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International Relations Preventive War and Preemption
by
Scott A. Silverstone

Introduction

Preventive war is a persistent theme in the history of international politics and in theoretical explanations of war. The preventive motivation for war can be found as early as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE, it was a key feature in the origins of World War I and the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941, and it features prominently in the argument over America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The preventive motivation is also central to the ongoing concern about Iran’s nuclear program and debate over alternative policy options to deal with it. The strategic logic of preventive war is rooted in the desire to halt the erosion of relative power to a rising adversary and the future dangers this power shift might present. Leaders calculate that a war fought in the near term will be less costly than a war fought at a later date, after the potential adversary has had an opportunity to increase its military capabilities. Under preventive war conditions, there is no certainty that this future war will actually be fought; preventive war is launched to avoid the mere possibility of a higher-cost future war or the potential for the target state to use its rising power in a coercive way. Preemption, on the other hand, is meant to grab the tactical advantages of striking first against what is seen as a truly imminent threat, when an adversary’s attack is close at hand. Levy 1987 (cited under The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption) provides the most commonly cited definitions of these terms. There is a well-developed literature on the strategic logic of preventive war that examines the specific conditions that make it more likely and its actual utility as a strategy to deal with the power shift problem. The concept of preventive war has also produced an ongoing debate over its normative or ethical acceptability, and its status under international law; this debate revolves around the question of whether it should be considered legitimate self-defense, or whether preventive war is actually an aggressive use of force.

The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption

Much of the literature on preventive war is dominated by the strategic logic linking power shifts to preventive war, with a heavy emphasis on theoretical and historical analysis. As one of the main dynamics in the history of international affairs, this power-shift literature is rooted in classic power analysis dominated by the realist school of international relations. Most of this theoretical and historical literature appeared before the 2003 Iraq war. By 2002, most interest in preventive war focused on so-called rogue states and weapons of mass destruction. Some of the best examples of this theoretical and historical literature include Organski 1968, Gilpin 1981, Van Evera 1999, and Copeland 2000. Other work in this vein, such as Levy 1987 and Lebow 1984, specifies the different conditions that increase or decrease the likelihood of preventive war under power-shift conditions. Much less research has been devoted to preemption, as it appears to be a much less common phenomenon than preventive war; two valuable sources on preemption remain Betts 1982 and Reiter 1995.

  • Betts, Richard K. Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982.

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    Written during the Cold War by the leading scholar on surprise attack, with the problem of deterring attack by the USSR as the central focus. Remains one of the premier analyses of history of surprise attack in the 20th century and lessons drawn from this history for theory and policy.

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  • Copeland, Dale. The Origins of Major War. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.

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    Presents critique of existing theories on the origins of war, focuses on the expected depth and probability of a dominant state’s decline in power as drivers of strategies that increase likelihood of preventive war and preemption. Strong theoretical framework examined across cases, ancient Greece through World War I and II.

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  • Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

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    Argues that history shows repeated pattern of major states competing for hegemony in international system. States grow in economic and military power at different rates, allowing secondary states to rise and challenge hegemons, often through crises that lead to preventive war. Among most important works on the subject.

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  • Lebow, Richard Ned. “Windows of Opportunity: Do States Jump Through Them?” International Security 9 (Summer 1984): 147–186.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538638Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Valuable theoretical and historical critique of notion that “windows of opportunity,” when states enjoy a military advantage relative to a rival, increase the chance of preventive war. Argues that Clausewitzian political goals, not mere military variables, shape decisions on war. Highlights important non-military variables that reduce chance of war.

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  • Levy, Jack. “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War.” World Politics 40 (October 1987): 82–107.

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    Touchstone theoretical work on strategic logic of preventive motivation for war and variables that increase or decrease its likelihood. First extended treatment to bring rigor to defining key concepts and specifying antecedent conditions. Numerous historical examples illustrate points. Essential source for any research question on the subject.

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  • Organski, A. F. K. World Politics. 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1968.

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    Classic work on power transitions and war, inspired extended literature testing main hypothesis that rising states most likely to initiate war when reach power parity with formerly dominant states. An alternative approach to the key question of how the power shift dynamic in world politics creates conditions for war.

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  • Reiter, Dan. “Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen.” International Security 20 (Fall 1995): 5–34.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539227Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Important empirical study of preemption demonstrating that it is extremely rare historically. Only three cases since 1816: World War I, Chinese intervention in Korea 1950, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Presents explanations for rare occurrence including political costs of striking first and how fear of preemption leads to peaceful crisis resolution.

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  • Van Evera, Stephen. Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

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    An influential work. Preventive war is set in a broader context of hypotheses on how material power and perceptions contribute to outbreak of war. Most useful for highlighting important role of leaders’ perceptions of power shift. Wide use of historical examples, critiqued for not providing a systematic test of each hypothesis.

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Assessments of its Strategic Utility

Until the 1990s, the literature on preventive war focused almost exclusively on theorizing about the conditions that would increase the likelihood that states would resort to this strategic option, or on historical narratives that traced the emergence of the preventive war temptation in particular cases and the details of the wars that might have resulted. Since the end of the Cold War, which brought the increasing fear of nuclear proliferation by so-called rogue states, scholars turned their attention to whether preventive war was a smart strategic option to deal with this problem. This type of policy analysis has overwhelmingly dominated the literature since the beginning of the Iraq war debate in 2002 and it continues years after the invasion, driven by the problem of Iran and its nuclear program. Litwak 2002–2003, Betts 2003a, Betts 2003b, and Reiter 2006 provide excellent examples of vigorous critiques of its strategic utility. Mueller 2006 and Gray 2007, while remaining cautious, are more open to the potential for preventive war to enhance security. Nichols 2008 sees preventive war as an increasingly prominent phenomenon and advocates channeling its use through the United Nations. Schneider 1995 is a good pre-Iraq war perspective on the preventive war temptation.

