From Pre-emption to Prevention and Back

(Israel Hayom) Dore Gold - During his March 4 AIPAC speech, President Barack Obama came closer than ever before to declaring that should sanctions fail, he was prepared to use military force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He repeated, "I will take not options off the table," adding, "and I mean what I say." But there was no explicit guarantee that the U.S. would attack if Tehran reached the point of assembling a weapon. Did this mean that the Obama administration was indeed prepared to launch a preventive strike at Iran's nuclear facilities in the future? If that was the case, this would represent a sharp break from the position of many of the critics of the 2003 Iraq war who rejected the legal right of the U.S. undertake such attacks. These critics were mostly found in American academia and a number of leading law schools, Obama's milieu before he entered politics. In the shadow of 9/11, it was the 2002 Bush Doctrine that asserted the U.S. right to engage in preventive attacks most forcefully, when it spoke about "taking the battle to the confront the worst threats before they emerge." International legal scholars, for the most part, recognized a right of pre-emption as far back as the 19th century, when Secretary of State Daniel Webster detailed the pre-conditions for pre-emptive strikes after the British attacked an American steamer, the Caroline, along the U.S.-Canadian border. Israel's attack in the 1967 Six-Day War demonstrated again the legitimacy of pre-emption when it appeared that war was about to break out. Bush took this a step further, from pre-emption to prevention, by saying that America was not going to wait to the last minute before acting, but rather would neutralize threats well before they became imminent. But should pre-emption and prevention be treated so differently considering that the real difference between them is how far away the threat they are addressing appears on a timeline? Today, moreover, there is a growing problem of waiting to the last minute for an imminent threat. In the conventional battlefield, imminent threats are visible. There are classic signs intelligence services can pick up weeks before a war, like reserve mobilization, or the movement of forces and ammunition stocks from their regular bases to forward positions. But in the push-button era of missiles, it is much harder to know that an enemy is preparing an imminent attack, in which case a pre-emptive strike might be considered. At this time, Obama is not prepared to take preventive action against Iran precisely because he believes he has plenty of time. He told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in a recent interview: "Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt." Two years ago, then Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was discussing the Iranian nuclear program and asked: "If their policy is to go to the threshold but not assemble a nuclear weapon, how do you tell that they have not assembled? I don't actually know how you would verify that.?" The writer, a former Israeli UN ambassador, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

2012-03-16 00:00:00

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