Project on Defense Alternatives

First Strike Guidelines:

The Case of Iraq

Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #25
Charles Knight
16 September 2002
(revised and updated 10 March 2003)

Author's Note: This article was revised and updated serveral times as new sources of information became available. The last update was on 10 March 2003, just days before the war began. The original edition dated 16 September 2002 is available in a PDF version and a HTML version. The author has also written a postscript dated 01 March 2004 which comments on the revelations in the aftermath of the war and the essential irrelevance of any "intelligence failure" to a proper understanding of this war policy.

In the first Clinton administration Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced that the United States would seek the capability to undertake offensive counterproliferation strikes against proliferators of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). To this end Les Aspin's 1993 Bottom Up Review calls for "Improvements in the ability of both our general purpose and special operations forces to seize, disable, or destroy arsenals of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and their delivery systems."

Dr. Barry R. Schneider, director of the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center, believes the United States should have a military option available with which to destroy the weapons of mass destruction of a hostile nation that poses an imminent danger to U.S. security. He also emphasizes that preemptive or first strike attack is only one of a number of tools the U.S. possesses with which to deal with a radical state that acquires weapons of mass destruction and, as such, should be a choice of last resort. He sums up his case as follows:

Preemptive attack, as a last resort, in an extremely dangerous and unique situation, makes sense. In general, however, preemptive counter-proliferation actions should be considered only in the most extreme cases, where all other options appear to be ineffective, and where the conditions favor success.1

In his 1995 paper "Radical Responses to Radical Regimes" Dr. Schneider notes that "ill-considered preemptive strikes could backfire catastrophically" and asks "What principles should guide decision-makers in choosing whether to attempt to preemptively disarm an emerging dangerous and hostile nuclear regime?" He then poses questions for decision-makers which should help in guiding toward a responsible and principled decision. In this paper I will review how the case for preemption against Iraq measures up within these guidelines and provide a tally of answers to Schneider's guideline questions along a "yes" - "no" continuum.

Schneider guideline #1: "Is The Enemy Undeterrable, Violent and a Risk-taker?"

I find very different answers to the several components of this question so I break it into parts "a" and "b" made up of the two descriptive sentences that immediately follow the question in Schneider's guidelines.

Schneider guideline #1a: "The regime about to acquire or in possession of nuclear weapons would have to be a sworn and dedicated enemy of the United States, its rulers ruthless practitioners of violence to achieve their ends, and willing to take extreme risks rather than following conservative foreign and military policies."

Mostly Yes. These three qualities are a very close fit with Iraq. One caveat: By invading Kuwait in 1990 Iraq took an extreme risk, but since that time Iraq's behavior has been much more cautious and restrained, suggesting that its leadership may have learned from the losses it suffered in 1991 and afterwards.

Schneider guideline #1b: "The enemy would have to be considered erratic, unpredictable, and quite possibly non-deterrable by the threat of retaliation against his country's assets."

Probably No. Despite the efforts of some to portray Saddam Hussein as erratic and unpredictable, his behavior is better described as carefully calculated, even shrewd. Hussein may have made terrible miscalculations in the past, but he does not appear to be irrational.

An issue of greater import than the character of Saddam Hussein is whether there is reason to believe that Iraq is "deterrable." In this case we have historical evidence recounted by a credible witness. Charles A. Duelfer, deputy chairman of the UN Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) from 1993 until 2000, testified before Congress in 2002 about his candid discussions in 1995 with high-ranking Iraqi officials who confirmed that the threat of U.S. retaliation successfully deterred Iraq from using chemical weapons during the 1991 Gulf War.2

Schneider guideline #2: "Before acting, U.S. intelligence would have to have extremely convincing evidence that such an enemy regime was about to acquire nuclear weapons and/or other WMD, as well as the means of delivering them."

Schneider's guideline refers to three types of weapons or systems of concern. It is important to examine each separately.

Schneider guideline #2a: Nuclear Weapons.

Probably No. The possibility of Iraq acquiring nuclear weapons is the most important strategic concern of the U.S. It is generally agreed that after the Gulf War in 1991 substantially all of Iraq's nuclear weapons development program was destroyed. What remained were skilled technicians, some designs, and perhaps some remnants of equipment hidden here and there. Estimates of how long it would take a determined Iraq to reconstitute its nuclear weapons development program and build a first experimental device vary from six months to five years. A significant unknown is whether Iraq can acquire sufficient fissile material to build a bomb. Expert opinion varies on this question. Then there is the need to test weapons in order to have a viable weapons capability. Given the rather stringent containment of Iraq of the last decade it is fair to say that Iraq is probably years away from a nuclear capability -- a categorically different situation than "about to acquire."

Schneider guideline #2b: Chemical and Biological Weapons.

Probably Yes. Chemical and biological weapons are generally thought to have less strategic importance than nuclear weapons. Iraq has had chemical and biological capabilities for many years and in all its confrontations with the U.S. has refrained from using them. U.N. inspectors working from 1991 to 1998 found and destroyed essentially all Iraqi chemical and biological weapon production facilities and a very substantial portion of the weapons (the exact portion remains controversial and unknowable until on-the-ground inspections resume and operate for six months or more).3 4

Schneider guideline #2c: Means of Delivery.

