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” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preemptive_war (August 30, 2008)

[2] “Preemptive War” http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Preemptive_war (August 30, 2008)

[3] “Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations” http://www.nato.int/docu/basictxt/bt-un51.htm (August 30, 2008)

[4] “Preemptive War” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preemptive_war (August 30, 2008)

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.