PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH STUNNED THE INTERNATIONAL community in 2002 when he announced that taking preemptive military action was an acceptable option for coping with the new threat environment characterized by transnational terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The president was harshly criticized, particularly in Europe, for spurning international law, which severely restricts an individual state's use of military force to defensive purposes only.
Today, the European public tends to think of preemption as an idea that failed and has been abandoned. The Iraq War has turned from a perceived cakewalk into a quagmire, the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib has bankrupted U.S. moral authority in the Arab world and beyond, and nearly all the major intelligence services have made fools of themselves. As a result, the debate on preemptive strike would appear to be over before it had fully evolved. Many take it for granted that in his second term Bush will not dare undertake another act of "anticipatory self-defense," regardless of the stakes.
In addition, a high-level panel appointed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently published a report on U.N. reform that unmistakably reemphasizes that only the U.N. Security Council may legally authorize military operations that go beyond self-defense.
So, was the hype about precautionary military action just an exaggeration by the United States under the strain of September 11, 2001? Can we relax, agreeing that the U.N. Charter will continue to be regarded as the linchpin of international law, providing undisputed guidance for the use of military force?
Definitely not. At least two factors will keep the issue of preemption with us for years to come. First, given the nature of present threats, the notion of striking first to avoid unacceptable damage is conceptually compelling. Second--and even more importantly--an increasing number of countries and organizations acknowledge the need for a redefinition of the meaning of defense. "Preemption" is on its way to becoming a strategic reality, with significant legal and political implications.
A concept whose time has come
Behind the new logic of preemption is the acknowledgment that the threat situation has fundamentally changed as a result of three factors: the spread of weapons of mass destruction; the increasingly available means of their delivery by missile, unmanned aerial vehicle, and so on; and the technological progress that has been made in range and accuracy. Geographic distance is becoming less of a factor in threat analysis as more states and even non-state actors are achieving the ability to project power over long ranges. At the same time, the defender's reaction time is growing shorter. NATO's Cold War principle of waiting for the proof of an opponent's intention to attack (for example, the movement of Warsaw Pact troops) before activating military defense is defunct. Today, the proof of serious hostility might be the detonation of a chemical weapon in a major city. To wait in such a case would be unjustifiable, considering the potential number of casualties. Instead,...