Strike first - it's only natural

Herald-Sun 11th March 2004

Dr David Kay, former head of the team looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said "If you cannot rely on good, accurate certainly can’t have a policy of pre-emption".

But you can - and should.

Individuals in their personal lives, societies in their group existence, governments in their nations’ interests, have always tried to affect the future in order to secure advantage for themselves or to avoid disadvantage.

Indeed, a chief characteristic of mankind since our very emergence, and a principal reason for our survival, has been the exercise of reasoned judgment about the feasibility and sense of taking action today to avoid the consequences tomorrow of inaction today.

That pre-emptive principle underlies such diverse activities as saving part of our incomes, building stockades to keep out wildlife, the Kyoto Treaty, and war.

Pre-emptive war was not invented by President Bush in his National Security Strategy of 2001, nor first put into practice in 2003, against Iraq.

Britain, for example, declared war in 1939 because of a reasoned judgment about the consequences of doing nothing about a Germany which, though not directly threatening Britain, was clearly bent on conquering all Europe.

Australia, in a like exercise of reasoned judgment, believed that, if Britain were defeated, Australia would not long be spared Germany’s hostile attentions.

Neither country was under threat of imminent attack and had no intelligence information suggesting they soon would be. Nevertheless, they were surely right to fight.

The decision for pre-emptive war against Iraq was likewise the outcome of reasoned judgment, based on intelligence and assessment as well as common sense. The intelligence information has since proved (apparently) to be defective in respect of Iraq’s WMD. Does that in retrospect make the war unjustified?

Not at all, for the compelling reasons given to Congress by Dr Kay, including that if Iraq, even though initially without WMD, had not been dealt with, it would still have become an ever-growing menace to the security and economies of its neighbours.

And the threat was even greater given Saddam had both the expertise and the intent to develop weapons that could easily have fallen into the hands of terrorists.

Of course, it matters that many intelligence communities, including those of opponents of the war, overestimated Saddam’s WMD.

But less than the widespread under-estimation of North Korea’s and Libya’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.

Clearly, it's best if intelligence gets it right, and in time. And it's all to the good if the inevitable enquiries into intelligence ‘failure’ lead to lessons learned.

But intelligence collection and assessment are difficult and will never be perfect; and coming to a reasoned judgment involves intelligent and prudent thought more than intelligence information.

Nothing is more certain than that we will be faced again with the need to decide whether to act pre-emptively.

The Iraq war will have served our interests badly if that next decision is for inaction because of misplaced worries about intelligence ‘failure’ in 2002-03.

Actually, the real worry should be about the Iraq war’s outcome. Winning the war was one necessity for our pre-emption to be justified. But winning the peace is the ultimate justification.

So if the new Iraq, whatever its governance, pursues policies inimical to the basic interests of others, we shall have lost the peace - and with it, the justification for going to war.

The need, as always, is to look forwards, not backwards. We can’t affect the past; we can at least try to affect the future.

So pre-emption where sensible, and with reasonable prospect of a good outcome, must not be ruled out.

Pre-emption was not a sensible policy during the Cold War. But it is the only sensible policy in the new Age of Terror.