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  • Review of Michael W. Doyle’s Striking First
  • Rabih Helou (bio)

Preemptive war existed long before the Bush doctrine and the “War on Terror.” The notion of jus ad bellum, or just war, allows under international convention the right to strike when an opponent is verging on an attack so overwhelming and imminent that no time is left for deliberation. If this principle is not new, what has motivated the controversy surrounding the Bush doctrine of preemption? Michael W. Doyle, renowned scholar of international relations and international law, and former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations, sheds light on the debate surrounding the Bush security doctrine and preemptive strikes. While critical of the Bush doctrine for its dangerous subjectivity, Doyle makes the somewhat surprising case not for the total prohibition on preemptive strikes, but for the expansion of guidelines and conventions allowing them.

Refining the terms of the debate, Doyle declares the Bush doctrine one of prevention rather than preemption; a distinction highlighting the doctrine’s proactive defensive strategy unburdened by the demand to prove an imminence of threat to justify an attack. Does this explain Doyle’s opposition to the Bush doctrine; is he for preemption, but against prevention? Not quite: Doyle defends both as necessary elements of international security. Preemption is permitted in international convention, yet, Doyle believes, the customary standards allowing for it are “unrealistic and excessively constraining”1 and must be updated given current international conditions, including allowing what may be referred to as preventive attacks. This argument may seem confusing—how can Doyle reject the Bush policies yet advocate an expansion of the current doctrine of preemption and even prevention? He believes we cannot ignore the changing threat profile in the international system, including technological developments around weapons of mass destruction and those posed by non-state actors functioning outside international conventions on war. The unpredictable nature of radical non-state groups coupled with unprecedented access to destructive technologies forces states to preempt, and even prevent, future catastrophe.

Still wondering where Doyle splits from the Bush policy? His critique of the Bush doctrine is that it lacks specific guidelines for action—an omission that can lead to dangerous subjectivity and threaten the legitimacy of the doctrine. Another distinction is his insistence on strengthening international institutions rather than promoting unilateralism. Despite these apparent doctrinal differences, Doyle’s recommendations surprisingly end up looking very much like a doctrine that tolerates unilateral and subjective evaluation of terms allowing preventive strikes. Doyle states that the criteria of prevention list a priori the exceptions permitting unilateral action by states or multilateral action without Security Council sanction. It is this openness to exceptions that weakens the basis of the guidelines he intends to promote.

Doyle begins his argument by outlining why current customary international law surrounding preemption is insufficient. Present day conventions are traced back to an 1837 incident where British forces attacked and destroyed a US ship docked in American waters. The British argued that they acted out of necessity as the Caroline had been poised to attack British forces in Canadian territory. High-level diplomatic discussions following the conflict provided the standards of international law still used to evaluate acts of preemption. First written by U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, the standards insist that justified acts of preemption: 1) be ‘overwhelming’ in necessity; 2) be the only reasonable choice for the target; 3) are only in response to so imminent a threat that there is no moment for deliberation; and 4) are proportional. While these conventions have been applied in a few cases throughout the 20th century, Doyle argues that because they rarely apply, they must be replaced by more widely applicable standards. He uses the example of Israel’s 1967 attack on Egypt to illustrate his point. While the war may not necessarily have met the Caroline standards, it was necessary for Israel’s survival and thus deemed legitimate. It is upon this somewhat tenuous premise (since some still argue that Egypt was, based on the evidence of Nasser’s military mobilization, fully intent on attacking, thereby legitimating Israel’s preemption under Caroline standards), and the emerging risks from non-state actors and advanced...


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pp. 82-84
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