Preemptive Strikes, a Dangerous Precedent

This is the other short article I wrote in response to a question about re-framing preemptive strikes.

We were recently asked how to respond to conservative arguments that military force should be used to invade foreign countries to prevent such countries from attacking the United States.

The argument goes something like this:

“If you knew that Japan was planning to attack Pearl Harbor before it actually happened, wouldn’t you encourage FDR to attack Japan before they attack Pearl Harbor and the United States? So why shouldn’t Bush attack Iraq/Iran before they attack the United States? What do you want, for Iraq/Iran to literally nuke the United States before we defend ourselves against them?”

We value human life.

Decisions that affect the lives of millions must be made based on empathy and responsibility, as expressed through our laws. International relations are built on the same premise that our own laws are based on; life is precious and actions that endanger life, unless in self-defense or the defense of another, are criminal. Attacking countries to prevent avoidable outcomes is wrong because it means that we are not using every option available to avoid killing innocent people.

The use of force is only justified when there is no other option. According to Albert Ludwigs at the Institute for Public Law in Freiburg, Germany:

“Unilateral use of military force can only be justified by self-defence. Anticipatory self-defense is only allowed, if the government can prove that a threat of an armed attack is imminent and leaves no choice of other means than military self-defense and no time to apply to the Security Council.”

The Bush Administration has stretched the meaning of preemptive strike beyond the criterion of imminent threat to justify the use of force against a potential future threat that may or may not emerge. The reasoning is spelled out in a rare moment of transparency in the Project for a New American Century’s 1998 memo to President Clinton, when they assert that “the only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction.”

Perceived challenges to hegemony or economic interests do not justify the use of force, especially when pathways to reconciliation are still viable. So called “preemptive strikes” to quell a potential future threat is called preventive war, but is more accurately (and the law is quite clear on this point) a war of aggression. War is supposed to be the last resort and only entered into with the minimum necessary force to dispel the threat after all other options have been exhausted. Preemptive strikes ignore this moral reasoning.

Security between nations relies on adherence to this rule of “last resort,” and thousands of innocent lives are destroyed when it is violated. The real impact of war on the lives of people is awful. That is why we must first confront the assumption in this question that our safety might be increased by being the first to attack when there is conflict. The tools the US government has available to it for the resolution of conflict internationally are myriad.

In many cases, countries simply want an assurance that we will not interfere with their internal affairs and all that is needed to calm tensions is an agreement. This summarizes our recent relations with North Korea;

  1. Its nuclear program was stalled,
  2. Inspections of its facilities were negotiated after diplomatic talks with state department officials assured its leaders that we would not attempt to overthrow its government and that its bank assets would not be frozen.

Countries want to trade with us. Iran wants to be recognized as an important player in the Middle East. We have control and influence at institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; economic pressure, trade deals, recognition of regional importance (with Iran for example), and other diplomatic tactics are all tools we can use internationally to ensure that people are safe and war is avoided. Preemptive attacks initiate the violence, make violent response inevitable, destroy the relationship and trust between the countries and their people, model violence as an appropriate conflict resolution tool and inevitably lead to unnecessary loss of precious human life.

The impoverished morality behind preventive war can be seen when we distinguish between the needs of people and the “interests” of nations. National interest is often presumed to be the same as the interests of its citizens. But this is not necessarily the case. When we talk about relationships between nations we are using the metaphor of the nation as a person, obscuring the role of human beings in decision-making. This metaphor is evident in phrases like rogue state, developing nation, and hostile relations between countries. Our national “vital interests,” for example, are not the same as the needs of our people, and in many ways the nation as person metaphor obscures the needs of real people and the effects of policies on real people. If we begin wars to attain long term oil contracts – as is the case in Iraq – we are sacrificing the lives of thousands in the service of corporations and consumer needs that could be met in other ways.

With the doctrine of preventive war the argument can be taken one step further. The “interests” of one nation should never overtake the human rights of people in another nation. Both morally and legally we cannot undermine the safety and security of other people in order to advance our economic interests. We have a moral obligation to employ creativity in our foreign policy and find new and different ways to solve problems. We need to bring consideration for people’s lives back into our thinking about foreign policy.

The strict father world-view espoused by conservatives understands security as the strength of force used by the moral authority of the “good guys” – us – to discipline other countries. A “misbehaving” country is bombed to ensure that it and other countries fall in line and follow the rules set out by the U.S., which in this world-view is at the top of the moral hierarchy among nations.

Yet other nations don’t see themselves as misbehaving children. Our international relationships have been damaged by this disrespectful attitude. Foreign policy modeled on this ideology by the US has already decreased, and will continue to decrease, our security and the security between nations. The invasion of Iraq set a dangerous precedent for what passes as justification for aggression. It also revealed the lack of concern for the unnecessary loss of human life at the heart of conservative foreign policy.

Preemptive strikes only make sense when there is an imminent threat to our very existence. Terrorism and tyrannical governments are often framed as an existential threat, as though our way of life is fundamentally threatened if they are not vanquished from the earth. This is simply not true. American culture continued to exist – even thrive – throughout a long history of tyrannical governments in far-off lands. Our existence as a nation remained steadfast even in the face of the greatest terrorist attack on our soil – and throughout a long history of sporadic violence against the masses in other countries. Neither threat is existential, despite efforts by conservatives to convince us otherwise.

Our security as Americans is inextricably linked to an international community that seeks to preserve life and opposes the use of violence. This is not only a moral imperative; this is what is smart as well. When diplomacy and other tools are used to resolve conflict, leaders can build a stable and lasting state of peace and security rather than the tenuous peace established through victory over today’s enemy. It is our responsibility to build true peace and security for the next generation as well as our own.

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