The Case Against Preemptive War
Most Americans seem little concerned at the prospect of an American war on Iraq. This is surprising considering that, of America’s friends and allies, only Israel openly supports it, while other states in the Middle East, including longtime rivals and enemies of Iraq, warn against it, and the Europeans view it with alarm and growing frustration. Those challenges to the planned war now being raised, moreover, tend to center on prudential questions – whether the proposed attack will work and what short-term risks and collateral damage might be involved – rather than on whether the war itself is a good idea.
The practical risks are indeed serious. The attack would entail a new military campaign while the so-called war against al-Qaeda and terrorism is far from over, involving many thousands of American troops in ground fighting with corresponding casualties, fought with few allies or none and paid for entirely by the United States in troubled economic times. Across the Muslim world hostility toward America is already inflamed, and radical Islamic movements are active. The global economy – particularly the oil and stock markets – is vulnerable to shock. Such a war would also come at a time when America’s alliances in Europe and the Middle East are strained, certain fragile Middle Eastern and South Asian regimes are at risk, and other international dangers (tensions between India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and China and Taiwan, and economic crisis in Latin America, to name a few) are looming. If the war succeeds in toppling Hussein, the United States will be saddled with the new responsibilities of occupying, administering, rebuilding, democratizing, and stabilizing Iraq (beyond its existing responsibilities in Afghanistan), tasks of unreckoned costs and manifold difficulties for which neither the American public nor the administration have demonstrated much understanding, skill, or stomach. In the light of all this, the enterprise merely on practical grounds looks remarkably rash.
Yet even these grave considerations should not take priority over questions of principle: do we have a right to wage preemptive war against Iraq to overthrow its regime? Would this be a necessary and just war? What long-range effects would it have on the international system? If the answers to these questions make this truly a necessary and just war, Americans ought to be willing to make sacrifices and undergo risks for it.
On these critical issues the administration has so far won by default. The assumption that a war to overthrow Hussein would be a just war and one that, if it succeeded without excessive negative side effects, would serve everyone’s interests has gone largely unchallenged, at least in the mainstream. The administration’s justification for preemptive war is the traditional one: that the dangers and costs of inaction far outweigh those of acting now. Saddam Hussein, an evil despot, a serial aggressor, an implacable enemy of the United States, and a direct menace to his neighbors must be deposed before he acquires weapons of mass destruction that he might use or let others use against Americans or its allies and friends. A few thousand Americans died in the last terrorist attack; many millions could die in the next one. Time is against us; once Hussein acquires such weapons, he cannot be overthrown without enormous losses and dangers. Persuasion, negotiation, and conciliation are worse than useless with him. Sanctions and coercive diplomacy have failed. Conventional deterrence is equally unreliable. Preemptive action to remove him from power is the only effective remedy and will promote durable peace in the region.
This essay proposes to confront this case for preemptive war on Iraq head on. My argument stresses principles and long-term structural effects rather than prudence and short-term results. It rests not on judgments and predictions about future military and political developments, which I am not qualified to make, but on a perspective missing from the current discussion, derived from history, especially the history of European and world politics over the last four centuries. Rather than criticizing the proposed preemptive war on prudential grounds, it opposes the idea itself, contending that an American campaign to overthrow Hussein by armed force would be an unjust, aggressive, imperialist war which even if it succeeded (indeed, perhaps especially if it succeeded), would have negative, potentially disastrous effects on our alliances and friendships, American leadership in the world, the existing international system, and the prospects for general peace, order, and stability. In other words, a preemptive war on Iraq would be not merely foolish and dangerous, but wrong.
This essay attempts to build a case against the war on systemic grounds; it cannot for reasons of space hope to treat all-important aspects of that systemic case or answer all possible questions and challenges. It talks about the damage a preemptive war would do to the existing international system, but not about the equally important impacts it could have in terms of side effects on nascent changes in the international system needed to meet new problems already looming on the horizon. It draws on international history in regard to preemptive wars, but will not take up a legitimate though tricky question of counterfactual history, i.e., whether certain preemptive wars, had they been waged in the past, might have averted disasters as the advocates of such a war against Iraq claim a war will do now. (1) While examining the official case for a war on Iraq, it will not take up, except in passing fashion in the last footnote, what is possibly the unacknowledged real reason and motive behind the policy – security for Israel.
Even with these limits, this is a tall order for a short essay; the argument must be highly compressed and asserted rather than demonstrated here. But it can be condensed into four fairly simple propositions: that a preemptive war on Iraq would be
Illegitimate, because it cannot be justified on any of the grounds by which preemptive wars are and should be judged and would represent and promote dangerous, lawless international behavior; Incompatible with the purpose, spirit, and aims of the worldwide military and political alliances which the United States leads, and therefore harmful both to these alliances and to American leadership; Incompatible also with the two central principles by which the international system has evolved over centuries, namely, the right of all states to be recognized and treated as independent, and the simultaneous and corresponding need and requirement for states to become part of associations for common purposes and to follow the rules; Unnecessary, unhelpful, and utopian (better, dystopian) because some of the goals the administration proposes to achieve by preemptive war are impossible to achieve by any means, and because the essential, legitimate American aims and the requirements of the international community vis-à-vis Iraq can be better realized by other means.