  • Betts, Richard. “Striking First: A History of Thankfully Lost Opportunities.” Ethics and International Affairs 17.1 (2003a): 17–24.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7093.2003.tb00414.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    While dismissing the significance of legal and moral restraints on preventive war, vigorously rejects preventive war based on strategic logic alone. Useful distinction drawn between preemption and preventive war. Recommend reading along with other articles in this special edition of Ethics and International Affairs on preventive war. Available online.

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  • Betts, Richard. “Suicide from Fear of Death?” Foreign Affairs 82 (January/February 2003b): 34–43.

    DOI: 10.2307/20033426Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Adopts Bismarck’s strategic argument against preventive war for the 2003 Iraq war question. Argues that the weakness of choosing preventive war lies in accepting guaranteed costs of fighting in near term without ever knowing if you actually avoided fighting higher-cost war in future. Most power shifts in history pass without war.

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  • Gray, Colin. The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: A Reevaluation. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2007.

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    Careful analysis of a range of arguments for and against preventive war. Argues that “very occasionally” preventive war is a sensible strategic option but lays out significant challenges to achieving goals with this option. Demonstrates preventive war not as reliable as deterrence and containment to deal with shifting threats. Available online.

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  • Litwak, Robert S. “The New Calculus of Pre-emption.” Survival 44.4 (Winter 2002–2003): 53–79.

    DOI: 10.1080/00396330212331343492Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Distinguishes between value of preventive force against non-state terrorist groups, which is easy to justify, and against states pursuing weapons of mass destruction, which is problematic. Examines difficulties inherent to waging preventive war against states; argues it must be a rare strategic choice, with other policy options typically superior.

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  • Mueller, Karl P., Jasen J. Castillo, Forrest E. Morgan, Negeen Pegahi, and Brian Rosen. Striking First: Preemptive and Preventive Attack in US National Security Policy. Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006.

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    Detailed analysis of value of preemption and preventive attack strategies for US policy makers in current threat environment. Presents cautious set of lessons learned from numerous past cases. Most significant contribution is distinction drawn between military and political variables (namely political costs) that must be reflected in decision making.

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  • Nichols, Thomas. Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

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    Argues that increasing international acceptance of preventive use of force began in the late 1980s, accelerated with the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s, now applied to new era of terrorist and rogue state threat. Asserts need to regulate (not prohibit) preventive force, ideally through the UN Security Council.

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  • Reiter, Dan. Preventive War and its Alternatives: The Lessons from History. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2006.

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    Comparative study of alternative strategies to defeat or respond to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Central conclusion: preventive attack is largely unsuccessful strategy to delay proliferation, yet deterrence is highly successful strategy to prevent actual use of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons by states; diplomacy has had unappreciated success. Available online.

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  • Schneider, Barry. Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation. McNair Paper 41. Washington, DC: National Defense University, 1995.

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    Written before 9/11 attack produced conflation between terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, which changed much of debate on preventive war option. Useful for understanding perspective of early post–Cold War, post–Gulf War period, and assessment of nuclear proliferation and rogue state problem.

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Normative Evaluation of Preventive War

Because preventive war is, by definition, the first use of force in the absence of an immediate threat, it has been characterized as aggressive war for much of the period since World War I. Preemption, on the other hand, continues to be viewed as legitimate self-defense, and therefore normatively acceptable. Silverstone 2008 traces the emergence and codification of an anti-preventive war norm in the early 20th century and its evolution into the 1990s, Stimson 1947 and US Department of State 1977 are vivid examples of American normative claims about the unacceptability of this strategic option. Lake 1994 demonstrates new normative claims in favor of preventive war that emerge after the Cold War, and Kaufman 2005 and Shue 2007 illustrate adaptation of the normative claims from the 1990s to post-9/11 security challenges. Kegley and Raymond 2003 worry about the effects of a more permissive normative order at the international level for the level of violence among states.

  • Kaufman, Whitley. “What’s Wrong with Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force.” Ethics and International Affairs 19 (2005): 23–38.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7093.2005.tb00552.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that preventive war against terrorists is ethical under both Just War criteria and commonsense moral considerations, as long as it meets necessity and proportionality criteria. Caveats legitimacy of preventive war by asserting it must be approved by UN Security Council, rejects justification for unilateral preventive war.

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  • Kegley, Charles W. Jr. and Gregory A. Raymond. “Preventive War and Permissive Normative Order.” International Studies Perspectives 4.4 (2003): 385–394.

    DOI: 10.1111/1528-3577.404004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that respect for antipreventive war norm at international level, which is important restraint on interstate violence, depends on continued compliance with norm. Asserts that US preventive war against Iraq will undermine norm and increase the likelihood that other states will follow the US model, such as India and Pakistan.

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  • Lake, Anthony. “Confronting Backlash States.” Foreign Affairs 73.2 (1994): 45–55.

