Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"Soft Preemption"


In Sunday's Post, MIT's Michael Schrage introduces and discusses "soft preemption," a half-step between the passivity of soft power and the violence of military action. Noting the need for "meaningful choices between impotence and violence," Schrage's "Pulling Punches" wraps "nonlethal, minimally destructive" tactics like increased scrutiny of visas and banking systems, economic sanctions, and disruption of satellite broadcasts that incite violence, together to form the beginnings of an intermediate doctrine:

There are undeniably provocative aspects to the soft preemption doctrine, as there are to any self-defense approach. If Venezuela disrupted BBC, Telemundo or CNN satellite broadcasts throughout Latin America to prevent "incitement" of a coup against President Hugo Chavez, for example, that would surely escalate regional tensions. If China launched denial-of-service Internet attacks against American institutions that fund supporters of "Free Tibet" or encourage Taiwanese nationalists, the international community would confront a real challenge.

But the ability to preempt softly doesn't inherently invite malicious global mischief any more than the ability to launch a cruise missile guarantees its firing. Responsible nations would have every reason to think twice about soft preemptions in self-defense; irresponsible ones could have bigger problems than soft preemption to deal with if they're not careful. Anybody who engages in soft preemption must be prepared to escalate to the harder stuff if necessary.

The United States would do the world a service if it declared that, as technology permits a broader array of less violent, less destructive interventions to undermine the abilities of non-state actors and their state sponsors to strike, it will exercise those soft options to deter and disrupt any attacks. Collateral damage to such interventions is preferable to the collateral damage of bombs and bullets gone astray. Soft preemption is soft power with a vengeance, and a public policy option that deserves a good hard look.

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