Posted tagged ‘Military’

When is “Pre-Emptive Strike” Terrorism?

March 26, 2013

Two weeks ago, North Korea declared its right to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.  What surprises me is that it took 11 years after President George W. Bush forwarded the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strike—we will hit you before you can hit us—for this ideological basis to be so publicly echoed back at the United States.  Further, by failing to explicitly bind this policy to specific means of military force, it is not unreasonable for the policy’s potential targets to adopt a similar stance using any means available to them.

This oversight threatens established international norms.  While the United States may not use nuclear weapons in a tactical pre-emptive manner, this was not explicitly clarified or excluded.  Further clarification on what force may be used in this manner could help diffuse rhetoric, real threats and reckless use of force by nations, rogue individuals and organizations intent on forwarding a specific message.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the DRPK’s official KCNA news agency on Thursday March 7, 2013:

“Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.” [emphasis added] 1

This is an amplified echo from President George W. Bush’s June 1, 2002 Graduation Speech at West Point.  Here he introduced the policy of pre-emptive strike thus reversing the prevailing United States Cold War era military policy of deterrence:

“Our security will require the best intelligence, to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories. Our security will require modernizing domestic agencies such as the FBI, so they’re prepared to act, and act quickly, against danger. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives. [emphasis added]2

The media firestorm that erupted continued for much of his presidency.  It focused on the administration’s cowboy-esque culture that lacked the patient international consensus building of past administrations.  Yet the press failed to adequately review the fundamental implications of this strategic shift.  It was further codified as policy in September 2002 with the President’s congressionally mandated annual report: “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

“The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats, nor should nations use preemption as a pretext for aggression. [emphasis added] 3

By forwarding a strategy of pre-emptive strike without caveating what force this doctrine applies too, the President opened Pandora’s Box.  Notwithstanding the technical capability (or inability) of North Korea to execute its threat, it had an ideological basis upon which to establish it.  The poorly focused policy of the United States gives justification for the use of this doctrine by countries and organizations as well.

This has an immediate bearing as civil unrest and civil war rages across north Africa and the Middle East.  Similar fears gripped the world with the fall of the USSR and its loss of positive control of some weapons in the former Soviet republics.  How far are organizations willing to go to forward their own agendas?  This is particularly acute in the developing world which sometimes chafes at accepting international norms and laws it did not create.  There are questions as to who now possesses previously government-held weapons.  What are their ideological drives and do they differ from historic international norms?

  • Are they willing to utilize conventional or non- conventional weapons in a pre-emptive fashion?
  • When the enemy is non-secular in nature, are other religions “fair” targets?
  • Do civilians constitute legitimate targets?
  • Is this exacerbated in countries with non-secular governments?

This asymmetrical warfare could take form as a dirty bomb or a biological attack, both aimed at high-profile sporting events, as eerily depicted by Tom Clancy.  But is also underscores other less sophisticated and foiled attacks: igniting an SUV filled with propane tanks and gasoline containers in New York City.  Then there are the successful attacks: the bombings of the London public transit system in 2005; the biological attack in 1995 when sarin gas was released on the Tokyo subway.

We see further expansion of the justification of pre-emptive strikes today with Israel.  Fearing a specific existential threat from Iran, whose stated intention is to remove Israel from the world’s map, Israel has issued a pre-emptive ultimatum to Iran.  It has announced an intended pre-emptive strike should Iran not cease nuclear weapon development work.  The lines between pre-emptive strike, terrorism, and war seems to be graying.  The conventional agreements on use of force do not seem to be abided by.

Pre-emptive strike seems more settled in the prevue of specialized covert actions than with overt force.  Indeed in recent years covert military forces involved in low-intensity surgical conflicts have increasingly received unwanted publicity in international media, especially in the Middle East.  Yet why drag this shadowy world, which once had stricter norms of behavior to specifically avoid mutual nuclear destruction, into the public spotlight?  Every tool has its place and use.

The expansion of pre-emptive strike outside of this covert world seems wrought with perils and little gain.  Further it seems counter to effective diplomatic policy.  With just a bit of policy specificity by the United States, it seems there would be stronger diplomatic ground upon which to contain the overt use of military force and nuclear weapons.  By clarifying what forms of force or vectors under which a pre-emptive doctrine may be utilized, this establishes a defined framework that still accomplishes similar ends and clearly articulates justifiable force.  Otherwise, it becomes a slippery slope as one man’s pre-emptive strike is another man’s terrorism in this electronic age.



