Given these facts, George W. Bush believed that a pre-emptive strike was the moral thing to do, just as any moral person now understands it would have been moral to do against Hitler’s Germany in 1938. ~Dennis Prager

Dennis Prager is amusing.  At least I find it amusing that he thinks it is surprising or noteworthy that the NYRB gave a favourable review to Ferguson’s book containing an argument for “pre-emptive” war against Germany in 1938 (hey, why not 1936?  1933? 1919?  You can’t start moral wars of pre-emption too early!).  Because we all know just how monstrous Hitler’s regime was, it is the easiest call in the world to say now that attacking it in 1938 (before it invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia? after? who cares!) would have been entirely justified.  Except that it would not have been clear to very many at the time that attacking Germany because of things happening in Czechoslovakia was either necessary, desirable or justified.  Governments allied with Czechoslovakia might have legal commitments that would have obliged them to intercede, which is a different question.  If they were claiming that they were intervening in their own self-defense pre-emptively, it would have been very difficult to take seriously at the time.  This is because this claim is very often a lot of rot that warmongers use to cover themselves with a veneer of legitimacy.  Only in rare and exceptional cases is it actually true, which places the burden of proof squarely on those advocated “pre-emption.”  By that standard, it seems pretty clear that even if you believed what the government was claiming about Iraq’s WMD programs the kind of pre-emption being invoked in 2002-03 was of such a far-reaching, ludicrous kind that it never could be justified. 

The argument then, let us remember, was indeed not that Iraq was an imminent threat (some war opponents exposed themselves to ridicule by arguing as if the jingoes had claimed this, when they had claimed something much more absurd) but that it was potentially a grave threat off in the future.  As Mr. Bush drearily repeated so many times, “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.”  Why bother with full materialisation?  They don’t need to exist at all–the mere possibility that they might exist someday gives you the right, according to the most hard-core of hegemonists, to go in and take down that regime.  Note that if another government (say, the Iraqi government) applied this doctrine to us we would regard it as the ravings of a paranoid loon bent on world conquest.  But never mind that.  The point is that supporters of the war argued that war and regime change were legitimate and moral because of their own incredible certainty that Iraq’s government posed a threat that did not, by their own admission, even necessarily exist now but might exist in the future.  And they gripe that people opposed to the war, operating in the realities of the present rather than fantasies of what might be, are too certain.  Remember: the future authorises every kind of humbug.   

Hitler’s regime is one of the few in the history of the world where one might be able to look back and say that some real good might have been served in starting a war to get rid of that regime.  That said, it is by no means obvious that pre-emptive war would have been justified in 1938 given what Germany had done thus far and what it was preparing to do.  Its targets were in the East, and its entire ideology dictated carving out its domain in the East, which makes it exceedingly difficult to understand how anyone in America could have conceived of pre-empting something that did not seem to threaten us in any way.  Perhaps France would have had Realpolitik reasons to want to stop German expansion in the East, and Britain would be concerned to prevent a single power from dominating the Continent (as usual), but their problems were, thankfully, not really America’s problems.  

It is not clear that pre-emptive war is often all that pre-emptive so much as pre-emption is the excuse invoked by an aggressor to avoid the taint of the label aggressor.  The Germans in 1914, who had a far better argument that they had a legitimate strategic reason to strike first than we will ever have against tinpot dictatorships on the other side of the planet, became obsessed with the idea that they were fighting a war of self-defense when they were, in the eyes of everybody else, blatantly aggressive and criminal.  When I read people like Prager, I cannot help but remember what I have read about the self-assured recitation of the “ideas of 1914” during WWI in Germany in which Germans were convinced that they were positively in the right (which made the one-sided and heavy-handed war-guilt clause in the Treaty that much more offensive to them, leading to later unpleasantness) even though any morally serious person outside of Germany would have grave doubts that they were not guilty of aggression.  (Note: I am not arguing that they were necessarily solely or even primarily responsible for WWI, since there is blame enough to go around to a number of different states, but aggressors they surely were.) 

The threat from a given regime must be so grave, serious and certain at the time of the “pre-emption” that it is almost impossible at the time to find real moral justification for starting a war to topple that regime.  Iraq never even began to approach that level even if everything the government claimed about its WMDs was accurate.  As far as I am concerned, this is not a question of my moral certitude or anyone else’s.  In something as uncertain and unclear as the probability of future threats, it is surely more moral and more wise to err on the side of peace. 

This is a question of whether we allow rational analysis of probable foreign threats to dictate our actions or whether we succumb to hysterical fearmongering promoted by the most powerful government on earth.  Prager prefers the latter.  I do not.  If that is smugness on my part, so be it.  I would rather be cautious, rational and “smug” than whatever Prager is.