Maybe. Iraq might have a handful of medium range SCUD missiles capable of carrying WMD to targets in the Middle East, including Israel. It is often presumed that Iraq is working to modernize its missile capabilities, but it is unlikely that Iraq could test and build a substantial arsenal of medium range missiles without detection. Iraq could also use its fighter-bombers (which are not prohibited) as platforms to deliver WMD. However, there is little chance they would succeed in penetrating the superior defenses available to the U.S. and Israel.

Regarding the type of evidence required to justify preemptive action, Vice President Cheney has said:

We have a tendency -- I don't know if it's part of the American character -- to say, "Well, we'll sit down and we'll evaluate the evidence. We'll draw a conclusion." But we always think in terms that we've got all the evidence. Here, we don't have all the evidence. We have 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent. We don't know how much. We know we have a part of the picture. And that part of the picture tells us that he is, in fact, actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.5

It appears likely that U.S. intelligence simply doesn't know what capabilities Iraq has sought to acquire and/or successfully reconstructed since 1998. Much of the intelligence about this matter is based on "reasonable" projections based on knowledge of former capabilities and the assumption that Iraq continues to pursue acquisition of WMD -- in other words, informed conjecture. For members of the Bush administration "part of the picture" may constitute sufficient evidence, but "part of the picture" does not measure up to the standard of "extremely convincing evidence" proposed by Schneider.

Schneider guideline #3: "The situation would have to be seen very clearly as a kill-or-be-killed scenario. The enemy regime would have to pose a 'clear and present danger' of striking the United States, its allies, or other vital interests after it had acquired a certain number of WMD. The costs of not striking first would have to be seen as totally unacceptable. This would have to be a case of either decisively intervening or there being a very high probability of being struck a devastating blow."

No. It can not be reasonably claimed that the situation is "very clearly" one of kill-or-be-killed. Members of the Bush administration have repeatedly implied a certainty of future use of Iraqi WMD against the U.S. or its vital interests. In discussing the issue of Iraq they make reference to the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. in 2001 as if to suggest that once Iraq gains the requisite capabilities it will certainly launch a similar attack on America, but this time with WMD.

To the contrary, the most likely intended use of Iraqi WMD is for influencing conflicts with neighboring states and as a strategic restraint on the use of U.S. military power against Iraqi interests in the region.6 Iraqi WMD have already played such roles in the two Gulf wars, as operational weapons in their war with Iran and as a deterrent against the U.S. in 1991.

Iraqi pursuit of WMD is related most directly to its competitive position in regional power struggles. The U.S. "vital interest" most significantly effected is the level of military risk the U.S. faces in regional interventions. This is a real strategic security concern for the U.S., but is very different from a case of "kill-or-be-killed."

Schneider guideline #4: "The intelligence available would have to be documented that so U.S. leaders would conclude that they knew all locations of enemy WMD, and believed these targets to be vulnerable to U.S. conventional preemptive attacks, without causing extensive collateral damage to civilian populations."

Probably No. We do not know how good U.S. intelligence is about current Iraqi WMD. However, it is notable that on several occasions of the ongoing no-fly-zone enforcement bombing of Iraq since 1991 that WMD-related sites have been hit.7 It is quite possible that U.S. targeting intelligence can identify with a high degree of reliability very few remaining WMD sites that can be hit from the air.

Iraq has been given more than a year's warning of likely military counterproliferation attacks from the U.S. providing ample time to relocate and disguise WMD assets.8 If the U.S. resorts to a large scale ground and air campaign against the Iraqi regime there will certainly be very significant civilian casualties.9

Schneider guideline #5: "Is Surprise Achievable? A preemptive strike to eliminate enemy WMD has a greater likelihood of success if it has not been telegraphed in advance. If the adversary had warning and time to move its relocatable nuclear assets, and prepare a retaliation attack, then a U.S. PCP operation should be aborted, unless the U.S. leadership was absolutely convinced that an enemy WMD strike was imminent."

No. The Bush administration has done much more than "telegraph in advance" its plans to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. Regarding the imminence of an enemy WMD strike, only by stretching the meaning of the word "imminent" to become synonymous with "maybe someday" can U.S. leadership convince themselves that an Iraqi WMD strike is imminent.

Schneider guideline #6: "Does the U.S. Have A First Strike Capability? Friendly forces within range of the enemy targets would need to be capable of carrying out a preemptive strike with a very high confidence of success against enemy WMDs, preferably with very few casualties among the civilian population of the enemy state. It would be best if the enemy leadership could be captured or neutralized, and replaced with one much less threatening."

Probably Yes. Here Schneider combines two types of First Strike. One is a preemptive raid against a set of WMD sites. The other type of strike seeks to replace enemy leadership (regime change) which requires a ground invasion in most cases.

If we construe this question in narrow military terms the U.S. almost certainly has sufficient military superiority to strike from the air most any target in Iraq unimpeded by an effective Iraqi defense. The U.S. can also be expected to win an air/ground war against the much weaker state of Iraq, including taking control of Baghdad.


  • If we include in "first strike capability" the intelligence required to identify all WMD sites for targeting in a raid, then our assessment has to be "no". Shortage of precise knowledge of Iraqi WMD programs is most likely an important factor in the Bush administration's preference for the regime change option over the preemptive raid option;
  • In the course of a "regime change" war, Iraq, with its back to the wall, might launch strikes with chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces or regional allies such as Israel resulting in high casualties;10
  • Any invasion of Iraq will result in high Iraqi civilian casualties, especially if fighting takes place in the larger cities.