Why Preemptive Wars Are Rarely Justified, And This One Cannot Be
Whether starting a preemptive war is justified in a particular instance is not primarily a question of international law. The critical question is whether the action is one of aggression or of legitimate self-defense, and no law can answer that. There are, however, criteria for judging the action, deriving from something more basic in international politics than specific international laws: the unwritten understandings international actors reach on an ongoing basis as to what is within the bounds, is permissible or not under the rules of the game. These understandings change with time and circumstance, of course, but a fairly wide and stable consensus on this particular issue has developed, especially in recent centuries.
To justify a resort to preemptive war, a state needs to give reasonable evidence that the step was necessary, forced upon the initiator by its opponents, and also that it represented a lesser evil, i.e., that the dangers and evils averted by war outweighed those caused the international community by initiating it. This requires showing that the threat to be preempted is (a) clear and imminent, such that prompt action is required to meet it; (b) direct, that is, threatening the party initiating the conflict in specific concrete ways, thus entitling that party to act preemptively; (c) critical, in the sense that the vital interests of the initiating party face unacceptable harm and danger; and (d) unmanageable, that is, not capable of being deterred or dealt with by other peaceful means. These criteria are naturally open to interpretation and contest. They represent, however, a consensus of enlightened international opinion, make sense of historical experience, and are easily illustrated with historical examples. They have helped actors in the past judge claims and weigh arguments for preemptive wars and have had some effect in deterring illegitimate resorts to it.(2) They are stringent; most claims made to justify preemptive wars do not pass the test, which is as it should be. But the criteria are not unrealistic or utopian, and do allow for preemptive war in certain particular cases.(3)
In fact, the rhetoric of administration leaders and their supporters urging a preemptive war against Iraq indicates that they are generally aware of these criteria and attempt to justify it on these terms. But they cannot; their arguments everywhere break down.
To show that the threat is clear and imminent, the president and his supporters repeatedly insist that Saddam Hussein has long wanted weapons of mass destruction and tried to develop them. Since 1998, he has prevented the United Nations’ international inspectors from returning to Iraq. He may therefore already be close to acquiring such weapons. The United States must stop him before he succeeds.
Seriously examined, this proves the opposite of what is required–that the threat is not clear and imminent. It indicates what, under pressure, administration spokesmen must admit: we simply do not know whether Iraq has developed weapons of mass destruction, or whether it will, or when. Still less do we know what Hussein would do with them if and when he obtained any. What is more, we do not seem greatly interested in finding out. Pleas from our closest allies, including even Tony Blair in Britain, that there must be a real effort to get UN inspectors back into Iraq before taking any other action against it, meet with impatient skepticism; any suggestion from Iraq that it might agree to this demand is dismissed as a bad joke; Vice President Richard Cheney insists that even actual UN inspections would not be enough. In short, the administration really does not know whether there is a clear and imminent threat from Iraq, cannot prove that one exists, and resists proposals for finding out because the answer might undermine its plans for war.
To show that the threat is direct, i.e., specific, concrete, and pointed at the United States, administration spokesmen and other advocates of preemptive war deduce from Saddam Hussein’s criminal record and evil character, especially the fact that he used poison gas in his war against Iran and against his own people in the 1980s and has resorted to brutal repression since, that if and when he obtains weapons of mass destruction he could and would use them against the United States or its allies in the region.
In so doing, they ignore certain inconvenient facts – that the United States generally supported Iraq in its war against Iran, may have known and winked at his use of chemical weapons, and never at that time considered Hussein’s attack on Iran or the atrocities perpetrated in it grounds for overthrowing him, and that the people whom Hussein brutally repressed in 1991 were mainly Kurds whom the United States encouraged to rise against him and then failed to support. The main point, however, is that again these arguments fail to prove what they are supposed to – i.e., that the threat from Iraq is concrete, specific, and directed against the United States or any American ally. They prove only what hardly needs proof, that Saddam Hussein is a ruthless despot who will do anything to stay in power, including using poison gas against external and internal enemies in a losing war or slaughtering his rebellious subjects. He might indeed use weapons of mass destruction against anyone for reasons of political survival – a point which counts if anything against attacking him and putting him into that kind of corner. But this says nothing about what he might do with them under other circumstances for other purposes and certainly fails to show that he would use them against the United States or its allies or allow terrorists to do so. Stalin had nuclear weapons, was a worse sociopath than Hussein and even more paranoid about threats to his reign, and his record of atrocities against his own people was far worse than Hussein’s; yet none of this gave any indication whether or how he would use nuclear weapons in his foreign policy. On that score, he was demonstrably cautious.
