stockpile is less important than his capabilities to manufacture more and his willingness to use what he created. On both scores, Saddam was a pretty scary fellow. We know that he used poison gas against the Iranians and Kurds. We know that he kept WMD after he was supposed to give them up under UN resolutions. There is no doubt that, even if he got rid of his stockpile at the last minute, he maintained a vast infrastructure that could manufacture more germs and gases on demand. And we know that he was working to acquire nuclear weapons, although it's still unclear how far along he was.

Given all that, I think toppling him from power was the right move, not only morally, but also strategically. We have removed someone with a long track record of criminality, who, if allowed to remain in power, would undoubtedly have committed far more heinous crimes in the future — not only against his own people but also against his neighbours. We tried other approaches to corralling Saddam, ranging from cooperating with him (prior to 1990) to weapons inspections (1992-1998, 2003) to deterrence/containment (1991-2003). You can argue that the latest coerced inspections, backed up by the threat of force, did contain Saddam temporarily, and this may be right, but there is little chance that the United Kingdom and the United States could have maintained hundreds of thousands of troops on Iraq's borders indefinitely. The pressure could not be kept up forever and Saddam could wait out the international community as he has in the past. That option has now been foreclosed by decisive military action, and I think the world is better off with him gone. Don't you?

The question now is how to deal with other tyrannical regimes that are acquiring weapons of mass destruction like Iran and North Korea. Once again we face the familiar options
negotiation or pre-emption. I would argue for pre-emption but pre-emption broadly defined to mean not just military options but all sorts of pressure diplomatic, economic and moral to change the nature of these regimes. I think the basic problem in all these cases is the type of regime not the possession of WMD per se. WMD in the hands of liberal democratic governments, like France or Israel, are not a big concern. The problem is when tyrants who are unaccountable to their own people get their hands on very powerful weapons.

I don't have a lot of confidence that regimes that abuse their own people will deal fairly with the outside world. Sure, they're happy to cut deals, but then they violate them. North Korea is Exhibit A: Pyongyang signed the Agreed Framework in 1993 but then went right on developing nuclear weapons anyway. I don't think there's anything we can offer Kim Jong Il that will make him stop this programme.

Toppling Saddam was the right move, not only morally, but also strategically

In the past, pretty much all the non-proliferation success has been due to regime change. When governments in places like Brazil, Argentina and South Africa became more liberal, they no longer saw the need for nuclear weapons programmes. You can argue that their willingness to give up nukes was due to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but I think that was of incidental importance; what counted was the nature of the regime.

So I think our focus should be on helping the people of North Korea, the people of Iran and of other rogue regimes to overthrow their tyrants and install more accountable regimes. Safety for the West lies in spreading liberal democracy, not in signing more treaties like the NPT that aren't enforced.

I imagine you have a different view. I look forward to continuing our exchange.


Dear Max,

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. It seems that an American neo-conservative and a German peace researcher can agree on something quite fundamental, namely that the use of force is the ultimate sanction for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I have said so for at least a dozen years and the UN Security Council expressed the same principle in its declaration of 31 January 1992, defining the spread of WMD as "a threat to peace and security", the very formula that can trigger sanctions, including military action, under the UN Charter.

But here I depart from your position. The use of force must be bound by law. Where WMD are concerned, international law is already extensive. It includes the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention, as well as the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Contrary to what you appear to believe, the NPT is more than empty words. Of the 36 states that seriously considered or enacted nuclear weapons programmes, the vast majority did so before the NPT was negotiated, and of the 25 states that stopped such activities, the vast majority (21) did so after the NPT was opened for signature. The majority of those who stopped were democracies or countries in transition, but there were authoritarian countries as well, including Egypt, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, who terminated nuclear research for military purposes after the international norm was established. The NPT was thus quite successful in persuading countries to renounce the military option, and it is an exaggeration to state that "all the non-proliferation success has been due to regime change".