Schneider guideline #7: "Is the U.S. Homeland Safe From Enemy WMD? Even a small number of adversary nuclear weapons exploded on one or more large U.S. or allied cities would deliver a historically unprecedented number of war deaths on the United States and its friends. Starting an armed conflict, especially a highly dangerous one against a heavily armed and dangerous enemy, could only be done in the existential moment when the U.S. President and his top national security leaders were utterly convinced that the path of inaction was absolutely catastrophic, and that further delay and a failure to act would be fatal. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a WMD could not be used against the United States, since such a weapon could be smuggled into the country and exploded in a targeted area, even if the adversary lacked missiles or bombers capable of reaching North America."

Probably Yes. Iraq does not now (nor will it anytime soon) have the capability to strike from a far the U.S. homeland. Schneider points out that there is "no guarantee" since "a weapon could be smuggled in." However, the only rational motivations for smuggling in and using WMD in another state are to catalyze a broad conflict (apparently the leading motivation of al Qaeda in attacking the United States homeland) and revenge (a contributing motivation for al Qaeda.)11

In order for there to be a credible Iraqi WMD threat to the U.S. homeland we would have to believe that Saddam Hussein has a strong enough wish for revenge and/or interest in catalyzing a broad global conflict to be worth risking all with such a catalytic terror or revenge attack. Most of what we know about Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein suggests they are very different in this regard.

If the United States engages in preemptive warfare with Iraq with the express purpose of killing and overthrowing Saddam Hussein it is quite possible to imagine Hussein attempting revenge attacks on the U.S. as his last act. Of course, the threat of this sort of revenge attack is contingent on the preemptive attack by the U.S. and can not be counted as a reason (certainly within these guidelines) for preemption.

Schneider guideline #8: "Would The United States Be Safe From WMD Retaliation By Third Parties? It is particularly important that it be very unlikely that any other state with NBC weapons would be willing to strike the U.S. or its allies on behalf of the enemy engaged."

Yes. War on Iraq will not be popular in many parts of the world, but Iraq has no allies in its conflict with the U.S. The al Qaeda Network of Osama bin Laden might use the Iraq war as a stated rationale for a future attack on the U.S., but al Qaeda is already at war with the U.S. and such an attack (already expected) should not be counted as retaliation.

Schneider guideline #9: "Has The U.S. Exhausted All Other Non-Military Options First? Clearly, the United States should and would not attack another state unless it tried and failed with all other diplomatic, political, and economic options to avert the threat to the United States. PCP should be the last resort unless time was clearly not available to pursue alternative means and to fail to act was to absorb almost certain catastrophic damage. Generally, however, PCP should be the very last resort. To do otherwise, would be immoral, set a very dangerous precedent, undermine international law, and could ruin the good reputation of the United States."

Mostly No. The U.S. may be frustrated with and skeptical of non-military means, but that should not be equated with exhausting them. For instance, the course of the U.N.-mandated disarmament enforced with an inspection regime has not yet been exhausted. According to at least one leading American disarmament inspector, Scott Ritter, the U.N. inspection regime in the 1990s was more than 90% successful in destroying Iraqi WMD infrastructure and ordnance. He also believes that a new inspection regime could be successful if the U.S. does not undermine the legitimacy of the process by using inspectors to gather intelligence for targeting Saddam Hussein personally as it did in the period of 1996-1998.12 Other leading inspectors disagree, believing that Iraq will always find a way to evade intrusive disarmament inspections.13

President Bush has said, "doing nothing about that serious threat is not an option for the United States",14 but no one in his administration has yet made a full and convincing case that "failure to act [is to] absorb almost certain catastrophic damage." Schneider's admonition to undertake preemptive counterproliferation only as "the very last resort" must be respected.15 "To do otherwise," he says, "would be immoral, set a very dangerous precedent, undermine international law, and could ruin the good reputation of the United States."

Schneider guideline #10: "Has the U.S. Set Clear Objectives And Is It Using Appropriate Means? Clausewitz wrote, 'No one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so --- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.' If the war takes an unanticipated turn, we should continue to reassess ends and means keeping the use of force proportional to our needs while recognizing that when such a conflict is no longer in our national interest, we disengage expeditiously, just as we should also escalate some conflicts to bring their rapid termination about. Means must be appropriate to ends, however, excessive force (e.g., the use of nuclear weapons) would lose the high moral ground for the United States and could bring a backlash of major political and military problems."

Maybe. Relative to most modern American wars, the Bush administration has articulated fairly clear war objectives -- regime change in Iraq so that the U.S. can be assured of its WMD disarmament. Nevertheless, as many commentators have pointed out, the administration has been much less clear on what to do with Iraq after ousting Saddam Hussein. Thus the U.S. might find itself in the role of an "occupier" much longer than it intends at the outset. (I will address these problems in more depth in the next question regarding commitment to win.)

The Bush administration has refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons as instruments of preemption. However, Secretary Rumsfeld has obliquely suggested self-restraint by referring to the fifty plus years since the U.S. has used nuclear weapons in combat. To the extent that a counterproliferation war with Iraq will set a strategic precedent for the use of U.S. power it should be noted with due concern that the Bush administration is investing in a new generation of nuclear weapons that are specifically designed for counterproliferation roles, among others.16

Schneider guideline #11: "Is The U.S. Committed to Win? As former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger has recommended, 'If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do it wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all .' Remember that a preemptive strike, even for defensive purposes, is an act of war and is unlikely to remain an isolated incident, so the U.S. leadership and armed forces had better be fully prepared for what follows."

