Today's date:
Winter 2003


Preemption Wrong US Policy, But Saddam Must Go

Richard Holbrooke is the former US ambassador to the United Nations and to Germany. He was also chief negotiator of the Dayton Accords on Bosnia. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on Sept. 23. Below are excerpts.

The concept of attacking first in self-defense when a country is in imminent danger is not unusual. Israel did it in the Six Day War in 1967 and, certainly, a preemptive strike against Hitler in 1936 would have been justified and averted a much greater tragedy.

However, for the United States—already the most powerful nation in the world that has greater means for self-defense than any other country—to simply assert the right to attack preemptively as a blanket right is unwise. It galvanizes world opinion against us. It shifts the whole debate from the specific issue of the threat of Saddam Hussein—which is real—to a general right that can be twisted and easily abused.

Though any president must act to defend the nation, this strike-first policy should not be put forward as a core national security concept for the US.

Collective action against Iraq, a flagrant violator of the international will as expressed by UN Security Council resolutions, is a legitimate action that does not constitute preemption. It is enforcing UN Security Council resolutions that Saddam has violated. And the US will not act alone, but with the British, the Turks and others.

Unfortunately, the president's political strategy on Iraq is damaged by his focus on this new preemptive policy.

It is my fervent hope that the Iraqi military will recognize that their strength is one-third of what it was 12 years ago while American firepower is much more accurate than it was then. I hope they realize that they don't have a chance in this situation and the best thing for Iraq is to terminate their own dictator now, themselves, before it is too late.

On US-German Relations | In 1994 the German high court allowed Germans to deploy troops outside their country for the first time since 1945. Those deployments have been extremely important in Bosnia, Kosovo and now in Afghanistan. In a few months, Germany will be taking over the command of the international security forces there.

All these were important cases of Germany rejoining the international community in a responsible, not a naively pacifistic way.

The Iraq issue, unfortunately, rose to priority during the German election campaign in which the nuances of policy are never able to be discussed. So, we have now come to the point where the reelected German chancellor and the American president have a personal animosity.

This can now only be overcome by both nations re-emphasizing the enormous ties that bind.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, I note, was always more positive toward the US than Schroeder in the campaign. And he has excellent relations with (US Secretary of State) Colin Powell.

The bilateral US-German relationship is hardly poisoned. The two countries are extraordinarily close. They are large trading partners, and their industries are closely linked, as in the case of DaimlerChrysler and Bertelsman.

Some 600,000 Americans work for German-owned countries and vice versa at the same level. These fundamental commercial and cultural ties are unimpaired. And we are cooperating in Afghanistan and the Balkans.

This is not a fundamental crisis. But it is a serious problem because it is so personal. The personalization of policy, as in the case of Yeltsin-Clinton or Bush-Putin, can be very positive. Sometimes it can lead in negative directions. Germany today is the case in point.