Back to Americans For Morality Home Page

Back to War Page

Unilateralism and Preemption: A Flawed Doctrine

An Address Given at the Council on Foreign Relations, November 3, 2003

Dianne Feinstein

There can be no question that 9/11 greatlyimpacted America's psyche, left deep scar tissue, and has dramatically impacted the way many Americans look at the world.

And while there can be no doubt that the United States has the capabilities to militarily protect our interests overseas, the question increasingly looms as to whether
our current policies and rhetoric are making or losing friends and respect worldwide.

Unilateralism and preemption, and an over-reliance on the military dimension of U.S. power, may well be leading us in a direction that weakens rather than strengthens our ability to meet the challenges of the new asymmetric world.

This is a world where traditional armies are not well suited to deal in the hidden shadows of the terrorist, and where the enormous goodwill generated following 9/11 has dissipated and been replaced by growing antagonism.

Increasingly, we appear willing to go it alone: Many have used the phrase: "Our way or the highway" to describe America's present foreign policy.

Preemption, Prevention, and Iraq

Preemption, in response to a direct, immediate, and specific threat is legitimate under international law.

As a matter of fact, the most recent edition of the DoD manual on international law defines a specific threat as "inconvertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent."

Based on my review of intelligence, both classified and unclassified, no "incontrovertible evidence" of imminent threat has been found in the case of the war in Iraq - with the exception of missiles with ranges in excess of 150 kilometers in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. 

Let me read to you a number of the most stark key judgments from the unclassified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate regarding "Iraq's continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction":

"We judge that Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions. Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons as well as missiles with ranges in excess of UN restrictions; if left unchecked, it probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade."


"We assess that Baghdad has begun renewed production of mustard, sarin, GF (cyclosarin), and VX; its capability probably is more limited now than it was at the time of the Gulf war, although VX production and agent storage life probably have been improved."


"We judge that all key aspects - R&D, production, and weaponization - of Iraq's offensive BW program are active and that most elements are larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf war."


Neither the military examination of more than 1,000 priority sites or the interim findings of Dr. David Kay have produced evidence of Weapons on Mass Destruction, the weaponization of chemical or biological elements, or their deployment to battlefield commanders.

To date, the most likely pre-war judgments of intelligence analysts have not been borne out. Of course that may change, but so far it has not.

Without the imminent threat of WMD or evidence of a clear threat, Iraq appears not to have been a preemptive war to prevent an attack by the Government of Iraq against either America or American interests.

Rather, it was America's first preventive war, the purpose of which was to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Preventive war, targeted against speculative threats, is not legitimate under international law.

Regardless of how we got to where we are in Iraq, we are there now, and I believe it is critical that we win the peace - as rocky as the road may be - and is.

A premature pullout in Iraq will likely result in a civil war with a Sunni Baathist party returning to power - and the next dictator as bad or worse than the recently deposed one.

And beyond Iraq, the impact of a pullout could well destabilize the Middle East further, with consequences for Israel, America, and the entire globe.

Yesterday, both Secretary Rumsfeld and Ambassador Bremer pointed out expedited efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army, police and border patrol and to develop the Constitution that is a prerequisite to Iraq gaining sovereignty.

Ambassador Bremer indicated that, in most of the country, electrical power is at pre-war levels, drinking water has been restored, and the hospitals, prisons, and schools are restored and open. This is all good news.

Additionally, the Emergency Supplemental on the floor of the Senate today provides $20 billion to repair and reestablish Iraq's decrepit infrastructure.

So the dollars will be there to do what needs to be done.

There should be no doubt that these next 6 months to a year are crucial.

Saddam's survival, the intrusion of foreign terrorists and fanatic Iraqi's make each day a test of our commitment.

The road ahead may be rough, but we must not lose our resolve. We must win the peace. The stakes are very high.

Unilateralism, Preemption, and the War on Terror

It is critical that even with our focus on Iraq, we do not lose focus on the ongoing War on Terror - where preemption may be both justified and necessary.

Al Qaeda is still active, still recruiting, still organizing, and in places is reportedly merging with other terrorist organizations. American interests at home and abroad remain vulnerable to asymmetric attack.

And by shifting the focus of the War on Terror from Al Qaeda to Iraq, we must not allow Al Qaeda to recuperate and strike again.

It should be clear that a threat still remains in Afghanistan, where Mullah Omar and the Taliban have survived and are regrouping, and biding their time for a return to power - if they can.

Our military is spread too thin, security outside Kabul is weak, the opium trade has doubled in the past year and is corrupting local war lords, and the Karzai Government faces huge hurdles with minimal resources.

We must stay the course here, too, because a failure to secure this new government would mean dismal failure.

I also believe that the hatred against Israel, the West, and Western values could well provoke a global clash of civilizations unless we move to take vigorous overt action to push toward a solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis.