Maybe. There is every reason to believe that the Bush administration intends to live by Weinberger's recommendation, at least in the narrow military sense Weinberger probably meant. However, the Bush administration is disinclined to acknowledge the broader consequences of a large military intervention in the Middle East and to prepare for the commitments that will be required for regional reconstruction and for the recovery of stability.17 If the war's objective is to ensure that Iraq does not have WMD in the future, it will take much more than forced regime change to achieve that end. It will require a large U.S. military and civilian presence in Iraq for many years in order to nurture a modern, stable, and Western-friendly state in post-Hussein Iraq. Notably, there is not yet broad bipartisan support in the U.S. for any such investment. Recently the Bush administration has been criticized for seeking stability "on the cheap" in Afghanistan -- an unpromising indicator of the "commitment to win" in a fuller sense.18

Schneider also reminds us that "a preemptive strike... is unlikely to remain an isolated incident." Some proponents of war with Iraq think this is a positive characteristic of preemptive war. They look forward to follow-up confrontations with Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.19Other analysts foresee cascading problems proponents would rather ignore.20It remains unresolved whether the American people are prepared to deal in a committed fashion with the long lasting demands of reconstruction and a possible contagion of conflict in that region.

Tally of Answers to Guideline Questions

Note: Many of Schneider's questions have no precise or sure answer. Therefore I have expanded his three options for answers to include "probably or mostly yes" and "probably or mostly no". I have tried to create a limited set continuum which will fairly represent the level of precision and discrimination that is likely to be achieved in this sort of assessment exercise.

  Yes Probably or Mostly Yes Maybe Probably or Mostly No No
Is the enemy violent and a risk- taker?   X      
Is Iraq undeterrable?       X  
Does U.S. intelligence have extremely convincing evidence that Iraq is about to acquire nuclear weapons?       X  
Does U.S. intelligence have extremely convincing evidence that Iraq is about to acquire chemical or biological weapons?   X      
Does U.S. intelligence have extremely convincing evidence that Iraq is about to acquire means of delivery for WMD?     X    
Is the situation very clearly a kill-or-be-killed scenario in which Iraq poses a "clear and present danger" of striking the United States, its allies, or other vital interests after it acquires a certain number of WMD?         X
Do U.S. leaders know all locations of enemy WMD, and believe these targets to be vulnerable to U.S. conventional preemptive attacks, without causing extensive collateral damage to civilian populations?       X  
Is surprise achievable and is U.S. leadership absolutely convinced that an Iraqi WMD strike is imminent?         X
Does the U.S. have a first strike capability?   X      
Is the U.S. homeland safe from enemy WMD?   X      
Would the United States be safe from WMD retaliation by third parties? X        
Has the U.S. exhausted all other non-military options first?       X  
Has the U.S. set clear objectives and is it using appropriate means?     X    
Is the U.S. committed to win?     X    
Totals 1 4 3 4 2

Discussion of Findings

A glance at the chart above will reveal that the answers to the questions posed by Dr. Schneider in his guidelines are rather evenly distributed with only three of fourteen in the "yes" or "no" columns. Eleven are somewhere in between. Schneider's guidance is that:

If the answer to all these questions are 'yes', then the United States might be wise to intervene with military force to prevent a hostile radical state from acquiring or using existing WMD. The more answers of 'no' or 'maybe' to these questions, the more likely the United States should decide against military intervention.
By this standard I conclude that to date there is an insufficient case for using preemptive counterproliferation against Iraq.

Every reader will have a somewhat different assessment of where the answers to these questions lie on a continuum from "yes" to "no". It should also be noted that Schneider offers no guidance on how decision-makers should weigh the guidance questions in relation to one another. Clearly some questions are more important than others and there is plenty of room for reasonable disagreement about their relative importance.

I would encourage readers to move my check marks right or left as they see fit 21, and more importantly, to consider what evidence they would want in order to justify moving the marks one way or the other. A debate on the U.S. policy toward Iraq opened up in late 2002 and we can expect that in its course more information will become available. [Download a blank tally sheet to print.]

Dr. Schneider wisely advises us to "consider preemptive counter-proliferation actions only in the most extreme cases, where all other options appear to be ineffective." Therefore when preemptive counterproliferation is proposed we can best decide the matter by paying special attention to Schneider's guideline questions that have answers that fall toward the "no" end of the scale.

Is Iraq undeterrable? I cite the evidence we have that the Iraqi leadership thought of itself as being deterred from use of chemical weapons in the 1991 Gulf war. It would require extraordinary new evidence to move the case very far in favor the statement that "Iraq is undeterrable."

Does U.S. intelligence have extremely convincing evidence that Iraq is about to acquire nuclear weapons? We will need additional evidence to move this closer to the conclusion that "Iraq is about to acquire nuclear weapons." Projections and conjectures are not sufficient.

Is the situation very clearly a kill-or-be-killed scenario? Here we can imagine a situation in which irrefutable evidence comes to light of Iraq's intention to use a nuclear weapon against U.S. forces in the region as soon as it has one available. Such evidence would move the answer to this question a long ways toward the "yes" end of the spectrum. Short of such evidence, the situation remains one of a "somewhat murky and future danger" rather than a "clear and present danger" -- a crucial distinction in the grave business of initiating a war. Of course, if the United States initiates a war against Iraq then Iraq (rather than the U.S.) will be in a "kill-or-be-killed" situation. This is one of the main reasons that preemption is such a dangerous strategy.

