Half of a Debate on Preemptive War

Good morning readers.

Recently I had the opportunity to contribute to a publication, the Freeman-Standard operated on the campus of my alma mater, The College of William and Mary. They asked me to participate in a point/counterpoint discussion. The topic concerns the subject of a preemptive strike/war. I was given the task of writing argument against preemptive war. Below is the article I have submitted. If you wish to read the opposing viewpoint, pick up a copy of the Freeman-Standard once it becomes available. I know that I will. I hope you enjoy it.

The Folly of Preemptive War

When considering the defense of our people and our soil, one school of thought proclaims that no options should be left off the table. They even go so far as to attempt to legitimize attacking our enemies (or our potential enemies) before they do us harm. Although it is true that by striking our foes first, we may be able to wipe out some portion of their offensive capabilities before they can be used against us, the prospect of preemptive war presents many troubling realities. First of all, we could enter into a scenario as offered in the movie The Minority Report. In this action-filled story of a futuristic police state, citizens are arrested and charged, but it is not for crimes they have committed, but rather crimes they are predicted to commit in the future. The moral dilemma in the film, as with preemptive war, is how can one be sure that these predictions will come to pass? All people and all states are capable of heinous deeds and thoughts, but not all players will choose to act upon them. Repeatedly using the doctrine of preemptive war, we will no doubt punish many guilty states, but what happens when we decimate an innocent one due to faulty intelligence or incorrect assumptions?

Secondly, if the government was allowed to use preemptive war as a justification for conflict, could not unscrupulous politicians use the pretext for personal or political gain? As Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter on Feb. 15, 1848:
Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us;” but he will say to you, “be silent: I see it, if you don’t”.
Even though I hate to advocate it, without an actual attack by an enemy how can we reliably prove that our politicians are not motivated by something other than national security and defense?

Consider another example. Imagine a typical elementary playground. Suppose that one child has a deep fear of getting roughed up by the bully or bullies in the class. What should be his response? Relying upon the notion of preemptive war, one quickly resorts to a sort of Hobbesian state of nature where the child either takes the initiative and attacks the brute before he has a chance to attack him or, if he lacks the physical prowess necessary, recruits others to assist him in subduing this threat. For the sake of argument, let us assume that this attack is entirely successful and the bully no longer presents any future threat. Does the child now rest easy? Perhaps, but what happens if a new bully arises? Assume again that this thug is dispatched in the same manner. Unfortunately using this power of aggressive deterrence, although it solves some problems, it will likely give rise to new ones. With an inflated sense of power and importance, it is likely that the child will assert his newfound influence to seek out new and more powerful bullies or instead seek to mold the playground to best serve his interest or worldview. Suppose a kid is on the swings too long, or one is hogging the slide. What can be done? Won’t our empowered child seek to correct these imbalances, likely using the same proven tactics employed against the first ruffian? Alas, the use of preemptive force in these situations, although the child will likely assert their necessity till he is blue in the face, is simply unwarranted. The bullied victim becomes the new bully himself. Sooner or later the other children, witnessing our child’s gross abuse of power will act to punish him for his actions. Therefore he will become an outcast or be pounded into meek submission. Either way, he will likely be far worse off than he was when he lived with the mere threat of being harassed. Although using the guise of children, I believe that this example is quite apropos to the relation between nation states.

While the debate over preemptive war is a complex and wordy issue that could take pages and books to argue fully, I believe that these reasons stand as several valid complaints one could level against the practice. First, couldn’t the intelligence concerning capability or intention be in error? Second, isn’t it possible for some politician or group to seek brute force in order to achieve their own selfish gains rather than the safety and security of the people and their state? Third, wouldn’t the use of preemptive war lead to becoming embroiled militarily in trivial matters or arousing hatred, more enemies, and more frequent and uglier conflicts? I am certain that as Americans, we all seek ways to preserve and protect our lives and land from external threats, unfortunately the tempting tree of preemptive war offers little in the way of the fruit of long-term security, but is heavy laden with the seeds of future conflict and disaster.

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