Worldwide, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis remains a rallying-cry for Muslim extremists.

A settlement of this crisis is vital to defusing the rising hatred and anger surging throughout the Muslim world.

I recently met with a delegation of young Palestinian leaders - from the Palestinian Legislative Council and from the Fatah Leadership - who recognized that a settlement was the only answer, and who were part of the Palestinian delegation that negotiated a new unofficial proposal in Geneva by Palestinians and Israelis.

I believe that this proposal offers both opportunity and specifics, has broad popular support from both the Israeli and Palestinian people, and should be used by the United States to move towards settlement.

I do not believe that waiting for a cessation of all terrorist attacks makes sense.

The key remains to convince people on both sides that the only way to secure their goals and create a decent quality of life for their children, and grandchildren, is through compromise and settlement that produces an independent Palestinian State and a safe and secure Israeli State.

Lessons of Iraq and the Cost of Unilateral Militarism

But there are two lessons from the war in Iraq that the Administration would do well to heed as we go forward with the War on Terror.

First, in fighting the War on Terror we must be cautious in overturning governments.

When the U.S. takes down a state, it is left with the burden of nation building, which requires tremendous commitment, is costly in both lives and money, and demands attention at a time when it may well need to channel resources elsewhere.

Clearly, both Afghanistan and Iraq are cases in point.

And secondly, the United States is more likely to be successful in the War on Terror - and, indeed, in all our international endeavors - if we work in concert with our friends and allies, and with the cooperation of the international community.

Yet, since coming into office, this Administration has dismissed international law, treaties and institutions - walking away from the Kyoto Treaty, abrogating the ABM Treaty, and spurning the United Nations.

And the Administration's "National Security Strategy" places emphasis on U.S. military power to the exclusion of other policy options and comes perilously close to envisioning the United States as not just the world's policeman, but also its judge and jury as well.

To be sure, the United States must maintain a military second to none. But America's overwhelming power still leaves us vulnerable to asymmetric attack, and, increasingly, many people around the world see a United States that is arrogant, does not listen, and imposes its will on others.

And, by walking away from, or undermining effective multilateral institutions and alienating friends and allies, the United States may well find itself with fewer options at its disposal, and fewer friends to help us out. This must change.

Nuclear Weapons Policy

Additionally, the Administration is placing a new focus on nuclear options.

The January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, I believe, signaled a major change in nuclear policy -- by advancing a new "Triad," which integrates nuclear weapons with conventional strike options.

This thereby blurs the line between the use of conventional and nuclear weapons and suggests that certain events might compel the United States to use nuclear weapons first - listing seven nations against which the U.S. might employ a "first strike."

Today, the Administration is beginning the research and development of new nuclear weapons - let there be no doubt.

Just this year the 10 year old Spratt-Furse Amendment, which prevents research and development of nuclear weapons below five kilotons, was eliminated.

Pushed by the Administration, Congress has authorized $21 million for the study and development of new nuclear weapons, including a 100 kiloton bunker buster as well as tactical battlefield weapons.

The time-to-test readiness of the Nevada test site has been moved up from 3 years to 18 months, and funding has been provided to produce additional fissile material for new nuclear weapons.

I argued and voted against all of the above.

Clearly the nuclear door is being reopened, and I oppose this mightily.

By taking these steps the Administration is lowering the threshold for the possible use of nuclear weapons and could well be encouraging the very proliferation all our policies aim to prevent.


So let me conclude:

By endorsing unilateralism and preemption, we may well be paving the way for others - China, Russian, India, Pakistan, North Korea - to likewise adopt these same policies to carry out their national aspirations.

As Henry Kissinger put it, "It is not in America's national interest to establish preemption as a universal principle available to every nation."

By walking away from, or undermining effective multilateral institutions, and by alienating friends and allies, the United States may well find itself with fewer options at its disposal, and fewer friends to help us out.

For the past half-century, our country has embraced international cooperation - not out of vulnerability or weakness - but from a position of strength.

The U.S. has the right to carry out military strikes against terrorists who would strike us, and there should be no doubt that we will.

But, many of the threats and problems the United States faces today may not be effectively countered simply with the blunt application of military force.

Diplomacy, Treaties, and robust Foreign Assistance programs all have important roles to play if we are to be successful in meeting today's foreign policy challenges.

A world in which no nation is bound by treaties or international accords, and in which "might makes right" is not a world where the United States is better off.

Our strength as a nation emanates not just from our power, but from our moral stature and our principled stand for truth, justice, and freedom.

So bottom-line:

We stand today at an important point in the history of our nation and the world:

Will the United States turn away from the successful bipartisan tradition of supporting a world ordered by law, and pursue instead a unilateralist path?

Or will we recommit our nation to the achievement of workable structures, international institutions, norms of behavior and conduct?

I hope it is the latter.   

Back to Americans For Morality Home Page

Back to War Page