Do U.S. leaders know all locations of enemy WMD? Right now there is little indication in the public domain that U.S. intelligence agencies know very much about the location of Iraqi WMD. Future intelligence briefings might provide a different impression of the status of U.S. targeting reliability (one key factor in limiting civilian deaths in any attack.)

Is surprise achievable? Once the element of strategic surprise is given up it is very hard to regain it. Nevertheless, we would expect the U.S. to use deception and other techniques to achieve tactical surprise. But tactical surprise can not make up for the fact that the Iraqis have had plenty of time to disperse and hide whatever WMD assets they may have.

Has the U.S. exhausted all other non-military options? An effort to restart the disarmament inspection process is one such option. However, both the U.S. and Iraq have good reason to be wary of inspections. The U.S. knows that Iraq has cheated on its disarmament obligations in the past and expects them to do so again. Iraq knows that the U.S. has used the inspection process to gain regime targeting information (spying). Both behaviors have severely undermined the legitimacy of past inspections. In order for a new disarmament and inspection process to succeed the U.S must renounce its regime change goals as long as the disarmament process proceeds and the Iraqis must genuinely commit themselves to disarmament.22

Following the passage of UN Resolution 1441 on 08 November 2002, inspectors from both UNMOVIC and the IAEA returned to Iraq to resume the inspection and disarmament process that had been interrupted in 1998. UNMOVIC Chair Hans Blix reported to the UN Security Council on 27 January 2003 that UNMOVIC had done "about 300 inspections to more than 230 different sites" since resumption in November. So far the inspections have not found any conclusive evidence of significant Iraqi possession or production of prohibited weaponry. 23  Both the progress and prospects of the inspections regime are controversial, but it is hard to argue convincingly that the potential benefits of inspections (including the authority of the inspectors to destroy prohibited weaponry) have been "exhausted."

Steadfast containment of Iraq is another option, one the Bush administration has rejected in favor of a policy of forceful regime change. 24  Containment is commonly said to have worked with the Soviet Union and, in any serious comparative assessment, Iraq is not a greater or more imminent threat to the U.S. or its interests than was the Soviet Union. Proponents of preemption will have to make a better case that, while containment worked with the Soviet Union, it has not or will not work with Iraq.

Finally, it must be noted that, despite the repeated use of the term "preemption" to describe their counterproliferation strategy (see the 2002 National Security Strategy), the Bush administration's strategic approach to Iraq is one of preventive war. The U.S. Department of Defense defines preventive war as "war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk" while it defines preemptive attack as "an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent." Preventive war has long been understood to be highly destabilizing and it is nearly impossible to reconcile it with the notions of non-aggression imbedded in the United Nations Charter. 25

Dr. Schneider's guidelines are carefully constructed for preemptive war and are not meant to apply to preventive war. No one, to my knowledge, has yet attempted to create a coherent set of guidelines for preventive war that meets, even minimally, the criteria of safety, consistency, effectiveness, legality, and morality that are offered in Barry Schneider's preemptive war guidelines. It is a matter of grave concern that the Bush administration advocates preventive war without applying any such guidelines in their decision making.

Acknowledgement:  I am grateful to Ms. Melissa Murphy, Ms. Tali Paransky, and Ms. Sabrina Ross for their research assistance for this article.


1. Barry R. Schneider, "Radical Responses to Radical Regimes:  evaluating preemptive counter-proliferation", Washington, DC: National Defense University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, McNair Paper #41, May 1995.

2. Charles A. Duelfer, "Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs in Iraq", testimony before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate, 27 February 2002.
It is worthwhile quoting the relevant sections of Duelfer's testimony in their entirety:

"On September 18, 1995, I had a long, late night meeting with several senior Iraqi ministers and other officials. The meeting was arranged to discuss the Iraqi concepts and requirements for their WMD development and production programs. Previously, Baghdad had refused to engage in such a discussion. I remember the meeting quite well, not simply because there was an unusual amount of candor, but because I suddenly realized how unlikely it was that the government would ever comply fully with the UN demand to completely give up all WMD capabilities forever. Consequently, the UNSCOM inspectors had an ultimately hopeless task under the conditions it was permitted to operate.

"Iraq revealed that evening how weapons of mass destruction were viewed from the position of the Presidency. (They even provided selected presidential documents.) Partial descriptions of the origin of WMD efforts were discussed. They also discussed how these programs had been used and their importance to the regime. In essence, the possession of WMD had saved the regime on two occasions. The first was in the war with Iran in the 1980's when Iranian human wave infantry attacks were repelled with chemical munitions (UNSCOM learned that 101,000 were reported "consumed" during this period.)

"The second instance where WMD preserved the regime was more surprising. I had asked about the decision by the Iraqi leadership not to employ WMD in the 1991 Gulf War. In a carefully worded response, the impression was conveyed that the President thought if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against the coalition, retaliation would end his regime and probably him personally. He was successfully deterred. However, my interlocutors went on to describe how they had loaded BW and CW agent into various missile warheads and bombs before hostilities began in 1991. Moreover they dispersed these weapons and pre-delegated the authority to use them if the United States moved on Baghdad. The Iraqis stated that these actions apparently deterred the United States from going to Baghdad."

For a statement of the view that Iraq cannot be reliably deterred see Kenneth M. Pollack, Why Iraq Can't be Deterred, New York Times, 26 September 2002.

