Preemptive War: The Other Side of the Coin

Well over a year ago, I posted an article regarding my thoughts on preemptive war.  As mentioned then, I wrote it for the William & Mary publication, the Freeman-Standard.  Unfortunately, due to a handful of issues, the article never made it to print.  In the last week or two I noticed a spike in the number of people who read this post, so I thought to myself, “I wonder what the other side of this article had to say?”  I contacted the author Jeremy, a fellow William & Mary graduate, and am now pleased to offer you the other half of this debate.  Thank you Jeremy.  Whether you agree or disagree with the potential merits or pitfalls of a preemptive war, I hope you find this discussion thought-provoking.

Preemptive war is a controversial concept in the realm of international relations.  For centuries, academics and statesmen have debated justification of war, devising doctrines designed to guide political leaders’ decision-making on the question of whether or not to engage their countries in warfare with other countries.  One of the debates regarding the justification of war is the concept of preemptive war, which Wikipedia defines as a war “waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending war.”[1] Providing a more succinct, but similar, definition, SourceWatch defines it as a “unilateral ‘first strike,’ in the face of an imminent armed threat.”[2]

Governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens’ welfare from the threats that exist beyond their borders.  Political leaders spend massive amounts of money on military infrastructure, material, and personnel, not necessarily in the hope the military will then be able to go conquer and enslave other peoples and civilizations, but in the hope that they might provide security to their countries so that the same does not happen to their peoples and civilizations.  Article 51 of the United Nations Charter upholds the right of U.N. Member countries to engage in self-defensive actions if subject to an armed attack.[3] When attacked by an aggressor country, the country has the right, and responsibility, to stop the aggression.  Thus, the country whose territorial integrity has been compromised has the right to engage in war against the aggressor country.  Certainly, no one should debate the right of the attacked country to engage in war against its aggressor, as this should be common sense.

If a country has the right to defend itself against an attack by an aggressor, does it stand to reason that a country has the right to take action to prevent harm from coming to its citizens, if the government knows that a threat is imminent?  Considering that governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens from outside threats, the answer is, generally speaking, yes.  To help determine when preemptive war is justified, Abraham D. Sofaer developed four elements that ought to be considered: 1) nature and magnitude of threat involved, 2) likelihood that the threat will be realized unless preemptive action is taken, 3) availability and exhaustion of alternatives of using force, and 4) consistent with the terms and purposes of the U.N. Charter and other appropriate international agreements.[4] These points make sense, and if adhered to by a country considering engaging in preemptive war, should give the country’s government legitimacy in the eyes of other governments in its decision.

Sofaer’s points provide a good argument for when to engage in preemptive war, but point four raises at least one question.  Should the decision about whether or not a government engages in preemptive war as a self-defensive act be required to be in accordance with established international law and agreements?  Throughout history, and even in the present age, countries are sovereign, and do not have to seek permission from a higher level of government in order to engage in foreign policy actions.  Since countries are sovereign, and have the responsibility to protect their citizens, governments should not, and do not, have to gain permission to engage in a self-defensive preemptive war.

The concept of preemptive war has direct relevance in the era of the War on Terror in which we are currently living, and have been living since after the September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States.  Following this tragic set of events, President George W. Bush’s administration unveiled the Bush Doctrine, which in part calls for the use of preemptive war in handling threats to American security.  The American invasion of Afghanistan was one key instance in which preemptive war was used against a government, the Taliban in this case, known to harbor enemies of the United States, particularly al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, including Osama bin Laden.  The American invasion of Iraq was another major occurrence of preemptive war.  In this case, the U.S. government, acting on intelligence reports about the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction and alleged connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s government.  In both cases, the American government was acting to preempt what it saw as imminent threats to the security of the American people.

One ongoing preemptive war consideration is the potential for Israel to launch a preemptive attack on Iran if Israel believes that a threat to its security from Iran is imminent.  Iran’s government is known for its open hostility towards Israel, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known to have made threats against Israel’s existence.  If Israel were to suspect that an attack on its territory by the Iranians was imminent, or potentially imminent, then Israel would most likely be justified in its use of a preemptive strike on Iran.

In conclusion, preemptive war is justified when a government faces what it sees as an imminent threat to its security and to the welfare of its people.  Naturally, governments should pursue peaceful solutions to disagreements and security concerns with other nations.  However, when diplomacy is not seen by a government as a way to achieve crucial security objectives, preemptive war can be a justifiable solution.

[1] “Preemptive War” (August 30, 2008)

[2] “Preemptive War” (August 30, 2008)

[3] “Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations” (August 30, 2008)

[4] “Preemptive War” (August 30, 2008)

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