Preventive War: Does It Work?


On June 6, the Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “Preventive war: does it work?”  Speakers included James Carafano, Vice President for Foreign and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Dov Zakheim, Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest, moderated. The event was broadcast live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be viewed here. A summary of the event can be found below.

Preventive War: Does It Work?

Two leading experts agreed that the Trump administration should not and is quite unlikely to conduct a preventive war against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, though they disagreed over the rationale behind the administration’s decision-making.

According to Carafano, “preventive war is off the table for this president.”  He argued that the uncertain outcomes, enormous risks, and questionable benefits of such an enterprise were antithetical to President Trump’s core approach to foreign policy. According to Carafano, the current administration has emphasized maintaining stability in three theatres—Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Any large-scale military operation would threaten the United States’ ability to operate effectively in all three theaters, jeopardizing its larger objectives, he said. A preventive war would break with this strategy, weaken the United States in other theaters, and embroil the United States in a costly war it cannot afford given its current obligations and military budget.

For O’Hanlon, the decision boiled down to specifics. There are certain situations in which the “calculus” for a preventive attack would be appropriate, he said. If former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had not visited North Korea during the 1994 and created an opening for a deal to be negotiated, a preventive strike would have been a real consideration, O’Hanlon contended. In another counterfactual, he argued that if Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction and if the United States had prepared for a large engagement, a preventive war in Iraq likewise would have been justifiable. Considering the contemporary situation in North Korean, both Carafano and O’Hanlon agreed that a preventive war was not a sound strategy.

Still, considering North Korea’s trajectory since the crisis in 1994, O’Hanlon questioned the United States’ ability to successfully deter North Korea due to the nature of its government, describing it as “an experiment that [he] rather not have had to run when you’ve got the Kim family in charge.” Describing Kim Jong Un as young and impetuous and with a propensity for killing advisors who might otherwise constrain him, he questioned what Kim would be willing to do once he has an expanded nuclear arsenal and set of delivery systems.

In contrast, Carafano argued that a combination of offense and defense creates the most stable environment. He upheld that missile defense, deterrence, and sanctions could be used to fulfill the administration’s strategic goals. These goals, he contended, are twofold: to avoid war in Northeast Asia and to prevent North Korea from threatening the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Zakheim highlighted Israel’s four levels of missile defense as an effective strategy. The defense system largely diminished the possibility of a successful attack launched against Israel. Meanwhile, states could be assured that Israel would successfully respond. Consequently, the defense system both protects Israel and deters threats. As a result of this relative security, Israel’s own policy has become more conservative because it can be more tolerant of missile and rocket attacks that would have led to war in the past. O’Hanlon was somewhat more skeptical of missile defense.

The United States also has to contend with the implications for its allies when considering a preventive war. Asked about the “red line” after which preventive war is conceivable, O’Hanlon held that—with regard to North Korea—a preventive war is currently unthinkable because of the causalities that South Korea would incur from North Korean retaliatory actions. Before conducting a preventive war, the “calculus” would have to be changed by, for example, new weapons that could incapacitate North Korean artillery, he said. Carafano added that all participants have a serious interest in not going to war, including North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, and Japan. North Korea, he argued, is interested first and foremost in the survival of its regime, and launching a nuclear missile would effectively destroy it. At the same time, simply having nuclear capabilities allows North Korea to push back against the United States, argued Carafano.

The discussion made clear that if the administration were to seriously contemplate preventive war, it would have to consider the following: how likely is it to succeed, the implications for its larger strategy, how other states would respond, its responsibilities to allies, and the aftermath of preventive war. Moreover, it would have to address the morality of conducting a preventive war—something Carafano strongly questioned.