Legal norms and military enforcement should not be viewed as competing but as complementary policies. Enforcement should serve to uphold agreed norms but on the basis of due procedure. Pre-emption outside a recognised legal context breeds fear, resentment and resistance, and ultimately feeds the very anarchy it is meant to address.

Due procedure requires proper presentation of the available evidence, proper debate on its merits and thorough, collective decision-making concerning the most appropriate strategy to deal with the threat. In the case of Iraq, such requirements were not met. The process of collecting and evaluating evidence by UNMOVIC was interrupted. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation of evidence to the United Nations on 5 February was sketchy, based on dubious sources and not properly discussed or analysed. Moreover, given the Iraqi performance in the war, the lack of use of chemical or biological weapons, and the failure so far even to find traces of WMD, let alone evidence of large-scale WMD programmes, it seems increasingly clear that UNSCOM had done a good job. Indeed, it appears that even an absence of four years was not enough for Iraq to reconstitute its programmes. Containment and deterrence worked well and would likely have continued to work for some time in the future.

The decision to go to war should never be taken lightly since innocent civilians will always be killed - as they were in the Iraqi campaign. Such a decision should therefore only be made out of necessity, as a last resort when every other approach has been exhausted. In the case of Iraq, this point had not been reached. And it should not be left to the government of any one country to take such a decision.

Pre-emption outside a recognised legal context breeds fear, resentment and resistance, and ultimately feeds the very anarchy it is meant to address

The world is a mix of cultures and systems of government in which democratic rule is clearly preferable. Coming from a country that experienced two dictatorships in the last century, I count myself fortunate to have been spared membership of either the Hitler youth or the "young pioneers", its communist alternative. However, I believe that pre-emption for the sake of regime change sets the wrong priorities. Dictators are susceptible to deterrence. Indeed, the greatest democratic triumph in history, the end of the Cold War, was won by patience, perseverance and a prudent combination of containment, deterrence and détente.

The use of force must be reserved for self-defence, the prevention of genocide and the pre-emption of a clear and imminent deadly threat that cannot be averted otherwise. Meanwhile, it should be the West's policy patiently to shape and expand international law and to marshal the strength to enforce it where necessary. The rule of law is one of the great strengths of democracy and provides the best international environment to help its spread.

One final remark. I am happy that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. I am also happy that the Soviet Empire disintegrated and would have preferred it to disappear earlier. Yet I am equally happy that the US government chose not to follow the advice of General Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command in the 1950s, namely to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union before it developed the capability to destroy the United States with nuclear weapons. Had such advice been followed, I might have been one of the innocent victims of the ensuing war.


Dear Harald,

I'm glad to see we agree in principle on the importance of using force to enforce international law. I agree with you that "Legal norms and military enforcement should not be viewed as competing but as complementary policies." My concern is that you — along with other Europeans — will never find an actual case where you conclude that diplomatic remedies have been exhausted.

"In the case of Iraq," you write, "such requirements were not met." Really??? What about the fact that Saddam Hussein had violated 17 UN resolutions? What about the fact that Hans Blix and the UN inspectors consistently reported that he never provided the full cooperation required by Resolution 1441? Saddam Hussein was one of the world's most brutal dictators with a long record of committing genocide, invading his neighbours and violating international laws. If this wasn't a case that justified military action, it's hard to imagine what would be.

The failure to find WMD so far makes my case even stronger. It means that the weapons inspectors would never have found Saddam's WMD stockpiles (which all Western intelligence agencies — including that of Germany — agree existed). Then they would have given him a clean bill of health, while leaving him with the capacity to manufacture more WMD in the future and probably to acquire nuclear weapons. (And don't forget — also leaving him free to rape, brutalise and murder thousands of his own citizens!) Thankfully, that danger has now been foreclosed by Anglo-American military action.