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    Prominent example of the emergence of concept of “rogue” states in early post–Cold War period, written by President Clinton’s national security advisor. Argues that “backlash states,” because they behave outside norms of “civilized” states, should not enjoy same sovereign protections. Introduces preventive attack as possible option to deal with rogues.

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  • US Department of State. “NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (April 14, 1950).” In Foreign Relations of the United States 1950. Vol. 1. By US Department of State. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1977.

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    The seminal early Cold War official analysis of an existential Soviet threat and America’s strategic options to respond. Formerly classified Top Secret. Contains vigorous normative assertion: conducting a preventive war against the USSR to destroy its emergent nuclear capability would be repugnant to American citizens, with a morally corrosive effect on solidarity.

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  • Shue, Henry, and David Rodin, eds. Preemption: Military Action and Moral Justification. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Contributors present range of historical, legal, political, and philosophical perspectives on normative questions of preemption and preventive war: under what conditions is a nation ever justified in attacking before it has been attacked? Does possibility of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction force a change in traditional views about defense?

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  • Silverstone, Scott A. “The Origins of ‘New’ Security Constructions: Weapons Proliferation and the Preventive War Option.” In The Handbook of Defence Politics: International and Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Isaiah Wilson III and James Forest. pp. 26–45. London: Routledge 2008.

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    Traces origins of the antipreventive war norm in American strategic culture from the aftermath of World War I through the Nuremburg and Tokyo war crimes trials, and demonstrates impact on Cold War US strategic decision making. Shows how the norm changed by the early 1990s, setting the stage for the 2003 Iraq invasion.

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  • Stimson, Henry L. “The Challenge to Americans.” Foreign Affairs 26.1 (October 1947): 5–14.

    DOI: 10.2307/20030085Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Written by recently retired US secretary of war. Among the most prominent American voices arguing that preventive war is un-American, unethical, akin to the behavior of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Important early post–World War II perspective that captured dominant perspective on preventive war question at outset of Cold War.

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Preventive War and International Law

Along with the question noted above, on its normative acceptability since the early 20th century, preventive war has been challenged under international law as well. Since military force is only permissible in cases of actual self-defense, only true preemption has been considered lawful force (in the absence of UN Security Council authorization). The Nuremberg trials for Nazi officials codified preventive war as a “crime against peace,” which is explained clearly by Stimson 1947. (See also Normative Evaluation of Preventive War.) Debate continues over how to actually distinguish self-defense in an age of global terrorism and fears of weapons of mass destruction proliferation. Most scholars (for example, Byers 2003, Dershowitz 2007, Doyle 2008) now take the legal proscriptions against preventive war seriously yet are engaged in an effort to produce a useable set of standards to help guide policy making in an ambiguous and changing threat environment.

  • Byers, Michael. “Letting the Exception Prove the Rule.” Ethics and International Affairs 17.1 (2003): 9–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7093.2003.tb00413.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Supports value of international law as framework to maintain order and political acceptance for using force but advances notion of “exceptional illegality”: circumstances will arise when existing rules cannot be made to work, it is unwise to change long-standing and largely effective rules to accommodate the exception, and let the exception prove the rule.

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  • Dershowitz, Alan. Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways. New York: Norton, 2007.

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    Well-balanced effort to develop basic jurisprudence of preemption and preventive war that fits legitimate self-defense claims. Valuable for recognizing inherent tensions between self-defense and potential for abuse of state sovereignty and individual liberties that preventive action might produce. Much of focus on Israel, with commentary on Iran and Iraq.

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  • Doyle, Michael W. Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict. University Center for Human Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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    Proposes a set of explicit, objective standards—strategic, legal, and moral—to guide deliberation and decisions in future cases, such as Iran, on whether preventive force constitutes legitimate self-defense. Ultimate objective is to avoid the proliferation of violent conflict that would likely follow from looser standards in a threatening environment.

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  • Stimson, Henry L. “The Nuremberg Trial: Landmark in Law.” Foreign Affairs 25 (January 1947): 179–189.

    DOI: 10.2307/20030031Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Read as companion piece to Stimson 1947 (cited under Normative Evaluation of Preventive War) on preventive war as unethical and un-American. Focuses on how Nuremberg trials against Nazi officials criminalized preventive war as aggressive war, or a “crime against peace”; proscribes preventive war as legally beyond the acceptable limits for US strategy.

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Democracy and Preventive War

Since the early Cold War, a common claim made by American political and opinion leaders is that democracies, or at least democratic America, find preventive war contrary to standards defining the legitimate use of military force, contrary to democratic values and character. The subsequent claim is that democracies do not initiate preventive war. Schweller 1992 was the first to explore this within international relations theory, Levy 2008 is a more recent reflection on this broad claim, while Levy and Gochal 2001–2002 questions the empirical validity of this general claim with a study of the Israeli-initiated 1956 Sinai war. Silverstone 2007 looks in depth at the history of the idea of preventive war in the United States from the end of World War II through the 2003 invasion of Iraq and finds that there was a potent antipreventive war norm through the 1960s, but it evolved substantially in the 1990s to open up new normative acceptance of waging counterproliferation preventive wars against “rogue” states.

  • Levy, Jack. “Preventive War and Democratic Politics.” International Studies Quarterly 52 (March 2008): 1–24.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2478.2007.00489.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Excellent critical review of the theoretical literature and evidence behind claim that democracies do not initiate preventive war, by a leading scholar of causes of war. Nuanced examination of both the strengths and shortfalls in this argument, suggests new areas for advancing the research agenda.

