Monday, October 11, 2004

Preemption vs. Prevention

David E. Sanger of the New York Times writes today about President Bush's evolving standard for waging a pre-emptive war. As Sanger points out, in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration emphasized the urgency of taking military action to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime. Now, with the Duelfer Report making it clear that the only threat Iraq posed in 2003 was its threat to undermine the U.N. sanctions regime and with President Bush continuing to insist the war was necessary, something has to give. It appears that the something is the operative definition of preemption. "Taken at face value," Sanger writes,

Mr. Bush appears to be saying that under his new standard, a country merely has to be thinking about developing illicit weapons at some time. "He's saying intent is enough," said Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who under the Clinton administration headed the National Intelligence Council, the group that assesses for the president when countries have trespassed that hard-to-define line.

"The classical definition for pre-emption was 'imminent threat,' " Mr. Nye said. Then, with the development of the president's "National Security Policy of the United States," that moved to something less than imminent, because, as Mr. Bush argued, it is often hard to know when a country is about to attack. Now, said Mr. Nye, "the Duelfer report pushed him into a box where capability is not the standard, but merely intention."

As Matthew Gross points out today, there is a problem with the terminology that the Bush Administration--and almost everyone else, including David Sanger--has been using to talk about the invasion of Iraq and the strategy that prompted it. These paragraphs from a talk I gave on February 12, 2003 (about a month before the start of the Iraq War) deal with the distinction between "preemptive war" and "preventive war." What we ought to be talking about (and, in fact, what we are talking about, only with the wrong term) is preventive war.

A focus on security–that is, a focus on the threat that Iraq poses to the U.S. and to others–leads us ineluctably to the question of preventive war. Here it is important, I believe, to draw a distinction between preventive war and preemptive war. I suspect that policymakers have, at times, exploited the linguistic quirk that makes these two morally separable categories sound so much alike. The basic issue is this: While a state need not wait until it has been attacked to strike a defensive blow, how imminent or how certain the anticipated attack is has considerable moral significance. It would be impermissible, to take a homespun example, for my older son, noting his younger brother’s rapid rate of growth, to decide to beat him up while he still could. And, in fact, I told Daniel that it was wrong on many occasions. (Note to International Relations realists: Stephen’s achievement of parity and the concomitant establishment of a balance of power has proved to be a better guarantor of peace in the household than moral exhortations ever were.)

Michael Walzer, in Just and Unjust Wars, includes a chapter on what he labels "Anticipations." He notes that it is lawful for both individuals and states to "defend themselves against violence that is imminent but not actual; they can fire the first shots if they know themselves about to be attacked." There is, however, considerable difference between preventive defense and preemptive defense. In an effort to find a defensible line separating the two, Walzer presents a "spectrum of anticipation." In discussing this spectrum, he calls preventive war "an attack that responds to a distant danger, a matter of foresight and free choice." To the extent that the just war tradition seeks to define the jus ad bellum in deontological terms, that is, to circumscribe the resort to war according to specific principles, preventive war cannot be justified by the tradition. The "distant danger," the "matter of foresight" to which Walzer refers tells us that the moral framework necessary for the justification of preventive war is teleological. We must, in other words, be prepared to judge the consequences of acting or failing to act. It is the fact that we are engaged in a moral debate concerning inherently unknowable consequences, I would submit, that makes the present situation so vexing from an ethical standpoint. If we could reliably predict the outcome of policies leading either to war or to peace, we could at least come closer to a moral consensus.

Historically, Walzer notes, states responded in the name of balance of power politics to distant threats like my son Daniel once did. Note Francis Bacon’s justification of preventive war: "Neither is the opinion of some of the Schoolmen to be received: that a war cannot justly be made, but upon a precedent injury or provocation. For there is no question, but a just fear of an imminent danger, though no blow be given, is a lawful cause of war." "War," Walzer states in summarizing this view, "is justified . . . by fear alone and not by anything other states actually do or any signs they give of their malign intentions. Prudent rulers assume malign intentions." But, Walzer continues, "It isn’t really prudent to assume the malign intent of one’s neighbors; it is merely cynical, an example of the worldly wisdom which no one lives by or could live by." Judgments are required and, for those judgments to be helpful, evidence must be adduced.

The evidence offered by the Bush Administration for invading Iraq was inadequate as a justification of war. The argument can be made that we did not know that at the time (although many, including most members of the U.N. Security Council, seem to have made a better judgment than the Administration did about the evidence that was available), but the argument is irrelevant. Preventive war is subject to teleological judgments; it breaks the usual rules of international law and morality and can only be justified by the outcome. The Bush Administration knows this and has, consequently, begun to argue that Saddam's ouster alone justifies the resort to war. But if the point of the war really was the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, then Bush's strategy was neither preemptive war nor preventive war. It was humanitarian intervention. But try finding that term in any of the prewar speeches by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, or Rice.