McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies

McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995


Proliferation is not illegal under international law if the government involved is not, at that time, a member of the NPT regime. On the other hand, preemptive strikes against states not at war is illegal in international law! So, too, are any nuclear strikes against NPT members! (Note 100) In all but the rarest of cases, i.e., anticipatory defensive action taken to ward off an impending attack, U.S. policy should follow the United Nations Charter and the law of nations. The sovereignty of other states ought to be respected and non-military means should be used in very nearly every case in pursuing U.S. counter-proliferation policy.

PCP actions should be reserved only for the criminal regime whose previous violent and dangerous actions do not warrant giving it the benefit of the doubt. For example, think of Hitler's Germany in 1940 and add a German nuclear facility that could produce an atomic bomb in a year. If a country was in a position to intervene and destroy that kind of capability, by that kind of regime, should it not take such action? Clearly, in the vast majority of situations, the case against PCP is far stronger than the case for such a policy. Conditions would have to be so dire, and yet so precisely favorable, that PCP attacks were the only route to take, the least dangerous of two or more risky options.

In dealing with most states who are in the process of acquiring WMD, the United States would be wise to rely strictly on non-military means to curtail proliferation. Of course, in most instances, the United States will be dealing with a more benign country than an Iraq under Saddam Hussein, a North Korea under Kim Jong Il, a Libya under Muammar Khadafi, or an Iran under Rafsanjani.

In some cases, it may be possible to preserve security, prevent proliferation, and deal with dangerous radical regimes short of military action. Logically, if the personal political power, regional security needs, economic goals, and political goals of such leaders could be achieved by less radical and risky means, it might be possible that they might slow or abandon the quest for their own WMD.

Or, if radical regimes are not deterred from acquisition of such weapons, they may be deterred from use of them by countervailing military power, and, in time, the leadership of such regimes will change and relations may improve with their successors.

Long-term enemies have, from time to time, decided to make peace after many wars and much bloodshed. Note the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty engineered by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1980, and the more recent accord reached between Yassir Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel in 1993. Even more dramatic has been the end of the Cold War and subsequent warmer relations that exist between the republics of the former Soviet Union and the United States.

In confronting a radical proliferator, sometimes the decision to intervene is made for you by the adversary's warlike actions. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait may have been a long-term blessing in disguise for rest of the world, for Iraq's subsequent defeat has allowed Coalition forces to move into Iraq and systematically destroy another decade's worth of Iraqi work on nuclear, chemical, and missile development initiated since the Israeli Osirak strike a decade before.

However, in most cases the conditions are missing for a U.S. success in using force to arrest proliferation. Striking and failing to disarm a nuclear foe could be lethal. And, even if you succeed in disarming a WMD foe, letting a proven and ruthless adversary such as Saddam Hussein reestablish his control after a period of occupation and forcible disarmament could be a grave mistake, akin to letting a rattlesnake loose in the house after catching and confining it.

Some analysts believe that Saddam Hussein's nuclear establishment could be up and running again very quickly once outside military forces leave Iraq. In a few years, an Iraqi nuclear bomb could be a reality. Hussein has already tried to kill President Bush on a visit to Kuwait and might seek nuclear revenge on the United States and its allies when he has reloaded.

As Dr. Victor Alessi, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy's Arms Control Office, has testified to Congress, the Coalition victory and occupation does not stop all Iraqi efforts to make WMD. Their previous experience shortens the time to rebuild the capability and resurrect the threat. Alessi noted that:

The Iraqis still possess in abundance the single most important dual-use resource necessary for nuclear weapons development-a reservoir of trained, dedicated, and experienced scientists and technicians. In this regard, DOE scientists on the IAEA inspection teams have frequently expressed surprise that the Iraq scientists do not behave like they are members of a defeated nation. In fact, they have openly boasted that the U.N. inspectors cannot take away the knowledge that Iraqi scientists have in their heads and that this can be used to rebuild their program. (Note 101)

Despite U.S. escalation dominance, if Saddam Hussein had possessed nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them during the 1990-91 Gulf War, he might have struck the forces or homelands of his enemies as the Coalition armies closed in for the kill after routing his forces in Kuwait. (Note 102) If so, Israel and Kuwait could both be radioactive wastelands today. A large part of the coalition armies, as they massed on the Saudi Arabian-Kuwait border or as they entered Iraq, could also have been destroyed. (Note 103) Clearly, the coalition strategy and tactics would have been radically altered by knowledge that Saddam had atomic bombs.

To leaders like Saddam Hussein, the world is seen as a dangerous place where you liquidate your enemies quickly before they liquidate you. (Note 104) Often they have attained power by violence and keep it by violence or the threat of violence. If such a ruthless leader secures the ultimate weapons, aren't the United States and its allies required to play by his rules rather than by the niceties of international law in order to guarantee their survival? (Note 105)

In rare cases where the threat is so clear, and the conditions for intervention are favorable, these questions nearly answer themselves. Preemptive attack, as a last resort, in an extremely dangerous and unique situation, makes sense. In general, however, preemptive counter-proliferation actions should be considered only in the most extreme cases, where all other options appear to be ineffective, and where the conditions favor success. If a nuclear "Hitler" appears on the horizon, we should have the means to end his threat. The United States should not seriously consider a disarming operation unless it encounters such a danger in the rare case where good conditions exist for military success.

Finally, it is important to remember that preparing for the preemption option for possible use in the very worst case scenario, is a relatively minor part of U.S. counter-proliferation policy. The dominant thrust of U.S. counter-proliferation policy is to prepare U.S. forces for future battlefield contingencies where they are only too likely to find themselves engaged in combat with enemy forces that are already armed with such WMD.

Unfortunately, this wartime contingency has become more real with the passage of time, as more and more hostile and radical states move closer to acquiring WMD and missile weapons systems.

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