1. Jack Kim and Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, “North Korea threatens nuclear strike, U.N. expands sanctions”, March 7, 2013, Retrieved from:

2. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary,  “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point” Full text Press Release, Retrieved from:

3. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002 , Sept 2002, Page 12, Retrieved from:

Reflections: The USS Missouri

December 3, 2011

As I approached the Navy checkpoint to Ford Island on January 7, 2010, I was still trying to fathom that an island existed in the middle of Pearl Harbor, HI. This great harbor appeared too small to hold the history this area proclaims. This day I was to witness one of its treasures, the USS Missouri (BB-63), travel from dry-dock to its moorings. My US Air Force sponsor sat next to me as we crossed the bridge and I caught sight of the Arizona Memorial. My thoughts wandered back to the ceremony, a scant thirty days prior, commemorating the heroism and losses of that day.

Before embarking on this trip I researched the USS Missouri’s history. It was the last of four Iowa-class US battleships built and is the only one remaining. She was ordered on June 12, 1940, commissioned June 11, 1944 and decommissioned March 31, 1992. The nickname, The Mighty Mo, pays tribute to the strength of the vessel and the men with whom she earned 11 battle stars. She saw three wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Gulf War. Perhaps the Mo is attributed to MO, the abbreviation for Missouri, as the last four battleships were named after states. Perhaps this attribution is to another meaning lost in common memory but cherished by those that served with her. Should our memories lose these details that bring richness to life, may we not forget the larger points and meanings of history past. As I read more, I saw through adult’s eyes, not the child of high school history class, the furious naval and air battles across the Pacific. Stepping back further to view World War II as a whole, I saw the cost of conflicting ideologies struggling for co-existence or supremacy.

My grandfather was a P-38 pilot, 34th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. The European theater, with the Army and Army Air Corps, is my primary reference for World War II. Milton Bradley’s abstract simplification provided enjoyment as a child; however, it and my readings could not prepare me for the massive physical scale of sea power. The brutal effectiveness of the naval maneuver “Crossing the T” took new meaning as Mo’s silhouette came to bear. The ship’s narrowness was surprising to me. Its relative size can be read about but did not prepare me for a ship almost the length of three football fields yet only about 100 feet wide. Watching the USS Missouri slide into its mooring awed me in a way the static monument cannot.

The primary, traditional armaments of the Iowa-class battleship, the 5” and 16” guns, had been augmented with modern defensive and offensive firepower for deployment to the Persian Gulf before being decommissioned. My childhood’s four-peg representation insignificantly describes the raw military power for which only the Stratofortress seems a timely, adequate comparison.

Scheduling for the day did not permit an on-ship tour to view the plaque commemorating September 2, 1945. This day marked the signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Harbor and the end of World War II. I plan to return and walk through the history, spoken and not, steeped into the teak deck. On that visit I hope to view it beyond that of a tourist inundated with tidbits, the needles of a single tree. I hope it is with a reverence for, and a desire to explore, the forest of difficult choices made during that time. Do I display that responsible decisiveness in my life today? Do I willingly get lost in an endless thicket of instant distraction? Do I understand the lessons learned and paid for with the lives of millions? As the world becomes increasingly interdependent, these questions wander about my mind.

The age of the Battleship may have ended due to the advancement of airpower, newer technology and a changing world. As I scan the harbor, the Navy’s new weapons sit in the shadow of what once defined naval power. The USS Missouri is a small part of the ingenuity, determination and mettle of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation; the greatest tribute I can provide is to carry the baton of their values epitomized through actions. Eleanor Roosevelt held in her wallet a prayer whose eloquence summaries that charge for me: “Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask and to answer “am I worth dying for?”

As I leave Ford Island humbled, I catch sight again of the Arizona Memorial now silhouetted with the USS Missouri; The Mighty Mo’s bow stands watch over the fallen Sailors, guns raised in silent salute. I am struck by the honor paid both to the beginning and end of the US military involvement in World War II: a stark reminder of the cost and strength of the American spirit. May we never forget the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” What do I choose to do today with that freedom?

– A Grateful American