In fact, it is extremely unlikely that Hussein would do something so suicidal as to attack the United States or one of its allies directly, or allow a proxy to do so, and the administration knows it. One expert witness at the Senate hearings on the proposed campaign against Iraq, frankly admitting this, remarked that the real danger was that possessing such weapons would give Hussein and Iraq more influence in the region (a significant admission).
The administration’s case thus fails both the imminence and the directness tests. Its attempts to prove that the threat is critical are no stronger. They consist mainly of repeatedly invoking the memory of 9/11 and the war on terrorism, the right of American citizens to security against terrifying new threats revealed by that attack, the duty of their government to provide that security at all costs, and (once again) the possibility that Hussein, if he does get control of nuclear or other weapons, will supply them to terrorists for use against the United States. All this lays the basis for the general doctrine, repeatedly proclaimed, that the United States has a right to prevent weapons of mass destruction from coming into the hands of evil, hostile regimes by any means necessary.
I reserve for later some discussion of how novel, dangerous, and subversive of international order and peace this new, unprecedented American doctrine is. Here the point is that these arguments the administration and its supporters use again undercut the case for preemptive war.
How? Because they prove that the threat of international terrorism, even if it were the critical danger the administration claims it to be, does not stem from Hussein or Iraq and will not be met by ousting him. Despite many efforts, no one in the administration has ever proved a connection between Hussein or others in the Iraqi regime and September 11 or al-Qaeda and its terrorist activities. The evidence and probabilities, all well-known, point the other way. Hussein’s regime and his ruling party are secular rather than Islamist. He rules a country deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines, and belongs to a branch of Islam (the Sunnis) that is a minority in Iraq. He has good selfish reasons to fear radical Islamism and terrorist activity just as other governments do. Why should a ruler obsessed with maintaining his power collaborate with some of his most dangerous enemies?
The only way to argue that overthrowing Hussein would help protect Americans from international terrorism would be to claim a beneficial ripple effect from it. By demonstrating American resolve and leadership, it would discourage terrorists from targeting us and frighten off hostile regimes from helping or harboring them while encouraging other governments to join us in the fight. This is pure guesswork and very unconvincing. Our allies and friends consider a preemptive war on Iraq a proof not of resolve and leadership, but of recklessness and unilateralism and want no part of it. Terrorists and their sympathizers would find in it more weapons with which to vilify the United States, recruit followers, and bring down the traitorous Arab and Muslim regimes cooperating with America.
And so the administration’s case fails again. The more one thinks about it, the more implausible it becomes to claim that the United States, a superpower with an historically unprecedented position of unchallenged military superiority, is threatened by an impoverished, ruined, insecure state halfway round the world. Yet surely, one might object, the administration’s case is right in one important respect: that whatever threat, great or small, an Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein and possessing weapons of mass destruction would present would be impossible to manage or deter by normal peaceful means. No moral scruples, religious or philosophical principles, or appeals to the long-range interests of his country would stop him from using them against us or any other enemy, and ordinary means of negotiation, coercion, and deterrence have manifestly failed in dealing with him. Therefore, overthrowing him by war (the administration’s euphemism for this is “regime change”) is the only remaining choice.
Well, yes, this argument is correct – in one limited sense. If our basic problem is that Saddam Hussein is an evil ruler with hostile and dangerous attitudes and purposes, and if the only solution to that problem we will accept is to get rid of him right now, then the problem is indeed insoluble by peaceful means. All our past methods of dealing with him – first conciliation and appeasement, then war and crushing defeat, then extreme economic, political and military sanctions, and now massive overt threats – have failed. He remains a villain and remains in power. But to claim that any ruler we consider evil and hostile represents a danger to peace and American interests and security such that he should be overthrown by American military power is a really extraordinary claim – one that the rest of the world must sooner or later find intolerable and one out of keeping with central American traditions and values. We have not reached our position in the world by dealing with evil, hostile rulers and regimes through this policy of “regime change.” (To be sure, we have sometimes used it, but mainly in dealing with small, weak governments in our own hemisphere, and these exercises in “regime change” have had, to put it charitably, very mixed results). In dealing with real, major evils and threats both to the United States and the world such as those once represented by the Soviet Union, China, and their allies, we have won not by waging preemptive war for “regime change” but by deterring opponents from aggression and relying on outliving them, proving the superiority of our own system, and ultimately inducing peaceful change. That is the real American way.
Equally important, one simply cannot argue on the mere ground of Hussein’s survival that coercion and deterrence have failed with Iraq and must be replaced by preemptive war. The purpose of coercion and deterrence in international relations is to deter – to stop dangerous regimes and rulers from actually doing things that harm or threaten others–not to make such regimes disappear or such rulers commit suicide. For purposes of deterring Iraq, the coercive measures imposed since 1991 have worked well. Before 1991, Hussein did many things in foreign policy that were clearly aggressive, above all his war on Iran and his seizure of Kuwait. Since then, Iraq, greatly weakened and restrained, has done nothing that could be called aggression against its neighbors. This is successful deterrence – effected, to be sure, at some cost to the United States in terms of effort and reputation, and enormous cost to the Iraqi people in terms of lives and standard of living, but, from a purely power-political point of view nonetheless the desired overall outcome. That Iraq and Hussein himself are not the regional menace they once were is shown by Iran’s rapprochement with its old enemy and by the warning Iraq’s historic rival for leadership of the Arab world, Egypt, now gives its American patron against war. They fear another war on Iraq more than they fear Iraq.
