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Waging Ancient War: Limits on Preemptive Force

Authored by Dr. D. Robert Worley.

February 2003

61 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author addresses the ways that the age of terrorism is affecting American grand strategy. He contends that terrorism has made many of the basic concepts of international relations and national security obsolete. Declaring war on a tactic—terrorism—erodes the clarity necessary for coherent strategy. Dr. Worley then develops what he calls a "guerra strategy" more appropriate for dealing with terrorism and other nonstate threats.


For decades, the idea of containment held together a political coalition within the United States that maintained a large, peacetime military for the only time in American history. The same strategic conception held together a multinational military alliance. The strategic debate that followed the Cold War includes hegemonic primacy, classic collective security, cooperative security orienting on preventing the acquisition of power, selective engagement, and restrictive or neo-isolationist alternatives. But no political consensus has yet to form around any of these alternatives, nor does a consensus appear to be forming. The current debate is conducted in the familiar language of international relations and the U.S. position within the system of states.

A major conclusion of this study is that the concepts on the use of force and the well-established language of international relations are inadequate to the current “war on terrorism.” If we cannot ignore our place among the major powers, and if the conceptions appropriate to stateon- state conflict are not germane to conflict with nonstate actors, then we must conclude that separate strategies are necessary. Accordingly, a strategy is proposed for waging war against nonstate actors lacking legitimate standing that is separate from and subordinate to the grand strategy that supports the U.S. role in the system of whatever that grand strategy may be.

Sir Michael Howard characterizes the declared “war on terrorism” as more like a hunt than a war. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies will carry the primary burden internationally, supported by covert operations. The primary overt role of military forces is for short-notice and short-duration raids and strikes against enemy targets as they appear. The largest part of the enemy capability is organized as combat forces that U.S. forces should expect to encounter during peace operations in failing or failed states with significant Muslim populations. U.S. forces must be prepared for warfare in these asymmetric environments. Finally, consequence management is an ineluctable role for U.S. forces to play domestically. Great Power War and Grand Strategy.

Great powers are viable states that will coexist with their peers after hostilities subside. This fact tempers their behavior and imposes rules for initiating, conducting, and terminating wars. These limitations do not apply to nonstate actors and certainly not to those that reject the system of states. In great power war, other elements of national power have failed, and there is a greater reliance on an isolated military instrument. Small wars—great power interventions into the affairs of lesser powers— require better integration of all elements of national power. Great power competitors have access to the same technology, setting the conditions for more symmetric warfare, while small wars create an inherently asymmetric environment.

The dominant thinking from the Cold War is about great power conflict even though insurgencies were common throughout the era. Deterrence, coercion, and compellence are the well-understood concepts concerning the use of power. Underlying these uses of force is the idea that a state has people and resources that it values and that the state itself seeks to survive. Active and passive defense, interdiction, and retaliation also constitute uses of force, but are more appropriately seen as elements of a deterrence strategy because they raise the cost and lower the probability of a successful attack. The aggressor has an infinite set of targets and defending them all demands infinite resources. Retaliation and increased defensive measures cannot be the basis of a sustainable strategy. As useful as these concepts are to relations between states, they are largely irrelevant when applied against the current threat. Many of those that are relevant beyond interstate conflict are exhaustive of resources.

Preventive war, preemptive war, and preemptive strike are different concepts. Preemptive and preventive wars are not types of wars; instead, they describe motives for the timing of war initiation. A preventive war is undertaken when a state sees its relative advantage in decline, sees the inevitability of war, and chooses to initiate the war now while it still has the advantage. History and international law frown upon preventive war, seeing it as a disguise for naked aggression. Preemptive war, on the other hand, involves the initiation of military action because an adversary’s attack is believed to be imminent. A preemptive strike is directed against an adversary’s capability before it can be used. It is not conducted for purposes of initiating war.


As Carl Von Clausewitz said in On War, “The first, the grandest, the most decisive act of judgement that statesmen and generals exercise is to understand the war in which they engage.” Terrorism is a method, a tactic, not an enemy and not an objective. Declaring war on a tactic makes little sense, and our conception of the war is a critical first step.

The proposed conception of the conflict is as an international guerrilla war waged against the system of states, particularly against those states with large Muslim populations. The area of contention is the area that runs along the north of Africa, through the Middle East and central Asia, and to the easternmost frontiers of Islam in Indonesia and the Philippines. With few exceptions, states along this belt are failing and in the hands of corrupt, unpopular, or tenuous governments. The enemy commonly employs classic insurgency methods within failing or failed Islamic states. It sometimes employs guerrilla tactics against Western military forces present in the Islamic world, and it sometimes employs terrorist methods against non-combatants in Western or westernizing states to inflict pain and to invoke a disproportionate response against Islam that will drive adherents to its cause.

Today’s conflict is an ancient form of warfare, while much of our strategic thinking is the product of a social construction that slowly evolved during the middle ages and that coalesced in the age of enlightenment. Its referents include the Treaty of Westphalia, the just war tradition, Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, and David Hume’s On Balance of Power. Specifically, the secular nation-state is a modern construct that replaced divine-right monarchy and coexisted with the independent city-states in Europe as recently as the early 20th century. It is the European notion of the secular nation-state that is being rejected and attacked by Al-Qa’eda.

Prior to the rise of the European system of secular states, the Romans maintained two distinct forms of warfare, bellum and guerra. If two states were to coexist peacefully after a war, then war should be subject to rules. Without these rules, only a perpetual cycle of retribution was possible. These pragmatic concerns did not apply to stateless, lawless tribes invading Europe from the Asian steppe. Bellum was the form of warfare conducted against another state. Guerra was the form of warfare waged against migrating and marauding tribes.

