Today's date:
Spring 2003


Bush Preemptive Strike Does Not Meet Test of Imminent Danger

Wesley K. Clark was Supreme Allied Commander of Europe and Commander in Chief of US European Command from 1997–2000, in which capacity he oversaw the campaign against Serbia. His comments are adapted from a talk with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

There are three fundamental differences between the war with Serbia and this war with Iraq.

First, Slobodan Milosevic was an active threat. He was in the process of executing an ethnic cleansing program against the Kosovar Albanians that would have brought instability to the region and undermined NATO peacekeeping activities in Bosnia.

Second, we really did try to solve the Kosovo conflict diplomatically and peacefully, with force as a last resort. That has been different in the case of the lead-up to this war with Iraq. All along there has been a reported split in the Bush administration, with some key players apparently intending from the outset to use military force against Saddam. The issue seemed to be whether the diplomatic option should be used first, or whether that was just a waste of time. During the Kosovo campaign, it was not a waste of time. We did try to avoid the bombing.

Third, we were solving a problem that had our NATO allies engaged. Everyone recognized there was an imminent danger that had to be faced in one way or another. In the case of Iraq, we don’t have our allies engaged through NATO. Some don’t see the problem as urgent.

In principle, you can’t deny preemption as a legitimate form of self-defense. But that preemptive action has to be proportionate to the significance and imminence of the threat.

As many people have suggested, this war really hasn’t met that test.

Right now, the most important thing is to win the war. Finding weapons will partially validate the action because many in the world have questioned whether Saddam had these weapons. Others will ask if the weapons discovered are of such a significant scale and the threat was so great that an invasion was warranted. But even if is validated in that case, it does not follow that it will be validated on the imminent intent of Saddam to use those weapons. The question for me has always been, why strike Saddam now? What is the urgency? That has never been fully answered.

After all, other nations have weapons of mass destruction - Syria, Iran and perhaps even Egypt. Are we going to invade them? And, of course, there is North Korea. These factors complicate the focus on Iraq.