Thus the administration’s case for preemptive war on Iraq fails the test on every criterion. But who cares? Why should we care if what America does in its own interest for its self-defense and that of its friends fails to satisfy some arbitrary legalistic criteria concocted by some liberal theorists and professors? What relevance do these arguments and examples drawn from history have in a world completely changed by weapons of mass destruction, instantaneous global communication and interpenetration, globalization of the economy, and the prospect of modern weapons and tools being used against us by fanatics driven by extremist ideologies?
We had better care. Norms, rules, standards of conduct, understandings about what is and is not permissible still count in international relations, now more than ever. They govern the expectations and calculations of statesmen; they influence public opinion and play a major role in the struggle for hearts and minds, increasingly important in this age of rising democracy, mass participation in politics, and instantaneous global communication. They form a central component of essential values in international politics – those universal values we constantly claim to be defending against the enemies of humankind. These norms, rules, and standards are vital not because they are immutable, unchallengeable, and enduring, but precisely because they are not. They are changeable, fragile, gained only by great effort and through bitter lessons of history, and easily destroyed, set aside, or changed for the worse for the sake of momentary gain or individual interest. And the fate of these norms and standards depends above all on what great powers, especially superpowers and hegemons, do with them and to them. The actions of great powers above all shape norms, mold expectations, provoke reactions, invite imitation and emulation, uphold or destroy or change the prevailing rules.
Consider what norm the administration’s planned attack will set for the world. The United States will be declaring not simply verbally but by using its overwhelming armed force that a state may justly launch a war against another much smaller and weaker state even though it cannot prove that the enemy represents an imminent, direct, and critical threat, or show that the threat could not be deterred or managed by means other than war. It need only claim that the regime and its leader are evil, harbor hostile intentions, were attempting to arm themselves with dangerous weapons, and might therefore attempt at some future time to carry out their hostile aims, and that this claim as to an opponent’s potential capabilities and intentions, a claim made solely by the attacking state and not subject to any international examination, justifies that state in eliminating the allegedly dangerous regime and leader preemptively.
A more dangerous, illegitimate norm and example can hardly be imagined. As could easily be shown by history, it completely subverts previous standards for judging the legitimacy of resorts to war, justifying any number of wars hitherto considered unjust and aggressive. It would, for example, justify not only the Austro-German decision for preventive war on Serbia in 1914, condemned by most historians, but also a German attack on Russia and/or France as urged by some German generals on numerous occasions between 1888 and 1914. It would in fact justify almost any attack by any state on any other for almost any reason. This is not a theoretical or academic point. The American example and standard for preemptive war, if carried out, would invite imitation and emulation, and get it. One can easily imagine plausible scenarios in which India could justly attack Pakistan or vice versa, or Israel any one of its neighbors, or China Taiwan, or South Korea North Korea, under this rule that suspicion of what a hostile regime might do justifies launching preventive wars to overthrow it.
We cannot want a world that operates on this principle, and therefore we cannot really want to use it ourselves. In a real, practical sense, Immanuel Kant’s famous ethical principle that one must so act that the principle of one’s action could become a universal law must also influence the conduct of states in international politics, above all the policy of the world’s only superpower. Without some application of it especially in critical cases like this, a sane, durable international system becomes impossible.
Why a Preemptive War Would Undermine Our Alliances and World Leadership
The previous discussion makes it possible to answer this question more quickly. Many practical, prudential reasons explain why our allies almost unanimously oppose the idea of preemptive war on Iraq (some of them grounds already mentioned that ought to worry Americans as well). Europe has special reasons for concern: the large Muslim and communities within many European states and the effects an American attack would have on their domestic politics; the fact that Europe’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world geographically, historically and culturally, and even economically are much closer to the Middle East than ours, so that the repercussions of war (an oil shock, for example) could easily be far worse for them than for us.
In other words, Europeans see the United States riding roughshod over many European interests in a critical area where they have more at stake than do the Americans. And if that holds for Europeans, it holds trebly for the countries of the Middle East itself, Israel excepted. Turkey and Iran, for example, are directly, vitally interested in avoiding a war in which Iraq might break up and the Kurds fight for their independence. No Arab leader, however opposed to Saddam Hussein, wants to see Iraq destroyed or another Arab state crushed and humiliated by a Western power. And of course no moderate or pro-Western Arab or Muslim regime, vulnerable precisely because it is pro-Western, wants to stoke the fires of radical dissent and revolution with more television pictures of more Arabs being killed and their country subjugated by the Great Satan, infidel America.
