Preventive or Preemptive War?

Do you believe President Bush and Prime Minister Blair that there are new reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein is getting somewhat close to being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon, or do you believe the International Atomic Energy Agency, which says it has no such evidence? In terms of justifying an attack on Iraq, it might not make any difference at all – although the likelihood is that Bush and Blair are exaggerating the threat. As the administration and its allies scramble to gather evidence convincing enough to justify a military attack, it might be useful to step back and consider just what kind of evidence would be sufficient. Unless something much more compelling emerges, it appears U.S. leaders are constructing a novel and troubling rationale for military invasion.


There has been talk of a preemptive strike or a preemptive war. But even if everything that has been leaked and much, much more turns out to be true in spades, what the Bush administration is talking about is not a preemptive war but a preventive war. That is something the United States has never done before. We should think long and hard before we allow our leaders to do it this time.

"There’s a well-accepted definition for preemptive war in international law," Joseph Cirincione, Director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment, told me on the telephone last week. "Preemptive war is justified by an imminent threat of attack, a clear and present danger that the country in question is about to attack you. In such a case a preemptive attack is recognized as justifiable."

During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel attacked first, but Egyptian and Syrian troops were massing on the border and airplanes were being mobilized. For most observers that was the very definition of a preemptive attack, although scholars and international relations experts are still able to debate whether the attack was justified under international law. But there is little question that there was an imminent threat.


What the administration is discussing in terms of Iraq is not an imminent threat of attack on the United States – which might justify a preemptive strike – or even on any of Iraq’s neighbors. What the administration wants to do is to attack Iraq to prevent or neutralize a potential future threat. That’s very different from an imminent threat.

The United States has never undertaken a "preventive" war in all of its history. (Some would say that invasion of Panama that led to the capture of Manuel Noriega was preventive rather than preemptive, and maybe it was. But that was a relatively low-level incursion with a few troops, that lasted longer than the interventionists expected but still was over fairly quickly. Even the most modest plans against Iraq are more ambitious and costly by orders of magnitude.

If the criteria for such a war were simply that a country be dictatorial and despotic and have weapons of mass destruction, the world does not lack for candidates, including Pakistan (whose leader installed by a coup, who recently unilaterally changed the constitution to give him something approaching dictator-for-life, recently pledged new fealty to the administration’s war without end) China, North Korea and maybe Russia.


Let’s be clear. To justify an attack on Iraq or any other country on the grounds that it is assembling weapons of mass destruction, the leaders of a country cannot be operating in a context of equally sovereign nations, the reigning myth of current international relations. The country in question would simply have to view itself as a world-straddling imperial power, whose mission is to keep lesser countries – whether related to it by colonial ties or not – in line.

I don’t think most Americans view this country as an imperial power mandated to intervene in any dispute and drive any leader out of power who displeases us – although many Americans in moments of anger or pique come close to saying something like that. But talk reasonably with most Americans about whether that is a universal principle, that America’s job is to fix the world wherever the world is less than perfect in the eyes of our leaders, and they’ll back off. They might still want to be helpful in certain instances, but they would want to pick and choose their spots. It’s also generally been the case that U.S. leaders have sought to justify military actions so as to make the United States either the aggrieved or attacked party or the defender of an innocent victim of aggression. Before the last Gulf War Saddam Hussein did invade and occupy Kuwait. One can argue as to whether he got a wink-and-nod from U.S. diplomats or even whether the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border was an artificial product of early 20th-century British imperialism, but Saddam did indeed invade. This time he has been careful – whether because of deterrence or his own circumspection, not to create a clear-cut provocation. U.S. leaders felt the need to blow up the Gulf of Tonkin incident – probably dishonestly as later investigation indicates – into an unprovoked attack on the United States, making our escalation of the Vietnam war a response rather than aggression. Historians disagree as to whether the U.S. purposely set up the Pearl Harbor attack, but however you come down on that, it was an attack. It was unlikely back then (however much they itched to get involved) that the FDR administration would have been able to pull the American people into a full-scale war without a provocation of similar magnitude.

These days, however, no provocation is deemed necessary. Administration leaders may babble about how Saddam has violated the UN mandates and sanctions, but if that’s the case the UN rather than the US is the aggrieved party. There is not even a hint of a credible threat of an attack by Saddam on the United States, and not much of a hint of an attack on its multifarious interests overseas. There is just the possibility that at some time in the indeterminate future he might have enough weapons to give some to terrorists (unlikely as my column last week pointed out) or might attack his neighbors.

In the 21st century that has become enough for the sole remaining superpower to make war. And most members of the administration don’t even make more than a cursory bow toward the U.S. Constitution, insisting that going to Congress will be merely for approval or consultation, not a recognition that Congress has the sole power to declare war and that the founders put this in the document purposely.


Attacking Iraq because it poses a potential future threat someday might not strictly be, as Cato Institute foreign policy analyst Ted Carpenter suggested to me, "a pretext for outright aggression." But it would be a dangerous precedent. Do we want the United States to be the country that strikes first whenever it sees a potential problem? That would keep our military very busy and provide plenty of grist for those who see this country as an imperialist aggressor.

Mr. Cirincione, who recently co-authored the new book, Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction, believes it is virtually certain that Iraq still has chemical and biological weapons and is probably trying to obtain nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t make the threat imminent. The news trumpeted by the compliant media last Friday suggesting that United Nations inspectors say that satellite photos show some new buildings and some reconstruction at former Iraqi nuclear sites, Mr. Cirincione said, "cuts two ways. On one hand, it shows there is new activity – which we had expected anyway. But it also demonstrates that we can see this activity, and we’re likely to be able to see most of what Saddam is likely to do of any significance before the threat is imminent."

The Carnegie Endowment thinks "coercive inspections" backed by a multinational military force would be a good step short of war. It has prepared a series of papers and a summary of the idea, believing it would be an acceptable and workable compromise between doing nothing about Saddam until an attack really is imminent and outright war.

Ted Carpenter is skeptical, suggesting that Iraq would never submit to allowing such military forces, and its refusal would then be the kind of pretext Bush might be able to sell to the "international community" to back an outright military attack. I’m inclined to agree with Ted, although I’m willing to believe that what the Carnegie people think they are doing is suggesting alternatives to defuse the situation and avoid a military invasion except as a last-last-ditch alternative.

What is certain is that a preventive war is different from a preemptive war. An outright, open preventive war of this magnitude would be unprecedented in our history, an acknowledgment that our leaders view the country as a universal empire rather than a free republic.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).