The U.S. Needs to Reject Preventive War
Last week, I explained why pursuing a new nuclear deal with Iran instead of simply rejoining the JCPOA as it is was a bad idea. Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew were the authors of that proposal, which was a shorter version of the full report they wrote here. The expanded version of their argument is no more persuasive, and it includes a number of alarming recommendations that should never be adopted as U.S. policy. For example, in their section misleadingly labeled “deterrence” they make the following suggestions (via Tyler Cullis):
U.S. presidents should declare that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that the United States is prepared to use military force, if necessary, to achieve this objective.
To demonstrate that Congress and the executive branch are unified in ensuring that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons, the Congress should consider adopting an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To avoid abuse by the executive, the AUMF should state that, before military force would be authorized, the president would be required to make a certification to Congress—supported by credible evidence supplied to Congress by the intelligence community—that Iran is breaking out of its non-proliferation obligations and moving actively toward nuclear weapons. It should also make clear that, in the absence of such a certification, the use of force would explicitly not be authorized, either by the new AUMF or any other existing one. And of course, Congress would retain its authority to fund military operations or de-fund them if it believes the justification for them is lacking.
If the authors wanted to come up with a way to encourage Iran to develop and build a nuclear deterrent, they could scarcely have come up with a more effective one than this. Threatening another state with an unprovoked, illegal attack is just the thing that would make Iran’s government conclude that it needs nuclear weapons for its own protection. Passing an AUMF to authorize such an attack would give a future president political cover at home to launch an attack whether there was “credible evidence” of nuclear weapons work or not, and we should know by now that a president willing to start a preventive war in the name of counterproliferation will have no problem manipulating and misrepresenting intelligence to provide an excuse for it. We also know very well that presidents and their officials are more than capable of simply making things up to satisfy Congressional certification requirements. On top of all that, presidents have made a habit of twisting and warping existing AUMFs beyond all recognition to claim that the resolutions give them authority to order military operations that are clearly not authorized. Congress rarely calls them on this abuse, and Congress never does anything about it. The only guaranteed way to “avoid abuse by the executive” is to refuse to pass an AUMF in the first place.
It is remarkable that the same discredited arguments for preventive war keep resurfacing year after year. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by another state may not be desirable, but it is not a legitimate reason to attack them. Needless to say, preventive war is illegal and indistinguishable from a war of aggression. It clearly has nothing to do with deterrence as that word is traditionally understood. If the U.S. ever did launch a preventive war against Iran, our government would be in flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter and would be more of a rogue state than Iran has ever been. A future administration shouldn’t pay any attention to these recommendations, and the next president should make a commitment to reject preventive warfare as a matter of principle.