Yet prudential considerations, powerful though they are, do not exhaust the reasons for the European opposition. (I cannot speak about Arabs and Muslims with any confidence.) The basic reason is precisely the one identified and discussed above: the sense that this will be an unjustified, unnecessary war, and that regardless of how it turns out militarily it will have bad long-range political consequences.
Many Americans explain away this opposition in Europe as the product of instinctive anti-Americanism, envy of American power, cynicism and world-despair (Weltschmerz), a war-weariness that makes them not merely eager to avoid more war, but ready to appease third-world dictators, the sense of their own decline and relative unimportance in the world, an inability to unite behind a common European foreign policy and defense capability accompanied by a tendency to carp at America for acting without them, and sometimes even anti-Semitism or a bias against Israel.
This is unfair, even where there is a modicum of substance to the charges. Americans ought to heed the advice of logician Morris Cohen: “First, if you can, refute my arguments. Then, if you must, impugn my motives.” How little real, deep anti-Americanism there is in Europe and how ineffective it has been in influencing government policy have been repeatedly demonstrated in the past fifty years, right down to the reaction to September 11. Europeans, like Canadians, are not really envious or afraid of American power per se – at least their governments are not, which is what counts. These governments have been, if anything, too cautious in confronting the United States and asserting their views, rights, and interests as allies. What they fear is what they see as an ignorant, arrogant American hubris and recklessness in the use of that power increasingly evidenced by this administration, especially on this issue.
If this is true, it bodes ill for the future of the Atlantic alliance, a crucial element of world peace and stability over the last fifty years. No doubt this uniquely durable and flexible alliance has survived innumerable challenges and stresses and already outlived the predictions of its obsolescence and demise since the end of the Cold War. It is also true that differences between the U.S.A. and its partners have always existed, and that there were European and Canadian complaints of American unilateralism and excessive reliance on force, answered by American charges of appeasement and indecision leveled against them, long before this issue became acute. But this is different. Other issues on which the two sides have disagreed during this administration (capital punishment, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, issues of trade and tariffs, etc.) do not really concern the central security and foreign policy aspects of the alliance. This issue goes to its heart. When the United States makes publicly clear that it intends to launch military action to overthrow the regime in a key state with which Europe has important relations regardless of what its alliance partners and other friends (e.g., Russia) think of the idea, this touches the core of the alliance as a joint instrument for security, peace, and freedom as nothing else has done in the past.
How? Both because the unilateral American planning of preemptive war against Iraq concerns the central collective security purposes of NATO and its machinery for joint action and alliance solidarity in critical situations, and also because here the general European approach to international peace clashes headlong with the American version (at least that of this administration). It will not do for the administration to say, as it often has, that it will be glad to consult with its European allies, but will do whatever it considers necessary for the defense of American interests regardless of what anyone else thinks. An essential element of any alliance relationship is that allies must exert influence on the foreign policy of their partner(s) and that the joint alliance policy must take account of the concerns of all the partners. The administration’s stand on Iraq flatly contravenes that basic requirement for a durable alliance.
If this persists, it will not necessarily mean the formal end of NATO, but it will mean its hollowing out, as America’s partners search for other combinations to defend their interests and find refuge from the likely consequences of America’s actions and as America’s opponents are encouraged to seek partners and form coalitions against it. America’s power and position are strong enough and its margin of error wide enough that it can get away with a good deal of what one administration spokesman described as “internationalism à la carte,” calling for support where it wants it, going its own way when it wishes, and insisting on having its way as the leader. But there are limits, and on this crucial issue the United States could well overstep them.
Why This Preemptive War Would Attack the Foundations of the International System – and Why We Should Care
This is a bit more abstract and needs a little more thumbnail history of the current international system to explain, but the basic point is not hard to understand. The planned war would violate and weaken the two basic principles which, developed over the past five centuries and combined in a fruitful tension, have enabled the international system to work and peace to grow in our own time.
Since the 16th century, the international system, first confined to Western Europe, then expanding to all of Europe, then becoming global under European domination, and now simply global, has developed inexorably though unevenly, with many advances and retreats, in two fundamental directions, different and divergent from each other, but nevertheless inextricably united. The first direction is the recognition and acceptance of the idea that the system must consist of independent units (in the main, states) coexisting in a coordinate system of equal juridical status and rights, as opposed to the medieval hierarchical system in which power and authority descended in ranks from God to Emperor to kings and princes down to the lowliest peasant. The triumph of this principle is usually ascribed, not wrongly but too simply and prematurely, to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ending the Thirty Years War and the era of religious wars in Europe.
