October 17, 2002
Learning to Live on the Knife-Edge
What's it like to be a citizen of a country that preempts its enemies -- now that this is the official national security doctrine of the United States? Americans might look to the Israeli experience.
Preemption has guided that Middle Eastern state since its founding in 1948. Israeli strategists decided early on that Israel was so vulnerable it couldn't wait for disaster to fall, but it had to strike first when threatened. Nor could it wait until it accumulated evidence of evil intent that would stand up in a court of law. Rather, Israelis had to rely on the information accumulated by its vaunted intelligence service, the Mossad, and act on the partial evidence, on the hints, whispers and suspicions that so often make up the bulk of raw intelligence.
Twice Israeli preemption resulted in smashing victories: in 1956 and 1967. In the first instance, Israel attacked Egypt in league with Britain and France, but was forced to give up its gains. In the second instance, it attacked the instant Egypt closed the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, an action Israel regarded as a casus belli.
However, in October 1973 Israel refrained from preemption when it had information a few hours in advance that Egypt and Syria were going to attack. Not wishing to be seen as an aggressor, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir hesitated -- and Israel was nearly destroyed by invading armies.
The United States has never faced life on a similar knife-edge. No matter how heavy the blow, it's had the territorial expanse and the military power to bounce back. Even when faced with the threat of a massive Soviet nuclear first strike, there was the sense that the United States had the wherewithal to respond.
But now terrorism has placed us on the knife-edge. Weapons of mass destruction make a terrorist act potentially cataclysmic. If a nuclear bomb were to be detonated in an American city, the entire city could be destroyed and the casualties would be in the millions. If an epidemic were loosed to which there was no immediate antidote, humanity could lose one-third of its numbers as it did during the Black Death of the Middle Ages.
Waiting for the first blow to fall is no longer an option, and preemption is an unfortunate necessity.
For Americans this means more war, and Iraq may be only the first. Engaging in war based on an opponent's perceived intentions is a nerve-wracking enterprise. It can result in seemingly random violence and apparent aggression, because, in these instances, only a few people are in possession of the information that led to the action and that information is rarely made public.
It also results in errors. Again, the Israeli experience is instructive. In 1973, an Israeli hit team out to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes the year before at the Munich Olympic Games, murdered an innocent Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, whom they mistook for a wanted terrorist. As Americans pursue shadowy terrorists around the world, we'll make similar errors.
But by the same token, preemption can be effective. In 1981, Israeli aircraft destroyed Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor outside Baghdad, the first effort to thwart Saddam's quest for weapons of mass destruction. Israel suffered global condemnation -- and secret gratitude.
Some lucky few nations are protected by geography and build great civilizations. Great desert barriers protected the ancient Egyptians, while the British could reside in what they called "splendid isolation," thanks to the English Channel. America has been one of these fortunate ones, blessed and protected by two great oceans. America has now been thrust into that world.
When Osama bin Laden's terrorists killed 3,000 people on Sept. 11, he robbed Americans of the safety and security and complacency we'd previously enjoyed. He also robbed us of the luxury of suspending judgment before responding. He launched a war that America now has to finish -- and finish victoriously. It's the kind of challenge that comes with nationhood and which the framers of the Constitution fully realized the United States would have to face.
Only one more thing needs to be said: Saddam must be destroyed.
Story reprinted with permission from Featurewell.com .
David Silverberg is managing editor of The Hill. He can be reached at DavidS@hillnews.com.