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  • Levy, Jack, and Joseph Gochal. “Democracy and Preventive War: Israel and the 1956 Sinai War.” Security Studies 11.2 (Winter 2001–2002): 1–49.

    DOI: 10.1080/714005332Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Challenges empirical observation advanced by Schweller that there is no case of a democratic state initiating preventive war. Demonstrates the preventive motivation behind Israeli launch of 1956 Sinai war. Provides theoretical explanation for this exceptional case with additional conditions or variables motivating preventive attack; strong empirical evidence.

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  • Schweller, Randall. “Domestic Structure and Preventive War: Are Democracies More Pacific?” World Politics 44.2 (1992): 235–269.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010448Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    First work in international relations literature to examine the logic and evidence behind the claim that democracies do not initiate preventive war. Written within broader framework of democratic peace literature as an effort to more precisely specify and test how democratic regime type affects conflict behavior.

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  • Silverstone, Scott A. Preventive War and American Democracy. New York: Routledge, 2007.

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    Only book-length examination of relationship between American normative beliefs about preventive war and strategic decision making from the early Cold War through the 2003 Iraq war. Demonstrates that an explicit anti-preventive norm shaped the US response to the Soviet and Chinese power shift through 1960s and explains normative change beginning in early 1990s.

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Preventive War and Nuclear Proliferation

The dominant strategic concern in the United States during the 1990s was the proliferation of nuclear weapons to such states as North Korea, Iraq, and Libya, so-called rogue states that could not be trusted to act responsibly with this level of power, reflected in Blackwill and Carnesale 1993 and Utgoff 2000. This prompted a proliferation of policy studies on the meaning of this new challenge and options to counter it, such as Carter and Perry 1999. Goldstein 2005 is a useful example of this literature from the post-9/11, post-Iraq invasion period.

  • Blackwill, Robert D., and Albert Carnesale, eds. New Nuclear Nations: Consequences for U.S. Policy. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993.

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    Diverse chapters on nuclear proliferation and policy responses, valuable for illustrating state of thinking immediately after the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq raised serious doubts about traditional nonproliferation mechanisms. Signs of new willingness to consider preventive war option with this case firmly in mind.

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  • Carter, Ashton B., and William J. Perry. Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1999.

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    Written by two top defense officials under President Clinton. Does not weigh in on preventive war option directly but provides valuable context on broader proliferation problem and a range of policy options to address.

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  • Goldstein, Lyle. Preventive Attack and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Comparative Historical Analysis. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

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    Comparative study of rivalries involving weapons of mass destruction and link to preventive and preemptive war. Historical data are analyzed to address a key question for US defense policy: will the projection of US power be deterred by nascent WMD arsenals in the hands of rogue states?

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  • Utgoff, Victor A., ed. The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order. BCSIA Studies in International Security. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

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    Valuable set of chapters by leading scholars on strategy and nuclear proliferation that sets a sophisticated context for thinking about the problem. Illustrates the state of thinking at the end of first post–Cold War decade, before the 9/11 attack changed the tenor of the debate and policy initiatives.

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History of Preventive War

Beyond theoretical and policy studies of preventive war, much interest in this subject has been inspired by specific cases through history. There are surprisingly few general histories that provide broad coverage of many cases, such as Vagts 1956, but a number of detailed analyses of specific historical periods written by both historians and political scientists. While the preventive motivation for war can be discovered across several hundreds of years of great power interaction, most attention has been devoted to cases beginning in the 20th century, including World War I, World War II, the Cold War, the North Korean nuclear crisis in the 1990s, and the recent debates over Iraq and Iran. Some theoretical literature (see The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption) makes liberal use of various cases to illustrate theoretical arguments. Vagts 1956 is one of very few with extended historical narratives presented systematically and chronologically.

  • Vagts, Alfred. Defense and Diplomacy: The Soldier and the Conduct of Foreign Relations. Topical Studies in International Relations. New York: King’s Crown, 1956.

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    Classic work on history of military force, extensive section devoted to numerous cases of preventive war over hundreds of years. Excellent reference for deep background reading.

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World War I

World War I is considered to be one of the best examples of a major power war motivated by fears of power shifts and the desire to find a solution in preventive war, with a typical focus on the rise of Germany and its struggle with Russia as key destabilizing states. Taylor 1954 puts World War I in the context of a broader struggle over power that began in the mid–19th century, while Beaver 2009 and Schroeder 1972 cast a light on Austria’s declining power as the driver of the escalating conflict in the Balkans that eventually expanded across the continent.

  • Beaver, Jan. Collision Course: Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Serbia, and the Politics of Preventive War. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com, 2009.

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    Historical examination of the role played by Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of Austro-Hungarian general staff and foremost proponent of preventive war as the means of solving both the foreign and domestic problems of the Habsburg monarchy, in origins of World War I.

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  • Schroeder, Paul. “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak.” Journal of Modern History 44 (September 1972): 320–345.

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    Landmark study of Austria’s “brooding” obsession with erosion of its great power status and encirclement by Russia to the south, and how this was decisive in turning Austria from a stabilizing into a destructive element in a great power system. Uses preventive war logic to explain how European leaders felt swept up in power shifts and fear.

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  • Taylor, A. J. P. The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848–1918. Oxford History of Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

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    Classic historical work on the power-shift dynamic within the European great-power system from the mid–19th century and the coming of World War I. Describes virtually all great-power wars in this period as driven by the preventive motivation.