The second major direction of development appears directly contrary to the first. It is the movement toward the association of independent units in international relations into unions (leagues, alliances, confederations, associations, etc.) for common vital purposes that could be realized only through such associations, the most important of these being stable peace and security. The fundamental story of that movement toward association, allowing for all the ups and downs, advances and retreats, is that this movement, though hopeless and marginal in its effects in the 16th, 17th, and much of the 18th centuries, nonetheless experienced a major early flowering in the 19th, and, after apparently disastrous setbacks in the early 20th has ripened and borne unprecedented fruit in the late 20th century.
I am aware that the notion that the history of international politics over the last four to five centuries has been one fundamentally of the growth and development of international peace will strike many as absurd, if not perverse. Yet I think it can be demonstrated (though not here). The central point is that while it may be difficult and controversial to document a decline in the incidence of war and other violent international conflict, including organized terrorism, there is no question or difficulty at all in demonstrating the reality over the centuries of a huge, immensely valuable growth in international peace. Critical areas of modern international relations – trade and business, communications, travel by land, sea and sky, the commercial use and exploitation of the sea and sky, international tourism and travel, international science and scholarship, immigration and emigration, the control of state borders, international property rights and business practices – even human and civil rights and religion – which were once in the realm of war, that is, governed solely by power, force, fraud, and individual state self-interest, have now throughout the developed world been generally brought into the realm of peace. That is, they have been brought under the governance of international treaties, conventions, common practices, and institutions to enforce jointly accepted rules. Where this is not true in certain parts of the world, we notice, it makes a critical difference, and we try to do something about it. The modern world in which we participate, from which we profit, and of which we boast could not operate without this enormous expansion of the realm of peace in international affairs. And this expansion is the product of a long-sought, dearly-bought, highly fragile combination of these two fundamental principles of modern international relations: the recognition of state independence, and the willing acceptance by most international actors of the necessity and benefits of international associations and their requirements and rules.
This structure is what the intended American preemptive war on Iraq threatens and would violate. It would do so in two ways: by denying the right of Iraq to be treated as an independent state, and by rejecting the obligation of the United States to comply with the requirement bearing on all states to join in international associations and to abide by certain rules. The fundamental offense committed by Iraq against the United States is not any particular aggression or criminal act. The only one of these in the litany of Saddam Hussein’s crimes and to which we decided to respond was his occupation of Kuwait, and that was duly reversed and punished. The offense has been and still is that Iraq, under the leadership of someone we consider an international criminal, has purportedly been trying persistently to acquire the same weapons that both we and some of our best friends and a number of neutral states already possess, namely, weapons of mass destruction. Note that our argument is not that these weapons (nuclear, biological, chemical) are inherently illegal and dangerous and should be banned universally by the international community. We could not argue that without condemning ourselves along with our friends, as we are notoriously the world’s largest possessors of such weapons and have no intention of giving them up. The charge is rather that states like Iraq, because they have undemocratic governments, unjust social structures, dangerous ideologies, and criminal leaders (all according to American criteria) have no inherent right to seek or possess the same weapons of mass destruction as law-abiding democratic states possess, and deserve to be restrained, punished, and finally militarily overthrown by the United States if they persist in developing them, regardless of what other states think about this procedure.
Only deliberate effort enables one fully to grasp the implications of such a position. It is as clear a negation of the fundamental principle of the juridical equality and coordinate status of all recognized states within the international system as one could imagine. To put it bluntly, it declares that there is one law for the United States and other states of which it approves, and another law for all the rest. It is Orwellian: all states are equal, but some, especially the United States, are vastly more equal than others. There is no state, allied, friendly, neutral, or hostile, that will not note this implication, and fear it.
This position and policy is more than Orwellian; it is imperialist. I know full well how slippery, ill-defined, and emotionally loaded this term usually is, and how often and easily it is abused. Let me, at the risk of personalizing the discussion, state quickly the standpoint from which I make this claim. I consider myself by every standard save that of the current one-sided American political spectrum a conservative, especially in political outlook and general world view. I have no sympathy with the view that America has been historically an imperialist power. There are major imperialist chapters and aspects in its history, of course, and it was a full participant with others in the great wave of late 19th and early 20th century European imperialism, but its founding ideology was and remains anti-imperialist, it has passed up more tempting opportunities for imperialist gain than it seized, and its overall record is more anti-imperialist than imperialist down to this day. Nor do I share the left-wing denunciation of American hegemony as per se a great menace today. It has its dangers and negative aspects, but on balance American leadership has done much more good than harm in the decades since World War II, and I want it in general to continue. It is precisely from this conservative, pro-American stance that I claim that this would be an imperialist war.
I do so because there is no defensible definition of imperialism that would not fix that label upon it. Imperialism means simply and centrally the exercise of final authority and decision-making power by one government over another government or community foreign to itself. Empire does not require the direct annexation and administration of a foreign territory or its people; in fact, it usually does not mean that at all. Imperial rule is normally indirect, exercised through local authorities co-opted by the imperial regime. This was the case with the Roman Empire, the so-called Holy Roman Empire, the British, the Ottoman, the Napoleonic, and many others one could name – even Hitler‘s short-lived one. All that is required for an imperial relationship is that the final authority and power over crucial decisions of foreign policy, war and peace, and the place of the territory and people within the international system lie with the imperial power.
