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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2003

The dangers of pre-emption

By Tom Plate

The new military doctrine is a double-edged sword that can slice open unanticipated problems.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi got the full Crawford, Texas, ranch ego-massage last week. Understandably, for President Bush was deeply grateful for the conservative leader's support of the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq. The media-mogul-turned-politician had been one of the few major European leaders to side with the United States.

But, in fact, Berlusconi's pro-war stance is no more popular in Italy than Tony Blair's is in the United Kingdom.

Blair's problems grew last week even as Berlusconi was luxuriating in the Crawford glow. London has been shaken by a profound media melee and personal tragedy. A government microbiologist who had harbored doubts about the potency and enormity of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction — and who evidently leaked such doubts to the BBC — was found dead, presumably a suicide.

The end of the affair is nowhere in sight — and might even bring down some government officials, if not the government itself. Moreover, the extraordinarily chilling news from London tainted the otherwise respectable intent of Blair's whirlwind trip to Asia that featured useful stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Thus, the reverberations of this war throughout the global political system are beginning to be felt. What's new is not war itself but rather the dangerous doctrine of military pre-emption. Theoretically, it is an attractive idea: Strike them first before they strike you. But practically, it is a double-edged sword that can slice open unanticipated problems even as it seeks to prevent the anticipated ones.

To this end, one had to be impressed by comments coming out of a recent conference dealing with this new doctrine, held at the East-West Center in Honolulu. There, participants focused on the unpredictable consequences that crop up when a powerful nation launches a military thrust into a weaker country said to pose a threat.

"The guns will be taken back, but what happens to the people who had the guns?" said one participant, emphasizing the complexity of outside pre-emptions.

Not even the establishment of law and order will necessarily stabilize a troubled country, even if fully occupied by the outside power.

It is absolutely sure, delegates agreed, that the armed forces of the smaller country will in general shrink from direct challenge with the much-better-equipped invading force. But as the weeks and months of occupation roll on, resistance to the occupation will inevitably rise and thus increase the cost of the pre-emption to the invader. It is far easier to invade a nation than to transform it.

To lower the cost and make the effort more efficient, it was suggested, occupiers need to consult the locals fully and sincerely before making any major decision. The intervenors need to focus on the victims of the violence as well as the perpetrators. The invaders "must not be dictating" but work in consultation with the locals.

Doesn't this sound like helpful advice for the United States and Great Britain in their Iraqi intervention?

Perhaps, but the conference's topic was not about that. It was about Australia in the Solomon Islands. On July 24, Australia landed pre-emptively on that nearby island nation, torn to shreds by violence since a 2000 coup, with several thousand military and police forces. And the Howard government insists that other Pacific nations will be sending a small number of forces as well. Sound familiar?

Australian government sources also said the invasion was necessary because terrorists, money launderers and drug traffickers could use the nation as a base if order is not restored there. Sound familiar?

Australia's John Howard has thus followed the lead of America's Bush. Who next will follow their lead? And where will this pre-emption take the world?

Tom Plate, whose column is published regularly in The Advertiser, is a professor at UCLA (www.asiamedia.ucla.edu).