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World War II

A critical case for the study of preventive war, in that observers since the outbreak of World War II have blamed Britain and France for “failing” to launch a preventive war against Germany sometime before 1939. Many have joined this lament for “lost opportunities” to stop the horrors of this war, and its emotional intensity remains several generations after the war’s end. Levy and Ripsman 2007 and Levy and Ripsman 2008 have challenged this common view, arguing that for proper strategic reasons British leaders calculated that war with Germany in the near term would not have been more sensible than delaying war until rearmament could shift the power balance back toward the allies. Silverstone 2011 shows that British views of how preventive war would affect the character of the European political order and security dilemma led to rejection of this option, while Sagan 1988 provides valuable empirical study of the power shift problem and the preventive motivation for war in the Pacific.

  • Levy, Jack, and Norrin Ripsman. “The Preventive War That Never Happened: Britain, France, and the Rise of Germany in the 1930s.” Security Studies 16.1 (January–March 2007): 32–67.

    DOI: 10.1080/09636410701304549Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    First of two articles by leading scholars on the 1930s European power shift and the strategic problems this created. Strong theoretical analysis specifying conditions producing preventive motivation for war, argue that Britain rejected preventive war because of belief that war later, after rearmament, was better than in near term.

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  • Levy, Jack, and Norrin Ripsman. “Wishful Thinking or Buying Time? The Logic of British Appeasement in the 1930s.” International Security 33.2 (Fall 2008): 148–181.

    DOI: 10.1162/isec.2008.33.2.148Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Dismisses common argument that Britain naively tolerated growth of German power, arguing that appeasement was strategy to buy time until rearmament would tip balance of power back toward allies, making war in the future more sensible than war in the near term to stop the aggressive potential of the German power shift.

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  • Sagan, Scott. “The Origins of the Pacific War.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (Spring 1988): 893–922.

    DOI: 10.2307/204828Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Possibly the best case study of the strategic problem of Japan’s declining power in early 1940s and its central role in preventive attack on Pearl Harbor. Demonstrates how perceptions of crisis produced by declining power can tempt leaders to launch preventive attack, even when they recognize high risks.

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  • Silverstone, Scott A. “Preventive War and the Problem of Post-Conflict Political Order: Lessons from the 1930s.” International Interactions 37.1 (Winter 2011).

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    Argues that leaders base preventive war decisions not only on military costs and benefits but also on the character of political order it creates, specifically the potential for preventive war to deepen militarized rivalries and make future higher-cost war even more likely. Demonstrated with British decision to reject preventive war option during 1936 Rhineland crisis.

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Cold War

The rivalry between the United States and the USSR and its allies has produced a set of important counterfactual questions that revolve around why the United States never launched a preventive war early in this period to stop what was rightfully seen as the most serious power shift America had ever faced. Borden 1946, Burnham 1947, and Niebuhr 1950 are excellent examples from this period on contemporary thinking about the strategic problem and the preventive war option, while Huntington 1957 is a useful example from the end of the first decade of the Cold War. Buhite and Hamel 1990 and Trachtenberg 1988–1989 provide post–Cold War empirical answers to the puzzle that emphasize a rational cost/benefit explanation for the absence of preventive war, while Quester 2000 and Silverstone 2007 (cited under Democracy and Preventive War) emphasize normative rejection of preventive war. Burr and Richelson 2000–2001 focuses on the absence of an American attack on China’s nuclear infrastructure in the early 1960s.

  • Borden, William. There Will Be No Time: The Revolution in Strategy. New York: Macmillan, 1946.

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    Outstanding example of early atomic-age argument that the advent of nuclear weapons requires change in strategy to avoid a devastating surprise attack. Concludes that the preventive motivation for war will intensify and that the United States must be willing to consider preventive war to stop the USSR from developing nuclear weapons.

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  • Buhite, Russell D., and William Christopher Hamel. “War for Peace: The Question of an American Preventive War against the Soviet Union, 1945–1955.” Diplomatic History 14 (1990): 367–384.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7709.1990.tb00096.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents historical evidence on strategic thinking within the United States on preventive war against the USSR, highlights perceptions of aggressive character of the USSR and likelihood of nuclear attack on America. Considers whether preventive war was a sound strategy to address the most serious power-shift problem America ever faced.

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  • Burnham, James. The Struggle for the World. New York: John Day, 1947.

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    Written by one of most prominent conservative thinkers of early Cold War. Argues that atomic weapons will inevitably push the great powers to seek absolute dominance as the only way to enjoy security against such a threat. Under these new technological conditions, argues that preventive war is the only sensible option.

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  • Burr, William, and Jeffrey T. Richelson. “Whether to ‘Strangle the Baby in the Cradle’: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960–64.” International Security 25.3 (Winter 2000–2001): 54–100.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228800560525Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Most thoroughly documented history of American consideration of preventive attack against China’s nuclear facilities in early 1960s, based on newly declassified government documents. Discusses US efforts to coordinate joint attack with the USSR, then studied and debated unilateral attack option. Rejected preventive attack because of international political costs.

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  • Huntington, Samuel P. “To Choose Peace or War: Is There a Place for Preventive War in American Policy?” United States Naval Institute Proceedings 83 (April 1957): 359–369.

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    Argues that US government must consider its moral obligation to American people to stop destabilizing power shifts enjoyed by Communist adversaries; preventive attack must be considered a legitimate option. Argues against large-scale preventive war but advocates smaller-scale preventive use of force. Published in wake of 1955 Formosa Straits crisis.