Excerpt:  "After the gulf war...United Nations inspectors and Iraqi defectors revealed a set of secret plans and orders, issued by Mr. Hussein... [H]e had set up a special Scud unit with both chemical and biological warheads that was ordered to launch its missiles against Israel in the event of a nuclear attack or a coalition march on Baghdad. Since no one outside Iraq knew at the time about this unit and its orders, it was clearly intended not as a deterrent but simply as a force for revenge."

For a contrasting view see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephan M Walt, "Can Saddam be Contained? History Says Yes", Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 2002. Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.

3. Various assessments of Iraqi WMD:

Glen Rangwala, "Claims and evaluations of Iraq's proscribed weapons", University of Cambridge, U.K., 05 February 2003 (updated frequently).

Mohamed El Baradei, "The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq by IAEA", International Atomic Energy Agency, 27 January 2003.

Hans Blix, "An Update on Inspection, Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC", United Nations Security Council, 27 January 2003.

"Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction:  The Assessment of the British Government", 24 September 2002.

"Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction:  A Net Assessment", London, England: Institute for International Strategic Studies, 9 September 2002.

Paul Reynolds, "Analysis: Is Iraq Rearming?", BBC News, 6 September 2002.

Anthony H. Cordesman, "If We Fight Iraq: Iraq and Its Weapons of Mass Destruction", Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 28 June 2002.

Joseph Cirincione, Deadly Arsenals, Chapter 16: "Iraq", Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2002.

"Reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency Iraq Action Team", 17 Dec 1991 to 10 April 2002.

Julian Borger, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Brian Whitaker, "Iraq: the myth and the reality", The Guardian, 15 March 2002.,2763,667669,00.html

Central Intelligence Agency, "Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 July Through 31 December 2000".

"UNSCOM Reports to the Security Council", 25 January 1999.

Department of State, "Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs", U.S. Government White Paper, 13 February 1998.

4. Elizabeth Neuffer, "UN's chief inspector cites lack of evidence vs. Iraq", Boston Globe, 11 September 2002.

Excerpt: "The UN's chief weapons inspector said yesterday that until inspectors return to Iraq, the world body has no firm evidence - including any activity spotted on aerial photographs - that the country is trying to rebuild weapons of mass destruction."

5. Dick Cheney, transcript of appearance on Meet the Press, NBC-TV, 08 September 2002.

6. See Joseph Cirincione, Deadly Arsenals, Chapter 16: "Iraq", Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2002.

7. Cirincione, Deadly Arsenals, Chapter 16: "Iraq".
Cirincione states that "The December 1998 bombing damaged Iraq's ballistic missile infrastructure."

8. Schneider, "Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: evaluating preemptive counter-proliferation".

Excerpt:  "... [the] Gulf War experience demonstrates... that carrying out a counter-proliferation attack can be difficult in the extreme. Intelligence may not be able to locate WMD due to enemy countermeasures (i.e., constant relocation, mobility and decoys) thwarting even determined attacks on such assets. The 1981 Osirak example may be misleading because that target was a fixed and fragile installation whose continued operation was absolutely key to the rapid development of Iraqi nuclear weapons at the time. By 1991, Iraq's NBC and missile assets were hidden and dispersed, and far less vulnerable to air attacks. Saddam Hussein had learned a lesson from the destruction of his Osirak reactor a decade earlier."

9. Robert Schlesinger, "Neither inspection nor airstrikes can do job, Rumsfeld says", Boston Globe, 20 September 2002.

Excerpt: "We simply do not know where all or even a large portion of Iraq's WMD facilities are," Rumsfeld said in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Of the facilities we do know, not all are vulnerable to attack from the air. A good many are underground and deeply buried. Others are purposely located near population centers - schools, hospitals, mosques, where an airstrike could kill a large number of innocent people."

For insight into the continuing problem of civilian casualties despite the increased use of "precision bombs" see Carl Conetta, "Operation Enduring Freedom: Why a Higher Rate of Civilian Bombing Casualties", Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Report #11, 18 January 2002.

10. For more on how setting "regime change" objectives changes the calculus of deterrence see Charles Knight, "Bush Raises the Stake in Iraq", Global Beat Syndicate and Foreign Policy In Focus, 3 July 2002.

11. For more on catalytic terrorism see: Carl Conetta, "Dislocating Alcyoneus: How to combat al-Qaeda and the new terrorism", Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #23, June 2002.

12. Bob Drogin and Maggie Farley, "Spies Role Debated in U.N. Inspections in Iraq", Los Angeles Times, 23 October 2002.

Thomas W. Lippman and Barton Gelman, "U.S. Says It Collected Iraq Intelligence Via UNSCOM", Washington Post, 08 January 1999.

"U.S. won't confirm or deny Iraq spying story",, 02 March 1999.

"Spying on Saddam: interview with Scott Ritter", Frontline - PBS, 27 April 1999.

Excerpt:  " have a situation, in June of 1996, where the United States is fomenting a coup against Saddam Hussein, a coup based upon Special Republican Guard units. At the same time, you have an UNSCOM inspection, UNSCOM 150, which is in Iraq, creating a confrontation by inspecting Special Republican Guard sites.

"On our team are nine covert operatives from the C.I.A.'s covert activities branch. Now, they're doing the work of UNSCOM, they were part of planning UNSCOM, they provided communications support, logistics support, operational support, the kind of guys you need for these inspections.