Safety for the West lies in spreading liberal democracies, not in signing more treaties like the NPT

I am glad that you invoke the example of your own country that was ravaged by the twin dictatorships of Nazism and Communism. That, to my mind, is the most powerful argument in the world against deterrence and for regime change. The West tried to deter Hitler in the 1930s — and failed. The result was six million dead Jews and the worst war in history. The West tried to deter the Soviet Union after the Second World War — and succeeded. But at great cost. Leaving aside the millions who perished in wars of Communist aggression (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.), there is also the fact that the people of East Germany and Eastern Europe were kept under totalitarian oppression for more than 40 years. Is this really your optimal solution?

Granted, I don't think we had any choice in the case of the Soviet Union. It was so powerful that pre-emption wasn't an option — except in the non-military sense that we used all of our might to undermine the Soviet Empire from within (by backing movements like Solidarity and dissidents like Andrei Sakharov). Attacking the Soviet Union, as General LeMay advocated, would have been madness. But it's hardly madness to attack an evil — and much weaker — regime like Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In that case, we have brought freedom to more than 20 million people, at fairly low cost in lives on both sides.

War is not always the worst option — living with aggressive totalitarian dictatorships is often worse. I wish that France and the United Kingdom had waged a pre-emptive war on Hitler's Germany in the 1930s, instead of waiting to be attacked. Don't you?


Dear Max,

So Europeans will never go to war to enforce international law? Funny that, I was under the impression that German special forces deployed alongside Americans and Brits in Afghanistan and that France was the largest single contributor to the Afghan air campaign behind the United States.

Anyway, I find your claim that the absence of WMD in Iraq proved the futility of the inspection process unconvincing. To date, Washington has provided three explanations for the failure to uncover WMD. These are: (a) that Iraq destroyed the weapons immediately before the war; (b) that Iraq moved the weapons abroad; and (c) that the WMD have been looted. None is convincing and the last amounts to an admission of failure, if the objective was to prevent Iraq's WMD falling into the hands of terrorists. Moreover, the multiplicity of explanations will not enhance US credibility the next time Washington tries to make the case for pre-emption.

The use of force must be reserved for self-defence, the prevention of genocide and the pre-emption of a clear and imminent deadly threat

There is another possibility, namely that Iraq did not possess WMD to speak of, nor the means to produce them in relevant quantities. Much of the information concerning Iraq's bioweapons programme, which has been widely quoted, came from Iraqi defector Kemal Hussein who fled to Jordan in 1995. But another of Hussein's claims, one that did not receive much publicity, was that Iraq stopped producing such weapons in 1991 and destroyed them before UNSCOM began its work. We were never sure about this, but it may have been true.

What could extended and strengthened inspections have accomplished? Inspectors found some empty shells meant for chemical agents and they supervised the destruction of the Al Samoud missiles. They were frustrated by the level of cooperation, but reported that this was improving as the inspections proceeded. With more interrogations, rapid and timely inspections and the best Western intelligence, they would, in time, have found more remnants of the old programmes and, most likely, traces of major reconstitution efforts
if there were any. Moreover, UNMOVIC could have been followed up by a long-term, on-going supervision regime, accompanied by smart sanctions. Such instruments, combined with the threat of military action in case of non-compliance, would probably have contained Iraq for the foreseeable future.

What concerns me about your arguments is what I consider a cavalier attitude towards war. War takes innocent lives. That is its nature, no matter how great the efforts to minimise civilian casualties. The decision to go to war should not be taken simply on the certainty of victory. Rather, it should only be based on clear evidence of its inevitability, on the solid expectation that the number of victims will be lower than they would have been had the war not been fought, and in the likelihood that the post-war situation will not be worse than it was before (which was very much the case in 1938!). I remain unconvinced that war was inevitable in the Iraqi case. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the other two criteria, though I whole-heartedly hope that, with help, the Iraqi people can rebuild their country. That said, it is not easy to impose democracy from the outside. Conditions vary from country to country and the German and Japanese experiences after the Second World War are not necessarily models to be applied elsewhere. Only time will tell.