This is the relationship between America and Iraq that this war intends and is designed to establish. We intend to use armed force against Iraq in order to acquire the power to decide who shall rule Iraq, what kind of government it will have, what kind of weapons it will develop for its own security, what kind of foreign policy it will have, and whose side and what stance it will take in the crucial questions affecting it and its region (Israel, terrorism, Islamism versus secular rule, even for some Americans what kind of economy it will develop and what kind of educational and social systems it will erect under American tutelage). This is clearly imperialism, even if we claim and really believe that we are doing it for noble ends – liberation, democracy, capitalism, human rights, whatever. 19th century imperialism was also conducted under the banner of noble ends – Christianity, civilization, an end to the slave trade, economic development, etc.
Let no one reply that this is what we did to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan after World War II, with great benefit to them and the rest of the world. We went to war with these powers because they attacked us and many other nations. That was a justified defensive war, and the dimensions of the war, the enormous damage it did, the crimes and atrocities Germany and Japan committed in it (though we and our allies were not blameless), and the dimensions of their defeat justified and virtually compelled an occupation and period of tutelage. A preemptive war on Iraq is a totally different proposition.
Besides being imperialist in violating one fundamental basis of world order, the recognition of the independence and equal status of states, this war also would violate its counterpart, the principle of association and the need to observe community rules and bounds. In planning and preparing for this war, the United States is declaring to the world that it really does not consider this principle of association binding upon it; that the American government intends to decide what is best for the United States itself, on its own, listening perhaps to what allies and friends have to say, but acting strictly for its own self-defined interests; and that we do not need the sanction of the UN, NATO, or any other association or institution to which we belong and lead to justify it – this despite our knowledge that in this issue and decision the vital interests of many other countries, some of them our closest allies, are at stake even more than our own.
Once again, we cannot want a world that operates by these rules – but that is the world we would be promoting.
Why A Preemptive War On Iraq Is Unnecessary And Unhelpful For Security
One possible response to this argument might go as follows: “If you are right that we should not do this, what do you suggest as the alternative – that we simply sit on our hands and let Hussein and other dangerous leaders develop weapons of mass destruction with no control on their possible use by themselves or by terrorists? Must we really wait until we (i.e., the United States and allied countries it protects) are actually attacked or at least overtly, directly, demonstrably threatened before we may justifiably respond?”
That this does not guarantee perfect security for us or anyone else is true – but nothing can, least of all preemptive war. We have, however, powerful means of defense and deterrence both within our own hands and available through the international system – another good reason for not wrecking it by preemptive war. If new, more effective means to check new dangers are needed, this system is the way to develop them. If we use these means and this system sensibly, we can enjoy a measure of security far greater than most of the rest of the world has enjoyed in the past or enjoys now.
If this seems not good enough, it is because of our own unrealistic perceptions and expectations. There can be no perfect security against either terrorism or weapons of mass destruction – especially not through the use of military force. Trying to eliminate all the possible nests and sources of terrorism through military action is like trying to kill fleas with a hammer: it does more damage to oneself and the environment than to the fleas. (This does not at all rule out armed police actions like those against the Taliban or identifiable rebel groups.) The idea of eliminating all evil regimes that might use weapons of mass destruction or let terrorists use them is impossible and counterproductive, a bad dream.
What too many seem to forget, however, is that we and others have lived through this sort of danger before, and that defensive measures short of war can work. The menace of having nuclear weapons in the hands of mortal enemies who might use them against us was far greater during the Cold War than it is now. A few then called for preventive war to eliminate it; they were, thank God, not heeded. Terrorism has been around for centuries, and several countries in the 19th and 20th centuries, notably Spain, Russia, Italy, and the United Kingdom, survived worse terrorist campaigns and threats than we have experienced or are likely to experience. Right now the threat of terrorism is greater for the Philippines, Israel, Colombia, Peru, Nepal, and Sri Lanka than for us. Terrorism, like nuclear war, is an evil we must of course combat, but cannot hope to extirpate and must learn to endure and outlive.
In other words, a preemptive war against Iraq would be unnecessary as well as wrong, and would serve no useful purpose (4) while doing us, the Iraqi people, the world, and the international system great harm. When the great American historian Charles A. Beard was asked at the end of his career what was the most important thing he had learned from history, he replied, “That the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small, and that chickens always come home to roost.” He was an agnostic, and so presumably meant only that this was the way history ultimately worked out, and that long-range systemic consequences were the most important. He was right. If we carry out what we are now planning, then regardless of any short-term success we may have, our chickens will ultimately come home to roost.
* I wish to thank Dr. Levin von Trott zu Solz and Professors Edward Kolodziej, John Mueller, Margaret L. Anderson, Juan Cole, and David Kaiser for helpful comments and suggestions.
