Is Preemption a Nuclear Schlieffen Plan?
August 21, 2002 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Is Preemption a Nuclear Schlieffen Plan? The greatest and most difficult task facing a statesman in international affairs is reconciling the natural tension between the constructive nature of a nation's grand strategy with the destructive character of its military strategy. The emerging doctrine of preemption should be examined in the context of this challenge. With this in mind, the author continues with a "Dr. Strangelove" type warning. Are our leaders "doing themselves in" (and us with them) in the current 'war' on terrorism?
posted by tgrundke (12 comments total)
Statesman? I don't see any Jeffersons, Madisons, or Adamses. Not even close.
posted by insomnyuk at 2:58 PM on August 21, 2002

I would call pre-emption more like an invasion of Dieppe plan, not a Schlieffen plan. Meaning, the inevitable disastrous results would come sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the more powerful a country, the harder it becomes to harmonize policies in terms of these five criteria. Overwhelming power creates hubris and arrogance, which, in turn, carry a temptation to use that power coercively, excessively, and unilaterally. But lording over or dictating one's will to others creates resentment. Thus, possession of overwhelming power increases the risk of going astray grand strategically.

That first link is an excellent assessment of the policy of pre-emption, as well. Thank you very much for the link.
posted by insomnyuk at 3:02 PM on August 21, 2002


Thanks for the brilliant links. "Dr. Werther" is a most perceptive analyst whose arguments are solidly grounded in history. I found his Schlieffen Plan analogy extremely apt: the "WMD"(pestiferous acronym du jour) feared by the Kaiser and General Staff was the French Army. The execution of the Plan ended up turning Western Europe into a charnel house--and paving the way for the minor unpleasantnesses of '33-45.

A preemptive strike on Iraq by the United States threatens to bring conflagration to the Middle East. Should the conflagration consume our erstwhile Pakistani allies, the potential for mass destruction will far exceed anything Saddam might toss via SCUD.

The policy of containment saved the world from the consequences of nuclear war betwen the United States and the Soviet Union. Mutually Assured Destruction served its deterrent purpose. It is inconceiveable to me that the USA would fail to draw on this lesson and contain Iraq's weapons capabilities rather than embarking on a costly invasion of the country in defiance of international law.
posted by rdone at 8:20 PM on August 21, 2002

Hot pre-emption was a term introduced by George Shultz; although Bush did not use the term in his West Point speech, he clearly embraced the concept. George Soros has defended the general idea as lying within a more multilateral framework (my point exactly). There's a good overview by Jim Lobe at Asia Times for those seeking context.
posted by dhartung at 8:21 PM on August 21, 2002

It's funny, the ironies in people and history abound. I am a rather avid fan of General George S. Patton, Jr. I find him to be not only an absolutely intriguing personality, but an absolutely brilliant military leader. Many consider him, bar none, the most effective general of a large army to have ever lived.

That having been said, he was, in the literal sense a warrior and when it came to the subtleties of diplomacy he was not up to the task.

My long winded point is this: we need to make sure that we have the best damned military commanders provided with the best tools to carry out their duties better than any other army in the world. Conversely, we must have the best civiliian leadership and civilian intelligence to know when and when NOT to engage an enemy-keeping in mind the strategic and tactical considerations involved.

Sadly, we appear to have mixed the two together. Patton was the European Theatre counterpart to the Asia-Pacific's MacArthur. Both agreed in preemptive strikes: Patton argued for the rearmament of the Germans to invade the USSR, MacArthur argued for the nuclear bombing of Red Chinese troops and bringing the Soviets in to finish them off during the Korean War. Both were phenomenal commanders. Both were terrible politicians.

This is why the United States has a military "firmly" under civilian control. Sadly, our civilian leadership appears to be more hawkish than the Pentagon's uniformed officers.

Does anyone else find it a bit spooky that Colin Powell (the only member of the current administration whom I respect) is the current voice of "reason" to avoid conflict? Grrrr......
posted by tgrundke at 8:46 PM on August 21, 2002

tgrundke: How did you find out about this article, by the way? It looks like it is being mirrored, and perhaps originally resides on (Defense and the National Interest)

Oh, and so much for Rumsfeld's vaunted (and controversial with the bureau-brass) and now defunct pre-9/11 Defense Review.

