Preventive War

"All of us have heard this term 'preventive war' since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it. In this day and time...I don't believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

-President Dwight Eisenhower, 1953, in response to calls for a preventive war to disarm the Soviet Union

The United States' recent adoption of a preventive war doctrine is unsettling, not only for the world, but also for the United States.

Anticipatory Self-Defense and the NSS

The Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) –- or as prominent political scientist John Ikenberry calls it, the “Imperial Grand Strategy” -– places a relatively large emphasis on preemption. However, the NSS is not limited to the traditionally accepted definition of preemption -- “striking an enemy as it prepares to attack” -- as set by the Kellogg-Briand pact, the Nuremberg Charter, and the United Nations Charter. Rather, Bush’s NSS tries to expand the definition of preemption to include prevention -– “striking an enemy even in the absence of specific evidence of a coming attack.” The NSS asserts the right of the United States to practice what they term: “anticipatory self-defense”. That is, the right to forcibly act against potential threats before they even pose an actual danger. Although such preventive wars are, by no means, a new concept in warfare, Bush’s NSS and his invasion of Iraq do signify the first time that the United States has officially embraced such policies -– with the possible exceptions of Grenada in 1983, and the invasion of Panama in 1989.

President Bush’s new argument for prevention rests largely on the notion that warfare has been transformed in the wake of September 11, 2001. And, the NSS is correct when it emphasizes that contemporary terrorism and rogue states pose unconventional threats to the United States –- though the threats are hardly new. Such unconventional enemies cannot be fought with conventional means, the NSS asserts. Deterrence will not work. Instead, Bush proposes that the United States should resort to what is commonly referred to as preventive war:

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction, and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

Bush's NSS goes on to assert the right the United States to forcibly act against "emerging threats before they are fully formed." (Those who have seen Minority Report should note the similarities). Whether you agree with Bush's NSS or not, this anticipatory self-defense is undeniably a new-fangled form of preventive war.

Preemptive or Preventive?

For the past two years, ever since the Iraq-war drums began to beat in Washington, the Bush Administration has taken the liberty to use the words ‘preemptive’ and ‘preventive’ interchangeably. Such intentional colloquialism is indeed convenient to for the Whitehouse, as it helps to spread the notion that the two terms essentially mean the same thing. However, it must be pointed out that there is a legal, logical, and moral difference between a preemptive and preventive war.

A preemptive attack or strike is when a country assails another country in order to prevent a planned attack by that country from occurring. A preemptive war or attack is legally justified by the existence of an imminent threat of attack. The classic, foreign policy 101 example is that of The Six Day War in 1967. Although Israel struck first, Syria and Egypt were both amassing troops, tanks, and other forces on their respective boarders with Israel. The intention of invasion is largely undisputed, and, in that case, an imminent threat clearly existed. It must also be noted that even with the establishment of an imminent threat, the morality and legality of Israel’s strike is still debated.

On the other hand, preventive war is entirely different. As stated above, such wars are waged without the knowledge of an imminent threat. Instead, preventive wars are waged based mostly upon intelligent suspicion. Historical examples of such wars are categorically condemned. Examples include the Austro-German invasion of Serbia in 1914, which catalyzed World War One, and -- as prominent historian and Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger notes -- the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1943:

"The President has adopted a policy of 'anticipatory self-defense' that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy."

Japan’s preventive attack on Pearl Harbor in 1943 was intended to prevent America’s planned military build-up in the pacific. Due Japan’s empirical ambitions, as well as the economic stronghold the United States had imposed on Japan in the 1930s, Japanese policy makers viewed war with America to be inevitable. Their preventive war was intended to take away what was sure to be an American victory after the United States had amassed even more forces in the Pacific. This historical comparison is an important one to heed. Because, now, as we have it, the existence of terrorism has pushed Bush to embrace the very policies that the United States hanged Japanese generals for following World War Two.

Four Main Problems with Bush's Concept of Preventive War

There are four essential problems with the Bush Administrations notion of anticipatory self-defense (preventive war). First, if Bush’s preventive war in Iraq was, as is claimed, intended to improve the national security of the United States, then other countries will logically need to be invaded as well. There are several other countries that pose the same sort of threat that Iraq once did. Some even pose a larger threat. Political pundit Alan Bock is correct when he states, “if the criterion for such a war were simply that a country be dictatorial and despotic and have WMD, then the world does not lack other candidates.” Indeed, if the exemplary invasion of Iraq does not completely deter all of the numerous other “candidates,” then the United States will be obligated to invade them. Furthermore, subsequent wars will undoubtedly require not only international support, but also sustained domestic support. Both of which, are doubtful to subsist.

