Preventive action is a term often confused with preemptive action. Admittedly, the terms are similar in appearance. The two are also linked by the fundamental principle of ‘strike your opponent before your opponent can strike you.’ This is where the similarities end. Preemptive action is an attempt to stave off or defeat an imminent invasion or establish a strategic advantage in the opening minutes of such a conflict. A preventive action is a measure launched to neutralize a potentially imminent offensive capability from being obtained by an unfriendly or rogue nation-state. A threat which the initiating nation-state has determined it cannot live with. In contemporary times, the acquirement of Nuclear, Biological and/or Chemical (NBC) weapons by a rogue nation-state qualifies as such a threat.
At the moment, North Korea is a nation meets the criteria of a rogue nation-state possessing NBC weapons and a ballistic missile capability to deliver them. Pyongyang’s journey to obtaining nuclear weapons began in the early 1990s. The United States attempted to persuade North Korea from halting its nuclear weapons program without success. Tensions rose and nearly came to a head in June of 1994. The 1994 Korea crisis led to a brief, yet palpable war scare. Neither side wanted a conflict, and preventive action at that point potentially could have led to a major conflict. US plans to launch airstrikes against the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, to prevent North Korea from acquiring the raw material needed for nuclear weapons, were shelved. The US shifted gears and adopted diplomacy, and economic persuasion as its primary policy tools for halting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The effort led to the Agreed Framework, signed in October of 1994. The purpose of the agreement was to replace North Korea’s then-current reactor with light water nuclear reactors that could not produce weapons grade plutonium, and the eventual normalization of relations between the US and North Korea.
Here we are some twenty-three years later. The North has nuclear weapons and its relations with the US are anything but normal. Even more alarming is the progress North Korea is currently making in its ballistic missile program. There is growing concern that it could have a missile capable of reaching Hawaii, Alaska, or perhaps even the West Coast within the next few years.
Is preventive action an effective policy option for dealing with NBC threats? Back in 1994 it might have halted North Korea’s nuclear ambitions once and for all. Or, it would’ve led to a major war in the region. For better or worse, we’ll never know.
Preventive action is a controversial policy tool available to governments to minimize or end the threats from NBC weapons in the hands of unstable regimes. Its detractors claim preventive action goes beyond what is acceptable in international law. Should a threat come to light that requires preventive action, the matter should be referred to the UN Security Council, which has the jurisdiction to authorize military action.
Diplomacy, deterrence, economic sanctions, and economic persuasion have also been used in many instances over the last half of the 20th and first part of the 21st Centuries with varying degrees of success and failure. The majority of modern nation-states prefer non-aggressive, internationally accepted counterproliferation methods. Comparative assessments, and selective case studies suggest that nonaggressive policies are more effective in stopping rogue nations from acquiring and using NBC weapons.
Supporters of preventive action in the 21st Century argue that in the Post-Sept.11th world preventive action, as well as preventive war ( Note: there is a distinct difference between the two) is necessary in some instances. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a preventive war regardless of how it is viewed in contemporary times. Iraq harbored Islamic terror groups that were decidedly anti-US and anti-West, and Saddam Hussein’s regime was believed to possess and be developing chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the US government was not inclined to simply accept the Iraq situation as status quo. After all, on September 11th, 2001 Al Qaeda launched an attack that killed thousands of Americans and the terror group did so with a fraction of the resources that are available to a nation-state. It is difficult to imagine how President Bush could have allowed what was a clear and present danger in the Post-Sept.11th world to go unchecked.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20 now. By the time the first US aircraft were over Iraq in March of 2003, whatever biological and chemical weapons Iraq had were long gone. Very little evidence of an NBC weapons programs was ever found. For what it’s worth, my guess is that most of what Saddam could not destroy was transported clandestinely to Syria and beyond. Iraq had the benefit of a head start. It was apparent by September of 2012 that the US and its coalition was coming in at some point unless Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors unobstructed access to sites across Iraq. Frankly, by that point nothing short of removing himself from power would’ve satisfied President Bush. So, while the US prepared for war and built a coalition, it is not outside of the realm of possibility to believe that the Iraqi regime was destroying as much evidence as possible and simultaneously sending whatever it could to Syria and beyond. Preventive action/war in Iraq failed miserably to achieve its objectives.
The civil war in Syria, however, offers a case study of how non-aggressive policy tools failed to bring an end to Bashir al-Assad’s chemical weapons program and use of nerve gas against opposition forces. This instance will be examined in Part II of this article, along with how preventive action fared in a handful of other instances. It will be published on Monday night. Later next week, Part III will look at how preventive action can be used by the US to successfully neutralize North Korea’s goal of building a ballistic missile capable of reaching North America.