Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War

A reader named Bill K. offered some thoughts and questions about my post, “Preemptive War.” Bill’s offerings are reproduced below (in italics), followed by my responses (in bold).

On the one hand, it bothers me that one could read the UN charter, as you summarize, “to proceed to war only in the case of self defense, and then only until the UN had decided what to do about the situation.” With this in view, though your argument seems strong in demonstrating precedent in our government holding the US Constitution superior to the UN Charter, as a nation, we could find ourselves standing alone against world opinion should we act on what we know and are unwilling to divulge to others.

I am unperturbed by the prospect of “standing alone against world opinion.” I quote from my post, “Liberalism and Sovereignty“:

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

Bill K. does not strike me as a “mindless” internationalist, but his worry about “world opinion” plays into the hands of that breed.

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On the other hand, it also bothers me that your first summary point, “…to protect Americans’ liberty interests, broadly understood, by preventing a foreign state or entity from acquiring the means by which to attack… or… from deploying…” is a judgment call requiring reasonably accurate knowledge of both capabilities and intentions.As fallen men with imperfect knowledge and judgment, there is the possibility that we might make a mistake in proceeding with preemptive attack.

Mistakes cut both ways. Inaction could be a mistake. In the end, one has to rely on those charged with responsibility for national defense to execute that responsibility prudently. Although the parallel between preemptive war and capital punishment is inexact, I take the same attitude toward both, namely, that it is never a good idea to rule out in advance an option that might prove to be the best one, in certain circumstances.

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It would seem to me that should the US preemptively attack Iran, we will face both reactions above – other nations disagreeing with our right to act preemptively, showing disgust in perhaps tangible ways, such as cancellation of treaty & trade agreements, as well as those within our own country who will demand to ‘see the evidence’ and ‘judge for ourselves’, resulting in internal strife, particularly if the preemption started a war requiring sustained effort.

I agree that the possibility of reactions by foreigners that could adversely affect Americans’ interests should be considered and weighed in taking a decision to wage preemptive war. But if the case for preemption is strong, the possibility of internal dissent should not make a difference. War will almost always yield dissent, and it will be vocal. So will a child’s dissent from just punishment be vocal.

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[L]ooking at your necessary conditions in bullet points, the ones I have some disagreement with are points #1 & #5:

#1: “Undertaking to harm American’s interests through unilateral actions (e.g., shutting off a major supply of oil)” – Would you agree with me that this would be a necessary condition only if such a shut-off were likely to bring the US military to its knees, fuel-wise? That a substantial rise in the price of fuel would not be sufficient? I’d like to think that the US in such circumstances could well turn to other suppliers as well as develop its own reserves to counteract such a strategy without resorting to preemptive war.

To begin at the end, turning to other suppliers will not reverse a substantial rise in the price of oil, unless those suppliers are able to increase their rate of output dramatically. Further, existing transportation and pipeline systems must be able to accommodate the related geographic shifts in supply, without much delay.

If by “develop … reserves” Bill means that the federal government should buy and hold oil against the possibility of a cutoff, there is already the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The development and maintenance of that reserve is costly, both in terms of outlays on facilities and their operation but also in terms of the effects of government purchases on the price of oil. It may be prudent to maintain the SPR so that U.S. military operations are not hampered by a sudden reduction in the output of foreign oil. But, for the reasons discussed, the SPR is no boon to the domestic consumers of oil.

If by “develop … reserves” Bill means that the federal government should encourage exploration and production in the United States and its littoral waters, good luck with that. On the one hand we have global-warming alarmists, environmental extremists, the not-in-my-back-yard mentality, the lobbies for the subsidization of “alternative fuels” and “renewable energy,” and their allies in the Democrat Party. On the other hand we have average Americans whose interests will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of sanctimony unless and until the Republican Party of Calvin Coolidge returns to power for a long time.

Returning to the beginning, I cannot agree that “a substantial rise in the price of fuel would not be sufficient” grounds for preemption. The circumstances leading to the substantial rise would indicate whether or not rise is aimed at coercing the U.S. government or severely damaging the American economy. If it seems clear that those responsible for the price rise have one or both aims in mind, then they will have effectively committed an act of war against the U.S. and its citizens. War is war, and it ought to be thought of as such, regardless of the means by which it is conducted. A military strike against the perpetrators might not be the best course of action; as I say in “Preemptive War,” preemption should be a last resort. But to eschew the use of force as a response to economic warfare is to invite it.

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#5: “Otherwise engaging in a persistent course of provocative opposition…” Your examples of this behavior, Cuba, NK, USSR, with the exception of Saddam, are all examples that we have lived with and handled by other means (embargo, competitive military spending, foreign base agreements). Saddam was different because he embarked on conquest of an ally. Do you believe that should we decide to preemptively strike Iran, we should do so upon their assembly of a nuclear warhead, and attack NK at the same time? If we were to hold off on NK, given that they have demonstrated a test detonation, why so?

Context is important. What I say in “Preemptive War” is that

preemption is appropriate when several conditions are met. First, it must be clear that the target of preemption is an enemy of the United States. A foreign state or entity can be an enemy without having any immediate or specific plans to attack Americans or their interests. Thus a foreign state or entity can become an enemy by….

  • otherwise engaging in a persistent course of provocative opposition toward the United States, which opposition might consist of pronounced ideological enmity (as in the cases of Cuba and North Korea, for example), supporting efforts by third parties to harm the United States (as was the case with Saddam, doubters to the contrary), or engaging in efforts to harm the United States through economic or diplomatic machinations (as did the USSR during the Cold War).

Such conditions are necessary but not sufficient for preemption.

North Korea, despite its anti-Americanism and provocative behavior, is much less of a threat than Iran is to American interests. If a strike against Iran would stop or significantly delay its development of nuclear weapons, and if all other conditions for preemption were met, I would favor a preemptive strike on relevant Iranian facilities. As a reminder, here are the other (sufficient) conditions that I list in “Preemptive War”:

  • the failure of diplomatic efforts, which may include the United Nations but need not depend on the UN’s course of action (see the later discussion of treaty obligations)
  • the failure of economic sanctions and military threats
  • the likelihood that preemption would not cause a breakdown of diplomatic, military, or economic relations with foreign states, where such relations are important to the well-being of Americans
  • the prospect of a successful preemption, where the costs (in life, limb, and money) are judged to be less than the costs of failing to act
  • an open debate resulting in an authorization by Congress, where events do not require swift and even clandestine actions, which should be taken in accordance with the War Powers Resolution of 1973.