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Preventive War and Its Alternatives: The Lessons of History

Authored by Dr. Dan Reiter. | April 2006

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The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes several policy tools available to curtail threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons, including diplomacy, deterrence, preventive attacks against NBC programs, and others. This monograph asks the question: What mix of these policies best addresses the NBC threat posed by rogue leaders and terrorists? This question must be asked because the NBC threat remains, and because financial and other constraints prevent the pursuit of all policy choices simultaneously.

The central findings are that, while some of the NSS recommendations are sound, preventive wars are not attractive policy options for addressing NBC threats. Examination of the historical record reveals that limited strikes on NBC programs are generally ineffective. Larger-scale attacks intended to overthrow a regime are sometimes successful, though their financial, human, military, and geopolitical costs (including counterproductive effects on the war on terrorism) are so substantial that they are unattractive policy choices. The financial costs are especially disturbing, given the hundreds of billions spent on regime change attacks which could more effectively be spent on other counterproliferation and counterterrorism initiatives, including ballistic missile defense, fissile material recovery, and a variety of counterterrorism initiatives such as port security.

Fortunately, the other elements of the NSS do promise to address the NBC threat effectively. Diplomacy generally has been successful at dissuading many states from acquiring NBC weapons, and persuading others to give up such weapons. Deterrence has been extremely successful at preventing the state use of NBC weapons. Some ballistic missile defense systems are showing promise of addressing short- and medium-range missile threats. Finally, evidence suggests that defensive counterterrorism measures work. The monograph recommends pursuing these policies. Regarding preventive attacks, the NBC threat might be reduced more effectively if the United States offered to make no-invasion pledges to countries such as North Korea in exchange for substantial NBC concessions, rather than considering or threatening the actual launch of such attacks.


The official document titled National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS) (September 2002) describes nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons in the hands of rogue leaders or terrorist groups as among the gravest threats faced by the United States. It lays out four components of American strategy to confront this threat: deterrence and defense, strengthening diplomatic and multilateral efforts, improving abilities to respond to and reduce the effects of the actual use of NBC weapons, and preventive attacks against emerging NBC programs.1 The last of these has received the greatest attention, as it marks perhaps the largest departure from past approaches and was the conceptual underpinning of the 2003 Iraq War. Some have speculated on the possibility of future preventive attacks against countries such as North Korea or Iran.

This monograph asks the question: What mix of policies best confronts the threat posed by NBC weapons? This question retains critical policy relevance because the NBC threat has not been eliminated. Some might propose that, given the gravity of the threat, the United States should pursue all policies simultaneously. However, each has costs and benefits, and informed policy decisions require a complete assessment of each to ensure the most effective reduction of the threat at the most acceptable cost. Further, budgetary resources are finite, requiring prior analysis of where resources ought to be allocated to reduce the threat as efficiently as possible consisent with effectiveness.

The monograph also offers comparative assessments of a variety of different counterproliferation and counterterrorism policies, with a focus on the most novel component, preventive attacks. Do preventive attacks work? What are their costs and dangers? Do they make the employment of other policy tools more difficult? Are other policy tools equally or more effective at combatting the threats of NBC proliferation and terrorism? The central conclusion of this monograph is that preventive attacks are generally ineffective, costly, unnecessary, and potentially even counterproductive tools for use in behalf of nonproliferation and counterterrorism. Other policies, including diplomacy, deterrence, ballistic missile defense, and an array of counterterrorism policies are likely to be more effective at containing the spread and use of NBC and less costly in human lives.

The next three sections of this monograph consider preventive attacks, diplomacy, and deterrence, respectively, focusing on their historical records of success and failure. The section that follows these offers some assessments, with a focus on the financial costs of preventive wars and the potential underfunding that such wars may impose on other counterterrorism and nonproliferation initiatives like ballistic missile defense and the recovery of fissile material. The final section concludes that NBC weapons might be more effectively curtailed by offering no-invasion pledges in exchange for substantial NBC concessions, rather than by launching preventive attacks.


The 2002 NSS sets forth a number of components of American strategy to address the threats posed by NBC weapons. This monograph has explored what mix of components should be employed to meet these threats. The central conclusion is that, although deterrence, diplomacy, defense, and various counterterrorism options are worth retaining, preventive attacks against NBC programs are generally undesirable. Limited strikes against NBC programs are lower in cost, but are quite unlikely to enjoy success in the medium, long, or even short term because of poor intelligence and enemy measures to decrease the vulnerability of his NBC facilities. Such attacks may also provoke aggressive responses. Larger attacks aimed at changing the regime of an NBC-armed rogue state have a better (though still limited) chance of reducing NBC threats, although they pose tremendous costs, most notably in the form of generating U.S. casualties (thus undermining the viability of a volunteer military), siphoning off military resources from more promising alternatives, and stimulating anti-Americanism, which may in turn increase terrorism.

American resources are better spent on other policy tools which are less costly, less dangerous, and have better chances of success. The American government should continue to support diplomatic efforts to contain the NBC threat through means such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Proliferation Security Initiative. Deterrence should continue to be relied upon as a proven means of preventing the use of NBC weapons by states which acquire them. Substantial resources should be spent on other programs which promise to help contain the threats of NBC terrorism and proliferation, such as recovering fissile materials and improving port security.

Should preventive attacks against NBC programs ever be launched? It is difficult to imagine circumstances in which such attacks would serve the national interest. Concealment makes limited attacks in the future even less likely to succeed, and such attacks against countries such as North Korea and Iran would likely cripple any chance diplomacy might have, increase the target state?s motivation to acquire NBC weapons, and perhaps cause the target state to retaliate by supporting terrorism or launching interstate aggression.

Regime change attacks also are unlikely to be attractive. The costs of even successful attacks on countries like Iran and North Korea would be gigantic, while democratization and stabilization would not promise to be any easier than in Afghanistan or Iraq. Indeed, the United States might make more headway in addressing the NBC threat if it considered using as a negotiations bargaining chip a pledge not to invade in exchange for critical concessions. In 1962, President Kennedy promised to remove obsolete missiles in Turkey and not to invade Cuba in exchange for a Soviet commitment not to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba. The result best served American national security interests by removing a direct NBC threat to the American homeland in exchange for leaving Fidel Castro, a foreign leader who ultimately posed only minor security threats to American interests during the Cold War, in power. Today, North Korea?s greatest fear is an invasion by the United States. An American decision to move beyond the current technical state of war and commit not to invade North Korea is one of the very few bargaining chips which might move the North Koreans to make real progress towards verifiable disarmament. Such a promise could be worded specifically so that it does not mean American abandonment of commitments to defend allies like South Korea, does not amount to a commitment not to retaliate or even invade in retaliation in the face of due provocation, and does not abrogate America?s right to attack first if threatened by an NBC attack by North Korea. A similar promise might also achieve progress in ongoing negotiations with Iran over its weapons program. Some might object that the United States needs to maintain maximum flexibility in action, both to allow for the possibility of invasion and to use the prospect of invasion as a club in inducing the other side to make concessions. However, in practice, such flexibility offers few benefits. As we have stressed, such regime change attacks are prohibitively costly, unnecessary, and counterproductive; and the United States loses very little in giving up an essentially bad policy option. The threat of attack also seems to add little in the way of bargaining leverage because potential targets have responded, not by making concessions, but rather by making their production facilities less vulnerable and by steeling their resolve to acquire such weapons as quickly as possible. Ultimately, the United States is likely to make more progress towards its fundamental goal of reducing the NBC threat by offering to forgo preventive attacks rather than threatening to launch them.


1. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 2002, pp. 14-15.