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  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. “A Protest against a Dilemma’s Two Horns.” World Politics 2.3 (1950): 338–344.

    DOI: 10.2307/2008908Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Written by the most influential Christian political thinker of the mid–20th century. Argues against succumbing to belief in inevitable war and its logical extension to the preventive war temptation. Sophisticated analysis of the dilemma created by the difficulty of coming to terms with the USSR politically and the dangerous fear this creates.

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  • Quester, George H. Nuclear Monopoly. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2000.

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    Leading scholar on nuclear strategy of the Cold War covers a broad set of strategic options when America had an atomic monopoly and discusses how they were understood; it also evaluates their strengths and weaknesses.

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  • Trachtenberg, Marc. “A ‘Wasting Asset’: American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949–1954.” International Security 13.3 (Winter 1988–1989): 5–49.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538735Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines in detail how various strategic thinkers in the US government seriously considered the preventive war option against the USSR while America still had atomic advantage. Argues that it was rejected because of strategic costs, but author never considers how normative beliefs about preventive war decisively shaped decision making.

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Israel’s Attack on Osirak Reactor 1981

Israel’s airstrike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 was the first case of preventive attack against an aspiring nuclear weapon state. Nakdiman 1987 provides a useful narrative of events. Often cited as a model to be emulated in contemporary cases such as Iran, Betts 2006 challenges this view. Feldman 1982 provides a useful framework for understanding the effects of this attack on a broad range of issues. Silverstone 2011 (cited under World War II) also covers this case.

  • Betts, Richard K. “The Osirak Fallacy.” National Interest (Spring 2006): 22–25.

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    Argues against conventional wisdom that Israel’s preventive air attack against Iraq’s Osirak reactor is a valuable model for future counterproliferation efforts. Points out that attack did not solve Israel’s strategic problem; Iraq intensified efforts to develop nuclear weapons, built secret and successful facilities, went undetected until the 1991 Gulf War.

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  • Feldman, Shai. “The Bombing of Osiraq—Revisited.” International Security 7.2 (Fall 1982): 114–142.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538435Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Objective assessment of possible consequences of Israel’s attack for the efforts to control nuclear proliferation. Argues that this will depend on how others think about Israel’s costs and benefits; presents useful theoretical framework for anticipating how potential proliferators and potential preventive attackers will draw conclusions about costs and benefits.

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  • Nakdiman, Shlomo. First Strike: The Exclusive Story of How Israel Foiled Iraq’s Attempt to Get the Bomb. New York: Summit, 1987.

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    Detailed narrative from within Israeli defense community and government on the events and thinking leading up to the decision to attack, and details on the execution of the operation.

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North Korean Nuclear Weapons

In the early 1990s, and again in the early 2000s, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was the most prominent case of nuclear proliferation by a “rogue” state, which inspired debate over the best policy options to deal with this power shift, including discussion of preventive attack against its nuclear facilities. Wit, et al. 2004 provides an excellent insider’s narrative on the case. William Perry and Ashton Carter are perhaps the most prominent figures that called most explicitly for risking war to stop this nuclear program (Perry and Carter 2003); R. James Woolsey and Thomas McInerney take a similar position (Woolsey and McInerney 2003). See Ross 1993 for advocacy of a preventive attack in an earlier period, and New York Times 1994 for an opposing view. Gates 1994 and Scowcroft and Kanter 1994 offer more typical views that emphasized the seriousness of the power shift but did not call for preventive attack specifically. Lee 2006 provides a theoretically oriented explanation for the lack of preventive attack in this case. Silverstone 2011 (cited under World War II) also covers this case study.

  • “Beware the Hawks on Korea.” New York Times, 22 March 1994.

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    Reaction to increasing calls for preventive attack against North Korean nuclear sites. Argues that it is impossible to effectively destroy all facilities, and an attack will produce a high-cost North Korean invasion of South Korea.

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  • Gates, Robert. “The Rogue Probably Has the Bomb: Now What Do We Do?” Los Angeles Times, 17 June 1994.

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    Written by former CIA director (secretary of defense as of 2010), argues that North Korean and Iraqi rogues will not give up nuclear ambitions through negotiations or mild sanctions. Must convince leadership that the United States is willing to use preventive force to destroy capabilities. Contrast with author’s very cautious approach to preventive war against Iran when he was defense secretary.

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  • Lee, Dong Sun. “US Preventive War against North Korea.” Asian Security 2.1 (2006): 1–23.

    DOI: 10.1080/14799850600575181Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Presents a theoretically rooted explanation for lack of American preventive attack on North Korea and a useful literature review; article introduces unorthodox argument that hinges on the type of military strategy available as key explanatory variable.

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  • Perry, William J., and Ashton B. Carter. “The Crisis Last Time.” New York Times, 19 January 2003.

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    Authored by former top defense officials in Clinton administration. Argues that the United States must not tolerate North Korean violation of Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that the United States must be willing to risk war in coercive effort to achieve nonproliferation goal.

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  • Ross, Dennis. “Don’t Rule Out Force” Washington Post, 10 January 2003.

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    In early phases of North Korea nuclear crisis of 1990s, among first to advocate for possible preventive attack.

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  • Scowcroft, Brent, and Arnold Kanter. “Korea: Time for Action.” Washington Post, 15 June 1994.