One final point. We are not talking about pre-emption (acting to forestall an imminent attack) here. We are talking about prevention, the destruction of a risk before it emerges into a threat that could turn into an attack. On prevention, until very recently, international lawyers were in agreement that it was patently unlawful.


Dear Harald,

I think that when it comes to Iraqi WMD, we'll have to agree to disagree. I only note in passing that it wasn't just the US government that was convinced Saddam had WMD — so were all the other governments, including European governments, that had any intelligence operations in Iraq. So, for that matter, were UN inspectors.

I also take exception to your claim that a "long-term" inspections regime would have worked. I find it hard to see why Saddam wouldn't have stopped cooperating with inspectors as he did in 1998. Would France and Germany have volunteered to attack Iraq if he did? They didn't in 1998.

What really troubles me, however, is your cavalier attitude toward totalitarian regimes. You write: "War takes innocent lives." Well so do evil regimes. In fact during the 20th century totalitarian regimes probably claimed more lives than wars did. Add up the death toll from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and, yes, Saddam Hussein. That's more than 100 million corpses. Saddam's own contribution was relatively modest — a few hundred thousand victims. But the war that toppled him resulted in only a few thousand civilian casualties. It is certain that the war saved the lives of many Iraqis.

War is not always the worst option living with aggressive totalitarian dictatorships is often worse

And the jury is not still out on whether Iraq is better off without Saddam. Even if Iraq doesn't become a perfect democracy, it has already ceased being a country where women are raped and children tortured as an instrument of politics. By any reasonable moral calculus, the war in Iraq was amply justified.

Regarding your final point: I don't place much faith in international lawyers and what they say. If I did, I would still be waiting for the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact (which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy) to be enforced. I place my trust in American power, which has delivered Europe and Asia from great evil in the 20th century and is now doing the same in the Middle East. "International law" didn't win the Second World War or the Cold War. America and its allies did.


Dear Max,

Situations may arise when we must take up weapons to defend against WMD threats if, for example, Saddam had been found by the UN Security Council to be in severe breach of UNSCR 1441 or to prevent genocide by ruthless dictators. No cavalier attitude on this matter from my side. But powerful countries must not have a monopoly on taking decisions of such magnitude. Working legal procedures are available for the international community to achieve this. Indeed, using them, the United Nations developed new principles of humanitarian intervention during the 1990s and, in 1998, established the norm that host governments are responsible for transnational terrorism on their territory. In this way in 2001, the UN Security Council conferred the right of self-defence for states attacked by terrorists against those states hosting them. Later, in UNSCR 1441, the Security Council opened up a promising approach to dealing with the WMD threat, which it was not given the time to develop.

You place your trust in American power, because you believe
as your government does that America is (always?) right. Outside the United States, however, there is a growing impression that Washington has developed a feeling of infallibility and that it has no need to take account of the views of others unless they echo US policy. Moreover, not everybody believes that Washington is the font of all wisdom. US peace-building in Iraq, for example, betrays a considerable ability to accumulate mistakes. For this reason, I am afraid, the jury is still out.

The decision to go to war should not be taken simply on the certainty of victory

The world is becoming an ever smaller place. As a result, the consequences of decisions taken by Washington affect us all and it is extremely frustrating when they are taken outside of international legal procedures. Decisions that affect people but in which they have no say breed resentment, resistance and, ultimately, violence.

In the 18th century, King George III of England decided that he needed to tax his subjects on another continent. He thought that he had good grounds for such a policy since he was incurring costs to protect these same people against the "savages". These people were, however, upset, since they were never consulted on this decision, but were severely affected by its consequences. Americans know better than anyone the consequences that their wrath engendered.


 For more information on the Council on Foreign Relations, see www.cfr.org, and on the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, see www.hsfk.de