(1) I will mention only one such argument in passing here: the superficially plausible idea that a preventive war launched against Hitler’s Germany in 1936 at the time of Germany’s reoccupation of the Rhineland or in 1938 at the annexation of Austria would have prevented all the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. (A war at the time of the Munich Crisis would not have been preemptive, but rather a legitimate defensive war fought by France and the Soviet Union in fulfillment of their clear alliance obligations to Czechoslovakia, with Britain joining in for the same balance of power reasons that had brought it into World War I.) My reply, in sketchy thumbnail fashion, would be that asking French and British statesmen in 1936 or early 1938 to launch a preemptive war against Germany on the basis of what Germany had done to that point would amount not only to asking them to commit political suicide, but to demanding that they play God or be God. No one could know in 1936 or 1938 the true, horrible extent of future Nazi crimes and therefore know or predict that preemptive war would prevent a world war of catastrophic dimensions or a Holocaust. The predictable and calculable evils of launching a preemptive war at that time, in other words, outweighed the predictable, calculable evils of waiting and trying to prevent war entirely. The real criticism of British and French policy is not their failure to launch preemptive war, but their failure or refusal to take either the Rhineland occupation or the Anschluss seriously and to undertake a resolute course of deterrence and collective security. In fact, both events caused them to abandon the half-hearted efforts at deterrence of Germany they had initiated and go over to appeasement. Thus the argument for preemptive war in the 1930’s really supports the case made here for deterrence.
(2) For example, it was these general criteria that guided Prince Bismarck in rejecting the urgings of General Count Waldersee, the Prussian army’s Chief of Staff, for preventive war on Russia in 1888-89, and that led Emperor Franz Joseph and several of his chief ministers to resist up to 1914 the various schemes for preventive war promoted by the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff General Conrad von Hoetzendorf.
(3) Let me flesh this out with a little history, not to prove my points (impossible in a short essay) but to illustrate them and keep them from being naked assertions. Four examples of preemptive wars that I consider justified are Prussia’s attack on Saxony in 1756, which set off the Seven Years War, Japan’s attack on Russia in 1904, and Israel’s resort to preemptive attacks on Egypt in 1956 and 1967. In every case all the stated criteria are met. Note, however, that even in these cases those who chose preemptive war were not necessarily blameless, or fighting purely in self-defense. Prussia had largely created the Austro-Russian-French threat against it by its lawless seizure of Austrian Silesia in 1740. Japan, though genuinely threatened by Russian imperialism, also had its own program of imperialism in East Asia. And, as revisionist Israeli historians have proved, territorial expansion was a part of Israeli aims in starting both these wars. Still less do these examples or others make preemptive war, even when justified, necessarily a wise choice or indicate that if victorious it will have good results. The attacking state in all these instances of justified preemptive war won the resulting war or at least did not lose. But each of these preemptive wars, even though successful, led to more conflict and complications later, and the more normal results of preemptive war are much worse. Austria, for example, tried preemptive war twice in the 19th century – against Napoleon in 1809 and against Sardinia-Piedmont in 1859 – and once in the 20th– against Serbia in 1914. In the first and last instances, I would argue (though many historians would disagree) that the Austrians had a pretty good case justifying preemptive war as their only way to remain an independent great power. Yet all three ended disastrously. In other words, preemptive war can occasionally be justified as a last resort, but it is never inherently a good policy – only in certain cases the least bad one available.
(4) There is one possible (in my view, likely) motive for the planned war that I will mention only in this footnote, not because it is unimportant but because it involves too many delicate issues to be discussed adequately here. Some have ascribed President Bush’s determination to oust Saddam Hussein to certain personal or domestic political aims, among them his desire both to emulate his father and to surpass him while avoiding his mistakes, especially the alleged mistake of failing to finish the job of destroying Hussein’s regime in 1991. Without claiming any privileged sources of information, I doubt that these are more than contributing factors. Much more plausible is the suggestion that this plan is being promoted in the interests of Israel. Certainly it is being pushed very hard by a number of influential supporters of Israel of the hawkish neoconservative stripe in and outside the administration (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol and others), and one could easily make the case that a successful preventive war on Iraq would promote particular Israeli security interests more than general American ones.
If this is an important factor, then I would make just two comments. First, it would represent something to my knowledge unique in history. It is common for great powers to try to fight wars by proxy, getting smaller powers to fight for their interests. This would be the first instance I know where a great power (in fact, a superpower) would do the fighting as the proxy of a small client state. Second, while Israel’s survival and security certainly represent a vital interest for the United States, the Middle East, and the world, I am convinced that a preemptive war on Iraq would be as counterproductive in the long run as the Israeli occupation of Lebanon engineered by Ariel Sharon or the current Sharon/Likud efforts to destroy Palestinian resistance and terrorism and abort any independent Palestinian state by sheer military force. There are better ways for America to insure Israel’s survival, including, for example, a full, formal military alliance and territorial guarantee. But that is a separate though closely related topic too vast and complex to open here.