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    Illustrates consensus view developing that some form of coercive measures were needed to convince North Korea to remain in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but remains cautious in its advice. Advocates enhanced sanctions, but never mentions actual preventive military attack.

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  • Wit, Joel, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci. Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004.

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    Excellent insiders’ account of the North Korean nuclear crisis of early 1990s, written by senior-level participants in government deliberations and negotiations with North Korea. Most detailed, authoritative account available. Discusses how the preventive war option was considered, then rejected, in June 1994.

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  • Woolsey, R. James, and Thomas G. McInerny. “The Next Korean War.” Wall Street Journal, 4 August 2003.

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    Optimistic assessment of ability of American military forces to confront North Korea in conventional conflict; supports core argument that the United States should be willing to risk escalation of preventive attack on North Korea’s nuclear facilities.

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Bush Doctrine

The 2002 announcement of the so-called preemption doctrine by President Bush 2002 at West Point, its formal articulation in the administration’s first National Security Strategy (White House 2002), and the subsequent preventive war with Iraq in 2003 did more to inspire academic and policy interest in preventive war than did any other event in international history. A very large body of work has been produced by a range of different types of authors publishing through a variety of venues. For other sources produced by White House supporters of preventive war, see White House 2002, White House 2006, and Delahunty and Yoo 2009. Glad and Dolan 2004 provides a range of different perspectives on the Bush Doctrine, while Jervis 2003 and Jervis 2005 present valuable overviews and critiques of the doctrine.

  • Delahunty, Robert, and John Yoo. “The ‘Bush Doctrine’: Can Preventive War Be Justified?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 32 (June 22, 2009): 843.

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    Written by partisans in the Bush administration’s efforts to expand legal, strategic, and ethical acceptance of preventive war option. Most full-throated defense of preventive war option available in extensive literature on the subject. Critiqued for loosening standards for evaluating legitimacy of self-defense claims to point of meaningless.

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  • Glad, Betty, and Chris J. Dolan, eds. Striking First: The Preventive War Doctrine and the Reshaping of U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

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    Wide range of chapters present alternative perspectives on new direction in US foreign policy under Bush doctrine, the likelihood of success to minimize threat of terrorism and “rogue” states, the potential for negative consequences, and implications for domestic politics of national security.

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  • Jervis, Robert. “Understanding the Bush Doctrine.” Political Science Quarterly 118.3 (Fall 2003): 365–388.

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    Clearly articulated description and explanation of this significant development in US foreign policy, with focus on preventive war and regime-change elements. Argues that it reflects a failure to put “sensible limits” on “fear and aspirations” and will likely lead to significant strategic and political problems.

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  • Jervis, Robert. “Why the Bush Doctrine Cannot Be Sustained.” Political Science Quarterly 120.3 (Fall 2005): 351–377.

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    Highlights that Bush Doctrine was not simply about preventive war to destroy rogue state WMD capability; it is also premised on regime change and democratization of target states. Argues that this is too ambitious to be sustained, given the immense burden it places on American domestic politics and lack of understanding of adversaries.

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  • Text of Bush’s Speech at West Point, 1 June 2002.

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    Opening moment in the debate over Bush administration’s “preemption” strategy and the invasion of Iraq the following March. By late summer the West Point speech had produced a growing number of opponents. Speech followed by the 2002 National Security Strategy and Congressional debate on a war resolution in October.

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  • The White House. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America: September 2002 Washington, DC: White House, 2002.

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    First formal articulation of Bush Doctrine following president’s “preemption” speech at West Point in June 2002. Document covers numerous US defense policy topics, yet most significant chapter presents the logic linking terrorists and rogue states and a strategic and legal justification for using preventive force in post-9/11 threat environment.

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  • The White House. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America: March 2006 Washington, DC: White House, 2006.

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    Updated version of 2002 Strategy. Three years after invasion of Iraq, the document remains committed to preventive war strategy and considers its use beyond the Iraq case.

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Iraq 2003

The Iraq invasion was the singular event that launched the most intensive discussion of preventive war to date. Early writing on the subject debated whether war should be initiated (Perle 2001, Scowcroft 2002, Mearsheimer and Walt 2003). Office of the Press Secretary 2002 is the most fully developed administration argument in favor of war. The most useful books and articles written after the invasion examine such issues as intelligence failures before the war, as in Cirincione, et al. 2004; the motives for launching the war, covered by Woodward 2004 and Record 2010; and what the Iraq case can teach us about the strategic value of preventive war, as in Keller and Mitchell 2006.

  • Cirincione, Joseph, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, and George Perkovich. WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications Carnegie Endowment Report. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2004.

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    Details what US and international intelligence communities understood about Iraq’s weapons programs before the war and outlines policy reforms to improve threat assessments. The report distills a massive amount of data into reader-friendly comparisons of prewar intelligence, its official presentation, and what is now known about Iraq’s programs.

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  • Keller, William, and Gordon Mitchell. Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Strategy. Security Continuum. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

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    Critical analysis of the political discussion leading up to the American acceptance of preventive war as national policy and as the rationale for invasion and occupation of Iraq. Contributors examine how the rhetoric of policy makers conflated concepts of preemption and preventive war, and its impact on policy choice.

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  • Mearsheimer, John, and Stephen Walt. “An Unnecessary War.” Foreign Policy 134 (2003): 50–59.

