Department of Defense to End Preemptive Military Strike Doctrine

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 3 months ago

From Bloomberg:

The Pentagon is reviewing the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive military strikes with an eye to modifying or possibly ending it.

The international environment is “more complex” than when President George W. Bush announced the policy in 2002, Kathleen Hicks, the Defense Department’s deputy undersecretary for strategy, said in an interview. “We’d really like to update our use-of-force doctrine to start to take account for that.”

The Sept. 11 terrorist strikes prompted Bush to alter U.S. policy by stressing the option of preemptive military action against groups or countries that threaten the U.S. Critics said that breached international norms and set a dangerous precedent for other nations to adopt a similar policy.

The doctrine is being reassessed as part of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review of strategy, force structure and weapons programs. Hicks is overseeing the review.

Commentary & Analysis

Kathleen Hicks is currently Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces.  She is a major actor in the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review 2010.  When referring to the co-called Bush doctrine of preemptive military force (or otherwise anticipatory self defense), she is referring to the doctrine outlined in a Bush speech at West Point in 2002.

For much of the last century America’s defense relied on the cold war doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking.

Deterrence, the promise of massive retaliation against nations, means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties and then systematically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long.

Homeland defense and missile defense are part of a stronger security. They’re essential priorities for America.

Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge.

Ms. Hicks is no neutral observer in the DoD deliberations going on to set strategy, decide force size, select weapons systems and allocate dollars.  Her position has been made clear.

The election of Senator Obama fewer than twelve hours ago has already elicited an outpouring of good will from throughout Africa, Europe, and South Asia, and in Afghanistan. In defense and security circles, we’ve spent the last five years arguing over how to win the War of Ideas against radical Islamists.

I think the answer to that debate is now at hand. The election of Barak Obama is the most profound American idea since the onset of the so-called Global War on Terror. We are indeed at a crossroads. The Obama team must seize on the momentum of this day in crafting its national security policies, freeing the terms justice, freedom, and democracy from their association with preemption, hegemony, and hubris. Ideas, after all, can only be sustained through action.

This is a well worn theme, and Senator Byrd in his pre—Iraqi war resolution address to Congress quoted from a Congressional Research Service September 18, 2002 report that said “The historical record indicates that the United States has never, to date, engaged in a ‘preemptive military’ attack against another nation.  Nor has the United States ever attacked another nation militarily prior to its first having been attacked or prior to U.S. citizens or interests first having been attacked, with the singular exception of the Spanish—American War.”

But such a position is remarkable for its ignorance of American history.  When Continental Congress formed (then two Battalions of) the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 November, 1775, they knew exactly what they were doing.  They had the British model throughout their very own history from which to learn, and that model was entirely imperialistic.

From the first attack on Tripoli in 1805, to the 1871 attack on the Han River forts in Korea, to the 1899 attack on Filipino insurgents at Novaleta (and further engagement of the insurgents in 1901 on Samar), to the 1914 landing in Mexico at Veracruz over an issue with German weapons, to the 1915 engagement in Haiti, to World War I and World War II, and so on and on the list goes, America has a robust history of intervention, anticipation and preemption.

Whatever position is taken on Operation Iraqi Freedom or any other campaign, the question is one of agreement or lack of it for a particular action.  The paradigmatic actions of the Corps is not in question.  Their use was set into motion before the declaration of independence.  Max Boot argues that:

… we have often sought out battle, not waited for it to come to us. Many such interventions have been undertaken as part of America’s long-standing commitment to act as a global policeman. Between 1800 and 1934 Marines staged 180 landings abroad. Some were in response to attacks on United States citizens or property but many were launched before such attacks had occurred.

In the 20th century, these interventions often became quite prolonged. Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1915 and 1916, respectively. They wound up staying for 19 years in the former, 8 years in the latter. In neither case had there been a direct attack on the United States. Wilson acted for a variety of motives, but probably uppermost in his mind was a concern that Germany might exploit the political instability on Hispaniola to establish a naval presence that might threaten the Panama Canal.

Are these pre-emptive interventions a relic of bygone imperial days? Not quite. Witness the United States landings in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983. What were these if not pre-emptive assaults? In the former case, President Johnson feared that Communism might take root in the Dominican Republic; in the latter, President Ronald Reagan, regardless of what he said about imperiled medical students, feared that the Soviets might make use of an airfield being built on Grenada.

The Cuban missile crisis fits a similar mold. President Kennedy resisted calls to invade Cuba but he did not stand idly by waiting for Soviet missiles to be activated. He sent the Navy to quarantine Cuba, an act that easily could have sparked World War III. Kennedy acted even though there was no immediate or likely threat the missiles would have been used against the United States.

Robert Kaplan’s magnificent book Imperial Grunts has a stunning introduction entitled “Injun Country” (one cannot claim to understand the global war on terror before reading this volume). It’s a very erudite discussion of the roots of imperial defense of the homeland, and not just for Great Britain. Its orientation is America, and her defense began soon after she was a country by ensuring that her battles were on the periphery of the domain in the West between the U.S. Army and the Indian nations.

The turn of the century found the United States with bases and base rights in fifty-nine countries and overseas territories, with troops on deployments from Greenland to Nigeria, and from Norway to Singapore. Even before the 9/11 attacks, special operations command was conducting operations in 170 counties per year. Defense of the realm is not a new phenomenon in American history.

But regardless of the position one takes on imperial defense of the homeland, the troubling aspect of the news about the QDR is that a Deputy Under Secretary of Defense is deciding on issues of strategy, funding, force alignment and weapons with at least one purpose of removing the doctrine of anticipatory military action.  Once the doctrine is removed, the capabilities are sure to follow.  After all, that is the purpose of the Quadrennial Defense Review.  This administration’s presence may very well be felt in the military for many administrations to come.


  1. On October 16, 2009 at 1:47 am, rrk3 said:

    This as we get news that Russia has reserved the right for first strike nuclear attacks. I really do not have much more to add besides the fact that the sheep dogs are getting a muzzle from the current administration.
    As much as I would like to leave my own feelings of this administration out of discussions here it is plan to see that our CnC thinks that we are actually the evil empire.

  2. On October 16, 2009 at 10:21 am, Warbucks said:

    In all of history, nothing any government agency says on this subject seems to matter, nor will it ever matter until humankind evolves….. which by the way, may be right around the corner.

  3. On October 16, 2009 at 10:44 am, Herschel Smith said:

    War isn’t a function of human evolution or lack thereof (which is entirely another subject from the article). It’s a function of moral evil, and that has always been with us, and will always be with us. Government actions do indeed matter when it comes to force alignment, funding, and weapons systems. It has to do with the capability of the U.S. to project strength abroad.

  4. On October 16, 2009 at 10:01 pm, rrk3 said:

    I do not believe our current administration has any desire to project US power abroad. Our power is what some in the administration view as the problems with the world. This can be seen with how the war on terror was renamed, the facilitation on the continued campaign in Afghanistan, and now the statement that the Taliban may not be so bad after all. This tells me that the administration lacks a real life global perspective and see the world through academic rose colored glasses. Any one who has had to sit through a political science class in the last twenty years knows the view that is taught. It is not favorable in any way to the contribution of the West and the United States in particular. If your State Department and the politicians in charge have this view then we are toast anyway.

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You are currently reading "Department of Defense to End Preemptive Military Strike Doctrine", entry #4027 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Quadrennial Defense Review and was published October 15th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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