Terrorism involves indiscriminant attacks against noncombatants and is conducted for a variety of different objectives. Guerrillas wage war against an occupying force. Often, guerrilla forces use terrorism. In general, terrorism was commonly used to drive imperial European powers out of their colonies. It has proven to be an effective form of warfare to achieve positive outcomes in much of the Third World. While westerners perceive terrorism as reprehensible and uncivilized, Third World populations see it as the only recourse against oppression.

Al-Qa’eda is “a base” for a variety of organizations that collectively comprise a loose confederation of groups and individuals lacking sovereignty within the system of states. There are 30 or so organizations with a coincidence of interest. This network constitutes the threat. The largest part of the force, numbering in the tens of thousands, are organized, trained, and equipped as insurgent combat forces. Another group, numbering about 10,000, live in Western states and have received combat training of one form or another. Alone, or in small groups, they are capable of discrete, uncoordinated attacks.Athird group numbering in the several thousands is capable of commanding these forces. A few hundred individuals populate the top control structure. Terrorism is only a small, albeit dramatic, part of the enemy’s repertoire.

Seen as a guerrilla war with a history of battles including attacks on the Marine barracks in Beirut, a Berlin nightclub, Khobar Towers, the first and second attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon, and the USS Cole, there is nothing preemptive about American strikes or raids against enemy capability. They are part of an ongoing counterguerrilla war.


Declaring war on a tactic provides a poor strategic foundation. We must, instead, declare war on specific aggressors, those lacking legitimate status within the international system of states and using destructive force across state boundaries against the United States. Different instruments are available for confronting states and, hence, a different strategy is required.

Four interlocking objectives comprise the guerra strategy. The first is to reduce the probability of destructive attacks. A second objective is to reduce the severity of attacks. The third and most important objective is to prevent the conflict from spilling over into a wider war with Islam. Successful actions taken to reduce the probability and severity of attack must be calculated against the likelihood of widening the conflict. Because not all attacks can be prevented, the fourth objective is to mitigate their effects. Shortsighted policies to reduce the probability and severity of attacks could easily cause the widening of the conflict that, in turn, would increase the probability and severity of attacks.

Guerra must be sustainable indefinitely. The aggressor hopes to initiate an action-reaction cycle, but to be sustainable, we must choose the place and time of action to maximize the effect of the resources expended and to minimize “blowback.” To be sustainable, the strategy must enlist all elements of national and international power rather than imposing the primary burden on the U.S. military instrument. Strategies based on defending everything, against all forms of attack, all of the time, are exhaustive of resources and impossible to implement and sustain. The recent reallocation of domestic resources may allay public fear, but it cannot be the basis of a sustainable strategy.

The guerra strategy must be relevant to the nature of the conflict. Strategies based on retaliation will fail because retaliation will not deter martyrs. Terrorist networks have nothing of value equivalent to the damage they can inflict. Strategies based on preventing rogue states from acquiring the means of attack have merit when directed at limiting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and ballistic missile delivery vehicles; they are irrelevant, however, when the means employed are commercial aircraft or other readily available instruments.

The guerra strategy must be rational. Tactical actions must destroy more enemy capability than they create. Strikes and raids should be aimed at discrete targets and then only to decisively destroy meaningful enemy capability. Some targets of opportunity will be bypassed if they conflict with the grand strategy objectives or if target destruction can rationally be expected to create more threat than it destroys.

Nonproliferation treaties, nation-building, and information campaigns conducted for the hearts and minds of Islam can offer promise only in the long term. While those efforts must be undertaken, other courses of action—the hunt—must be pursued for relief in the present. International law enforcement and intelligence agencies enabled by greater information sharing carry the primary burden. The military is in a supporting, on-call role. Strikes and raids attacking the threat capability before it can be employed is the primary use of military force. Consequence management—coping with the effects after an attack—is an indispensable domestic role of U.S. forces in a strategy for guerra.

The military should not develop a national strategy for the defeat of terrorism any more than a police SWAT team should develop a strategy to defeat crime in the city. The appropriate military response is to organize, train, and equip to strike quickly and forcefully when and where national authorities so designate, and then return to the ready. Mobilization and strategic deployment of a strike force will be observed and the target will disperse. Maintaining a force permanently forward deployed at the necessarily high level of readiness is an exhaustive proposition. Instead, these forces must be on “strip alert” which, in turn, requires adoption of the rotational readiness model used by the naval services. Forces for strike and raid must be within hours of attack when a target presents, closely linked to intelligence sources and to decision authority. Execution of the guerra strategy relies on skillful orchestration of all the elements of national power and, thus, strong centralized direction is required.

Humanitarian interventions in failed and failing states require expeditionary forces designed for peace operations that may evolve into nation-building. These forces will likely encounter al-Qa’eda-trained forces and must be prepared for “asymmetric warfare” against forces lacking legitimate standing. The decision to intervene in a failed or failing state is one for the President to make. U.S. forces must be prepared strategically, operationally, and tactically to wage counterinsurgency, or counterguerrilla, warfare.


America is in an interwar period with respect to great power conflict, but great power conflict will return. Our grand strategy must remain focused on America’s role among the great powers in the long term. America’s influence in the world will erode if, as Francis Fukuyama suggests, opposing the United States becomes the “chief passion in global politics.”

The debate about international intervention being the cause of or solution to threats against American security has not been resolved, nor has the debate changed appreciably, but the consequences are more significant than before. No longer is the ability to attack the United States only in the hands of a few countries that can be deterred. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction puts the means in the hands of many states and even in the hands of small groups, and the potency of the tools at their disposal will only increase. When choosing to intervene, administrations must decide on a case-by-case basis whether foreign policy will favor human rights in foreign lands or American lives at home.

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