    DOI: 10.2307/3183521Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Representative of an antiwar argument advanced by many international relations scholars from realist, liberal, and constructivist schools of thought. Argued that Iraq did not pose sufficient threat to justify likely costs of preventive war, including greater regional instability and terrorism. Argued that Iraq could be contained as alternative strategy.

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  • Office of the Press Secretary. “President Outlines Iraqi Threat,” 7 October 2002.

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    Remarks at the Cincinnati Union Terminal. Most fully developed analysis of Iraq threat delivered publically by President Bush. Delivered immediately before beginning of congressional debate on Iraq war resolution, shaped public and congressional perspectives. Argument devoted to alleged link between terrorism, rogue state and weapons of mass destruction; also raised human rights and democratization claims.

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  • Perle, Richard. “The U.S. Must Strike at Saddam Hussein.” New York Times, 28 December 2001.

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    Early, vigorous champion of preventive war to remove Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq. Useful and succinct illustration of the neoconservative perspective on the question of terrorism, WMD, and regime change in rogue states. Author was close ally of Bush administration in run-up to invasion.

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  • Record, Jeffrey. Wanting War: Why the Bush Administration Invaded Iraq. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2010.

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    Broadens explanation of invasion of Iraq beyond preventive motivation to suppress alleged weapons of mass destruction threat. Argues that for the Bush administration it offered a low-cost, low-risk opportunity to demonstrate American power and will to use it after 9/11.

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  • Scowcroft, Brent. “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Wall Street Journal, 15 August 2002.

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    First well-publicized challenge to Bush’s West Point preemption speech, from fellow Republican and former National Security Advisor to first President Bush. Argued there was little danger of Iraq giving WMD to terrorists, and Iraq could be contained as best strategy. Preventive war would increase terrorism and undermine counterterrorism policy. Accessible online.

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  • Woodward, Bob. Plan of Attack. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

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    Journalistic narrative account of the Bush administration’s deliberations and political steps to war with Iraq in 2002–2003. Valuable for high-level, authoritative sources in the White House that provided author with most of his information.

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Iranian Nuclear Program

After the Iraq invasion of 2003, the most serious debate on preventive war focuses on whether it would be a sound strategy for stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Assessments range widely, with some authors strongly favoring preventive attack (Podhoretz 2007, Herman 2006, Wald 2009). The dominant perspective shared by most high-level policy makers, think tank analysts, and academics, however, is that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would risk wide retaliatory measures by Iran, rally the Iranian public around the regime, and only set back Iran’s program by a few years. Valuable samples of this growing literature can be found in Council on Foreign Relations 2010, Simon 2009, and Pollack 2010. Lindsay and Takeyh 2010 provides a valuable addition to the available literature by looking beyond the question of whether or not to attack Iran, to consider specific policy options to contain a nuclear Iran.

  • Council on Foreign Relations. “Interview: A Strategy for Iran,” 23 February 2010.

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    Transcript from interview with David Albright, one of the leading experts on nuclear proliferation and counterproliferation strategies. Wide-ranging discussion on technical details of Iran’s nuclear program, an assessment of Iran’s intentions and capabilities, and evaluation of a range of policy options, including a pessimistic assessment of preventive war option.

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  • Herman, Arthur. “Getting Serious About Iran: A Military Option.” Commentary 122 (November 2006): 28–32.

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    Challenges consensus view that preventive war is poor option in the Iran case. Argues that a low-cost military option would include seizing and occupying Iran’s oil assets and coastline until the Islamic regime falls. Expects new government in Iran to be less driven to pursue nuclear weapons.

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  • Lindsay, James, and Ray Takeyh. “After Iran Gets the Bomb.” Foreign Affairs. (March–April 2010): 33–49.

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    Authors begin with assumption that Iran will pursue its nuclear program to successful weapons capability. Analysis then focuses on policy alternatives to contain Iran, minimize the risks its nuclear arsenal poses, and maintain regional stability. Valuable to generate thinking beyond efforts to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear state. Available online.

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  • Podhoretz, Norman. “The Case for Bombing Iran.” Commentary (June 2007): 17–23.

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    Perhaps most vigorous champion of American or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Presents argument that portrays Iran and its views on Israel in the most aggressive light; equates Iranian worldview, motives, and willingness to take high risks with those of al Qaeda. Author a key member of neoconservative movement. Available online.

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  • Pollack, Kenneth. “Osiraq Redux: A Crisis Simulation of an Israeli Strike on the Iranian Nuclear Program.” Middle East Memo 15. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, February 2010.

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    Report of findings from a war game sponsored by Brookings Institution simulating Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Valuable for thinking through operational details of preventive strike, the damage imposed, how the conflict could escalate, political fallout, and American role. Available online.

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  • Simon, Steven. “An Israeli Strike on Iran.” CPA Contingency Planning Memorandum 5. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, November 2009.

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    Detailed analysis of technical, logistical, and political challenges faced by Israel if it conducted a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Valuable for assessment of obstacles to overcome, how it would be executed, degree of success expected, limitations on achieving goals, and expected consequences after the attack. Available online.

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  • Wald, Chuck. “There Is a Military Option on Iran.” Wall Street Journal, 6 August 2009.

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    Former Air Force general who led air operations at start of Afghanistan intervention. Argues that US Air Force and naval air power could seriously degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities, and naval forces could blockade Iranian ports to cut off gasoline imports. Frank acknowledgement of significant military and political costs of preventive attack. Available online.

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LAST MODIFIED: 03/02/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199743292-0053

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