Why Not Preempt? Security, Norms, and Anticipatory Military Activities

  • Published

Why Not Preempt? Security, Norms, and Anticipatory Military Activities by Rachel Bzostek. Ashgate Publishing, 2008, 222 pp.

Change is coming. With the transition between presidential administrations from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, it is expected that change will occur in many aspects of US defense policy. Among the changes expected is a shift from the current national security strategy and the Bush Doctrine of preventive action. The idea that a state can act on its own against possible but future threats that other states may present has been controversial since its inception. International lawyers and scholars have critiqued this notion in a series of articles, papers, and speeches. Some states, including many of America’s closest allies, have likewise been critical of the Bush Doctrine. Others, like Russia, have embraced the doctrine for themselves.

Regardless of what changes in US national security strategy, the question of anticipatory military action will likely remain a concern in the future. One scholar who helps us with understanding that concern is Dr. Rachel Bzostek, a political science professor at California State University, Bakersfield. In her work, Why Not Preempt?, she ties together three broad areas—international security, international law, and the just war tradition—in looking at the question of whether states are constrained by these legal and normative elements with respect to their use of anticipatory military activities.

Anticipatory military activities are defined as military actions taken in response to either an imminent threat or to counter a more distant threat within the context of an international crisis. Taken in that sense, the term includes the traditional concepts of preemption and prevention. Bzostek focuses on those actions that occur within the context of an international crisis. She does not look at those actions that can be called reactive policies, including reprisals, retaliatory strikes, and other forms of punishments for past wrongs. Nor does she consider assassinations or regime change, as they are beyond the work’s scope.

Readers should note the distinctions in types of anticipatory military activities. Traditionally, preemption includes actions taken to stop an imminent enemy attack, whereas prevention involves acts taken in anticipation of or in preventing a possible enemy attack, further away in time. The analogy might be seen as the difference between a “quick draw” contest and shooting someone in the back. In preemption, both cowboys draw their guns out of their holsters, but one cowboy is faster than the other one in pulling the trigger and hitting his target. In prevention, one cowboy simply shoots the other cowboy in the back with his pistol, before the other cowboy could draw his shotgun and blast away. Anticipatory military actions are troublesome to many in that they are based on uncertainty, and they seem, at heart, to be unfair. Yet, in today’s world, certainty and fairness may conflict with the survival of a state.

In a complete, thoughtful consideration of various definitions of preemption and prevention, Bzostek notes that the key factors considered come down to notions of temporality or time, developing military threats and technology, weapons of mass destruction, and regime change. Bzostek does not get lost in the academic jungle and instead keeps her focus on the utility of anticipatory military activities.

Bzostek draws upon data from the International Crisis Behavior Project (ICB), which looks at information on various types of threats and actions that precipitated international crises, threats that include both the immediate and the more distant varieties. The first type of threat is defined as “nonviolent military” and includes activities like troop mobilizations and deployments. The second type of threat is described as “external change,” which includes development of new weapons technology and the deployment of new weapons. Both types of threats are crisis triggers, and the different types of responses they generate are examined in depth.

The book is structured in nine chapters, starting with an introduction and later a chapter on anticipatory military activities, three chapters that provide an underlying theoretical basis for the study, three chapters with case studies ranging from imminent threats to distant threats to the Bush Doctrine, and a concluding chapter, which discusses the implications arising from anticipatory military activities.

Of particular mention are the case studies that include the Israeli first attacks in the 1967 war, the Indian middle-of-the road response to the Punjab war scare in 1951, and the Israeli decision to wait in the 1973 war; the 1981 Israeli raid on the nuclear reactor at Osiraq, the American quarantine of Cuba in 1963, and the Cienfuegos submarine base noncrisis in 1970; and the “Axis of Evil” countries—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—and how they were addressed under the Bush Doctrine during 2001–2009. By considering these cases, Bzostek puts anticipatory military activities and the constraints that decision makers follow, or don’t follow, in context. For example, in looking at the Cuban missile crisis, Bzostek sees that both legal and normative considerations influenced Pres. John F. Kennedy and his decisions. But she also tempers her assessment by noting those restraints only went so far. If there had been too grave a threat, it was likely that Kennedy would have gone beyond the existing legal framework.

Bzostek wraps up her study by noting that while anticipatory military activities have been around for many years, they continue to occupy a gray area within international law, just war theory, and international security. It seems that legal and moral concerns do play a role in how often—not that often—anticipatory military activities are employed by states. Even in light of the Bush Doctrine, it is unlikely that other emerging powerful states, like China and India, will follow that lead. Instead, they are likely to think twice about using and applying anticipatory military activities.

Future leaders and strategists, as well as general readers, will find this book an interesting and engaging read. It will broaden their perspectives and develop their understanding of an important aspect of international security affairs and strategy.

Lt Col John D Becker, USAF, Retired, PhD

Norwich University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."