Second, and this is somewhat related to the first problem, has to do with countries such as North Korea. The threat that North Korea poses on the United States is not only more severe than that of Iraq, but also more obvious. The next logical step for the United States, at least under Bush’s NSS, is to dismantle Kim Jong Il much in the same light that Saddam Hussein overthrown. However, this is not likely to happen, mainly because the prospect of victory in such a preventive war with North Korea is grimmer than it was in Iraq. It is likely, as it is logical, the world will perceive that America’s avoidance of war with North Korea is due to North Korea’s potential possession of nuclear weapons. That discernment would provide a powerful incentive to other dictators around the world to acquire nuclear weapons, and acquire them quickly. Thus, Bush’s preventive war doctrine, which he only truly intends to carry out in Iraq, is likely to lead to the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Third, just like preemptive war, preventive war relies solely on information to justify the use of force. Unfortunately, the relevant information is difficult, if always possible, to come by. This is especially true considering the fact that such information involves predictions about threats that are to take place in the future. Even for preemptive wars, the knowledge required is exceptionally hard to obtain. The information needed to wage a preventive war is near impossible to acquire. Such was clearly indicated when Bush and Blair not only publicly exaggerated, but also, it seems, privately overestimated the extent of Iraq's WMD programs.

The fourth, and final, central problem with Bush’s preventive war doctrine is that it sets a precedent that is likely to be emulated. The justification for the war in Iraq, clearly justifies a myriad of other violent conflicts. Russia would be justified in another inhumane invasion of Chechnya; and, technically, Chechnya would be justified in an invasion of Russia, though of course, “the weak would have to be insane to implement their rights.” Israel would be warranted to invade any one of its neighbors. South Korea would be justified in an invasion of North Korea, and visa versa. Pakistan and India would undeniably have the right to start yet another war over Kashmir. I could go on. The point is that preventive wars have been condemned and avoided in history for this very reason: virtually any country could wage at least one preventive war against someone. In order to maintain some level of international order, there needs to be a higher bar set for the justification of violent conflict than fear.

Cold War Lessons, and a Final Note

Serious calls for preventive war were last widespread in the United States at the onset of the Cold War. The theory was to administer an attack on the Soviet Union to prevent a soviet build up of nuclear arms. In 1950, the president Harry Truman decisively ruled out the use of preventive strikes, because "such actions were not consistent with the American tradition." Truman asserted that "you do not prevent anything by war? except peace." Instead, under the influence of Kennan, the United States adopted a policy of containment and deterrence. Over the course of the Cold War, support for preventive strikes periodically resurfaced, and were categorically denied by the respective presidents. Even in the heightened-alert-days of the Cold War, preventive war was not a credible option. (There are, of course, minor and debatable exceptions).

In ‘the world to come,’ it is imperative that the United States recognizes that neither terrorism nor the menacing prospect of an enemy with nuclear weapons are new entities. Terrorism has been around for hundreds of years. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Italy endured abominable terrorist campaigns during the 19th and 20th centuries. For nearly half a century, the United States and the USSR were two nuclear powers at loggerheads. These threats to the Unites States (as well as Great Britain and Western Europe) are indeed evils that “we must of course combat,” but we can never hope to extirpate them. It is imperative that we “learn to endure and outlive,” all the while fighting these evils intelligently. As many intellectuals have noted, the preventive war in Iraq sets a harrowing precedent. Noam Chomsky is unfortunately correct when he states that: "virtually any country has the potential and ability to produce WMD, and intent is in the eye of the beholder. Hence the refined version of the grand strategy effectively grants Washington the right of arbitrary aggression." This is not the answer!

As recruitment at terrorist camps, European anti-Americanism, and other such things rise at a seemingly exponential rate, one must wonder whether Bush's preventive war has actually prevented anything.


The Whitehouse, The National Security Strategy, September 2002

Paul W. Schroeder, Iraq: The Case Against Preemptive War, The American Conservative, 2002.

Alan Bock, Preventive or Preemptive War, September 10, 2002

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, 2003

Noam Chomsky, Preventive War: The Supreme Crime, August 2003

Center for Defense Information, The Bush National Security Strategy, September 2002

Robert Jervis, Understanding the Bush Doctrine, Political Science Quarterly, November 2003

Don Hill, Academics Debate Preventive-War Doctrine, Radio Free Europe, 2003

The Brookings Institute, Policy Brief #113, December 2002

Neta C. Crawford, The Slippery Slope to Preventive War, The Carnegie Council, 2003