"But the Iraqis were questioning Rolf Ekeus on the timing of this inspection. 'Why were you doing it?' And Tariq Aziz was very critical of that. And what I was trying to do is put into a perspective some of the Iraqi concerns. It's important to realize that the Iraqis do have legitimate national security interests. No matter how much we hate Saddam Hussein, it's in their national security interest to keep him in power, and when you have the United States government, or any other government, trying to create a coup to throw him out, they're very concerned.

"Now, when they met with Rolf Ekeus, they knew that the coup was planned. They had penetrated the coup plotters for months, they knew exactly what was going on, and they probably knew something about our inspection team that we didn't know. They probably had insights that we didn't have. I was confronted with such insights by one Iraqi, who said, 'You know, you guys are being used to support a coup.' Now, I objected vehemently, I said, 'No, I'm UNSCOM, Rolf Ekeus would never authorize that, I would never be a part of that. We're doing our job.' He said, 'Well, I'm just telling you, we know something...'"

13.  Richard Butler, "Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee", 31 July 2002.

Richard Butler, "The Lessons and Legacy of UNSCOM:  An Interview With Ambassador Richard Butler", Arms Control Today, June 1999.

Charles Duelfer, "The Inevitable Failure of Inspections in Iraq", Arms Control Today, September 2002.

Charles Duelfer, "Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee", 31 July 2002.

14. "In Bush's Words: Doing Nothing Is Not an Option", New York Times, 5 September 2002.

15. It is noteworthy that Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a speech to the Trades Union Congress in Blackpool 10 September 2002, reinforced the admonition that "Military action should only ever be a last resort."

16. William Arkin, "The Nuclear Option in Iraq:  The U.S. has lowered the bar for using the ultimate weapon", Los Angeles Times, 26 January 2003. Posted on the Global Research Website.

Paul Rogers, "Could the War Go Nuclear?", Open Democracy Forum, 17 February 2003. Posted on the Foreign Policy in Focus Website.

see also: "Nuclear Posture Review", DoD, 08 January 2002.

Excerpts:  "Composed of both non-nuclear systems and nuclear weapons, the strike element of the New Triad can provide greater flexibility in the design and conduct of military campaigns to defeat opponents decisively. Non-nuclear strike capabilities may be particularly useful to limit collateral damage and conflict escalation. Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities)." (p. 12-13)

"DoD and DOE efforts are underway to counter the asymmetric use of chemical and biological weapons (referred to as agent defeat). Agent Defeat Weapon (ADW) concepts are being evaluated to deny access to, immobilize, neutralize, or destroy chemical or biological weapons. Overcoming uncertainties in intelligence regarding agent production and storage locations as well as physical geometries of known facilities and contents appear to be the largest challenges. A variety of ADW concepts are currently under study, including thermal, chemical, or radiological neutralization of chemical/biological materials in production or storage facilities, as well as several types of kinetic penetrators to immobilize or deny use of those materials." (p. 48)

17. Scott R. Feil, "Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Iraq:  Strategy and Resource Considerations", Statement for the Record, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 01 August 2002.

Excerpt: "The United States must develop and implement a strategy for Iraq that integrates post-conflict reconstruction efforts with the politico-military campaign to accomplish regime change. The U.S. must avoid succumbing to the false dichotomy of conflict and post-conflict operations and the strategy and operational plans must define a seamless progression of tasks, actors, and resource that accomplish the national objective. The planning for post-conflict reconstruction must commence now, rather than after hostilities have commenced, or worse, ended."

18. Michael Ignatieff, "Nation-Building Lite", New York Times Magazine, 28 July 2002.

Carl Conetta, "A new game: US and Afghan interests diverge" in "Strange Victory: A critical appraisal of Operation Enduring Freedom and the Afghanistan war", Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute Project on Defense Alternatives Research Monograph #6, 30 January 2002.

19. John Donnelly and Anthony Shadid , "Iraq war hawks have plans to reshape entire Mideast", Boston Globe, 10 September 2002.

20. Philip H. Gordon, Martin Indyk and Michael E. O'Hanlon, "Getting Serious About Iraq", Survival, Autumn 2002.

Excerpt: "Turkey will fear that the Iraqi Kurds, who already enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy under international protection in northern Iraq, will take advantage of the leadership vacuum in Baghdad to declare their independence. Turkey could well feel the need to take northern Iraq to forestall such a development. Syria and even Jordan might then feel that they have to move across the border into western Iraq to protect their interests, and Iran might do the same in the east."

21. As I have reconsidered the issues in successive drafts of this paper I have made several shifts myself. That, in my judgement, is a sign of useful set of guidelines.

22. "Coercive Inspections in Iraq", Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Proliferation Brief, Vol. 5, No. 12, 10 September 2002.

Excerpt: "The critical element will be that the United States makes clear that it forswears unilateral military action against Iraq for as long as international inspections are working. The United States would have to convince Iraq and others that this is not a perfunctory bow to international opinion preparatory to an invasion and that the United States' intent is to see inspections succeed, not a ruse to have them quickly fail. If Iraq is not convinced, it would have no reason to comply; indeed, quite the reverse because Baghdad would need whatever WMD it has to deter or fight a U.S. attack. Given the past history, many countries will be deeply skeptical. To succeed, Washington will have to be steady, unequivocal, and unambiguous on this point."

Shibley Telhami, "The Regional Setting of Policy Toward Iraq", written testimony submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 31 July 2002.