It's interesting to point out what you said about Patton and MacArthur also applies to some of the Confederacy's skilled military commanders. Robert E. Lee, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest (more of a tactical fighter than a grand strategist), and especially, Stonewall Jackson (who in my opinion wrote the book on mobile warfare before the term existed). Whether or not they advocated military action, the South itself followed its own sort of Schileffen plan (which could become a helpful archetype for how a State's military-political ambitions can lead to its own destruction), as they initiated the use of military forces in an attack when negotiation still may have been possible.
posted by insomnyuk at 8:58 PM on August 21, 2002


Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania--hot preemption--was another Southern Schlieffen plan.
posted by rdone at 5:06 AM on August 22, 2002

Excellent point rdone, and it goes without saying what the consequences of that were.
posted by insomnyuk at 5:14 AM on August 22, 2002


The links originally came through from, as Chuck Spinney, who does the DOD analysis work, places many of his articles through DNI.

I've found much of what he writes to be fantastic. I think I should post his statements before the Senate Subcommittee on Defense from a few months ago. He's famous for blowing the whistle on the unsustainablility of the defense procurement process. Brilliant stuff.
here's the link:

posted by tgrundke at 7:39 AM on August 22, 2002

Whoops--appears my poor coding skills showed through there. The article can be found in the right-hand frame of the homepage. *smack* you may all open a can of whup-ass on me mow.
posted by tgrundke at 7:40 AM on August 22, 2002

I don't want to simply dismiss this article, as the point about grand strategy being subordinated to military strategy is an important one. (There's a Sun Tzu comment about this that I can't recall at the moment.)

But while he offers a good and fairly standard critique of Schlieffen, chiefly:
* guaranteed that Germany would draw in ("create") more enemies than it could fight
* unable to modify or reverse once begun

He fails to show how these criticisms bear on Iraq. Though there is regional opposition to a "unilateral" attack, only Saudi Arabia has declined permission to use our assets there. It's certainly unclear -- indeed, doubtful -- that any other state would actually act against us. They have no love for our strategic interests, to be sure, but even less for Hussein. (Vague threats of the "Arab street" and "conflagration", as you say tgrundke, haven't been borne out in repeated invocations over the years; most recently, our invasion of Afghanistan was supposed to spark some generalized regional war, but all that transpired were some demonstrations.) None of the plans proposed involve the violation of a third party's sovereignty. As for flexibility, our stated goal is regime change, not invasion. It's clear we would accept a range -- however narrow -- of political resolutions, though specifics are naturally less clear. (Determined opposition by the WH to the resumption of UN inspections suggests strongly that were Iraq to fully comply with an inspections regime, we would be much less likely to resort to force.) The criticisms he does offer are the stability of two allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the status quo is preferable -- a choice we have long made, with mixed results at best. Regional stability, if it tolerates dictatorships, theocracies, autocratic monarchies, and Potemkin democracies, is probably overrated. His inclusion of idle comments from generals appearing on cable news shows is interesting, but unpersuasive as a representative analysis of the thinking of the White House; especially since the conventional wisdom these last weeks has been that Pentagon planners have acted as a brake on the more aggressive civilian strategists.

If this had been phrased as a sober warning, rather than a sky-is-falling invocation of imminent doom, I would be more receptive -- and, I suspect, so would the establishment figures he hopes to reach.
posted by dhartung at 9:32 AM on August 22, 2002


Good critique. I'll take it a step further. One major problem that I have with the current strategy is that it is a very uni-dimensional view. I have been a proponent of complex interdependence theory for some time now and I believe it plays here.

You are correct that it is unlikely that any other power can/will act against us. But I believe that statement, at least in our leaders' eyes, is viewed militarily. I do believe, however, that those who disagree with us will increasingly make our lives more difficult through regulatory pressures, legal maneuvering, and economic pressures.

True, it is one among the many "sky is falling" messages, but the underlying subtleties are in fact very valid.
posted by tgrundke at 12:17 PM on August 22, 2002

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