Excerpts: "One such track is the continued containment policy coupled with the reintroduction of a more vigorous international inspection regime in Iraq. It is clear that Saddam Hussein has put many obstacles before the international inspectors in the past and he refuses to allow them back. This may indicate that the same tactics will be pursued by him in the future. But it is also clear that he has been operating under the assumption that our objective is ultimately to topple him, in addition to limiting his capabilities in the meanwhile. The only way a strategy to get his full cooperation could have a chance of success is if his overthrow no longer becomes the objective; He will always choose his survival over all else."

"If we consider that our aim is not merely to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction, but also an active campaign to change the regime in Baghdad, then it is hard to see how we put ourselves on any course but one that which preempts Iraq's nuclear potential, since it will be more difficult to overthrow the government once Iraq is a nuclear state. But it should be clear to us that what would be driving such a course is not weapons of mass destruction as such, but overthrowing the regime."

23.  Glen Rangwala, "Claims and evaluations of Iraq's proscribed weapons", University of Cambridge, U.K., 05 February 2003 (updated frequently).

Mohamed El Baradei, "The Status of Nuclear Inspections in Iraq by IAEA", International Atomic Energy Agency, 27 January 2003.

Hans Blix, "An Update on Inspection, Executive Chairman of UNMOVIC", United Nations Security Council, 27 January 2003.

24. It is noteworthy that the Clinton administration had a policy of containment supplemented by opportunistic covert regime change. That administration never found the opportunity to successfully implement covert regime change.

Regarding prospects for containment see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephan M Walt, "Can Saddam be Contained? History Says Yes", Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 2002. Posted on the Commonwealth Institute Website.

25. Department of Defense definitions of preventive war and preemptive attack are from the "DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms" --

For commentary on the (il-)legality and other complications of preventive war see:

"Expert: Bush's new strategy based on illegal preventive war", Knight Ridder News, 22 September 2002.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., "Unilateral Preventive War:  Illegitimate And Immoral", Los Angeles Times, 21 August 2002. Posted on the rat haus reality Website.

Neta Crawford, "The Best Defense:  The problem with Bush's 'preemptive' war doctrine", Boston Review, February/March 2003.

Postscript (01 March 2004) -- Now That They Made a War

I came across Barry Schneider's guidelines for preemptive counter-proliferation attacks while researching issues of preemption and preventive war in 2002. He makes it clear from the beginning that he is in favor of the U.S. having a capability and the policy option to pursue preemptive military counter-proliferation actions against what he calls "radical states." But he also recognizes the inherent dangers in preemptive counter-proliferation actions: he developed his set of guidelines to help minimize the chances of bad policy decisions and adverse outcomes. Therefore his guidelines offered an ideal tool with which to assess the military action that the Bush administration appeared intent on pursuing against Iraq.

Once I decided to apply Schneider's guidelines to the case of Iraq I thought it important to bring all the objectivity I could muster to the task. Therefore I sought out views and evidence which cut multiple ways in answering particular guideline questions. I also encouraged readers to make their own summary assessment.

A retrospective reading of the report will reveal that its pre-war assessment of the situation is quite close to what was revealed by post-war arms searches and assessments (see WMD in Iraq: evidence and implications for a January 2004 review of evidence). The one error that stands out was in estimating that "probably yes", Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. The assessment said this:

Probably Yes. Chemical and biological weapons are generally thought to have less strategic importance than nuclear weapons. Iraq has had chemical and biological capabilities for many years and in all its confrontations with the U.S. has refrained from using them. U.N. inspectors working from 1991 to 1998 found and destroyed essentially all Iraqi chemical and biological weapon production facilities and a very substantial portion of the weapons (the exact portion remains controversial and unknowable until on-the-ground inspections resume and operate for six months or more).
This "yes" has proven wrong, but the qualifiers are essentially correct.

What stands out from this exercise is that my rather straight forward analysis of open source material applied according to a reasonable set of guidelines arrives at conclusions that have been proven correct by subsequent events, while officials in Washington with access to a plentitude of secret intelligence data and the skills of seasoned policy analysts proceeded in such error. This constitutes rather strong evidence that the problems in Washington were not due to officials led astray by faulty intelligence, but rather due to officials blinded by the ideological fervor they brought to policy making. It also appears that they were so enthused to use their superior force of arms against Iraq that they did not pause to apply any principled set of guidelines to their decision making. I can't know the latter for a fact; perhaps Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney sat down to do their own versions of a policy guidelines exercise some late night in 2002. But, if they had, I doubt we would be where we are today.

Finally, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of my report:

Dr. Schneider's guidelines are carefully constructed for preemptive war and are not meant to apply to preventive war. No one, to my knowledge, has yet attempted to create a coherent set of guidelines for preventive war that meets, even minimally, the criteria of safety, consistency, effectiveness, legality, and morality that are offered in Barry Schneider's preemptive war guidelines. It is a matter of grave concern that the Bush administration advocates preventive war without applying any such guidelines in their decision making.
To this day the Bush administration appears to be simply not interested in applying principled and carefully considered guidelines to its security policies. We should recall Schneider's admonition to undertake preemptive counterproliferation only as "the very last resort... To do otherwise," he says, "would be immoral, set a very dangerous precedent, undermine international law, and could ruin the good reputation of the United States." By this sober standard the Bush administration must be judged reckless in the extreme.


A .pdf version of the original 16 September 2002 edition is also available for download.

Citation: Charles Knight, First Strike Guidelines: the case of Iraq, Project on Defense Alternatives Briefing Memo #25. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, 16 September 2002.

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