In a December column in the Washington Post, reformed conservative Max Boot bemoaned the emergence of competing visions for American foreign policy, led by Trumpian skeptics on the right and progressive leaders, such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, on the left. These visions, Boot said, were in opposition to his own beloved doctrine of primacy and an American-led international order.
“For decades, elites in the United States had a consensus on foreign policy: They believed that championing a liberal world order was in our interest,” he writes. But now “we are seeing a new left-right axis emerge around protectionism and isolationism—the very policies whose failure during the 1930s ultimately led to the internationalist consensus of the postwar period.”
The allusion to the 1930s is a common refrain for neoconservatives, and also not easy to counter. After all, no one argues that Hitler’s rise, igniting the worst conflict in all of human history, was a good thing. In 2015, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait catalogued the more than 60 times that former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol had publicly referenced Hitler and Churchill since the late 1990s.
To Kristol, Boot, et al, the lesson of the 1930s is that a muscular foreign policy, and the steely resolve to nip thorny problems in the bud with military force if necessary, is essential for security. Retrenchment is national suicide. As Boot writes, opponents of primacy are “oblivious to the events of the more distant past—particularly the 1914-1945 period—that discredited the policy of disengagement.”
The idea behind this argument, and the subject of an incisive and important new book from West Point’s Scott Silverstone, From Hitler’s Germany to Saddam’s Iraq: The Enduring False Promise of Preventive War, is that World War II was ultimately avoidable. Conventional wisdom suggests that Great Britain’s decision to not meet the Nazi threat head-on allowed the world to fall into war. If only they’d the resolve to confront Hitler militarily, particularly after German remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the war could have been avoided.
Silverstone, an IR professor at the U.S. Military Academy and a fellow at New America, deftly challenges this conventional wisdom. Preventive war against Hitler offered a false promise. “No matter how appealing the claim that preventive war held the key to solving the European security dilemma simply does not hold up to close scrutiny,” Silverstone writes. “In fact, the decision to reject preventive war in 1936 was a sensible strategic choice…. They faced a genuinely tragic situation with no simple fix.”
Preventive war is an alluring temptation, particularly in the context of Hobbesian-style international anarchy, a world with no supranational political authority. States live in fear of what others will do with the power they possess. This fear is heightened during power shifts, when a once powerful state is on the decline, while others rise in power. This creates an inherent fear of the future.
The uncertain nature of the international system can lead states to “see domination as the only viable solution. Here we find the origins of the preventive war temptation, its promise most seductive when leaders see it as a way to eliminate their fears at the source.” The logic is simple: you strike at an early enough point in a power shift “before the rival is potent enough to pose the threat that haunts your vision of the future.”
The world is not so simple though. The paradox of preventive war is that military success is distinct from strategic success. You can best your opponent in battle, but that doesn’t mean you have reached a political solution that creates the conditions for lasting security and peace. Instead, engaging in preventive conflict can incentivize the very behavior it seeks to prevent, creating the conditions for less security in the future.
An illustrative example is the Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Neoconservatives and primacists paint Israel’s actions as a prudent move, one the U.S. should emulate. John Bolton, national security advisor to President Trump, used the Osirak strike as a model in a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times for how the U.S. could forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It was widely believed that Israel successfully derailed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions when it took out the reactor.
Ironically enough, the 2003 U.S. invasion allowed new evidence to come to light that casts doubt on this position, according to Silverstone. Instead of “disrupting a coherent and determined Iraqi plan to develop nuclear weapons, Israel’s preventive attack actually was a decisive moment that spurred Iraq’s efforts along this dangerous path,” he writes, “making it more likely that Iraq would become a nuclear power with time.” While Saddam had said publicly in the mid-’70s that he sought the bomb, by the early ’80s, no progress had been made. The Iraqi nuclear program was “directionless and disorganized,” poorly structured, and had no budget and limited staff.
But this changed after the Israeli attack, as Saddam began devoting significant resources toward developing nuclear weapons. “In 1987 Saddam’s scientists reported they were ready to move towards weaponization, and estimated that they could produce the first bomb in the mid-1990s,” Silverstone writes. It was only with Iraq’s defeat in the First Gulf War that Saddam’s nuclear ambitions were destroyed.
This same logic applies to the 1930s and Great Britain’s reaction to a rising Nazi Germany. It’s very easy to sit in 1948, 1968, or 2018, and judge London’s actions with the clear vision of hindsight. But in 1936, the British government was forced to ask itself the hard question of how to successfully contain German aggression while creating lasting conditions for peace. They feared preventive war would only make things worse. “They were constrained by the preventive war paradox—the notion that victory on the battlefield would not deliver strategic success and truly neutralize the German threat,” Silverstone writes.
Instead, they worried that “short-term victory would simply fire up the desire for revenge, adding to the pent-up frustrations that were already pushing Germany to change the terms of Versailles.” Confronting Germany in the Rhineland would “sow the dragon’s teeth of spiraling conflict and lead to the Armageddon they all wanted to avoid.”
Instead of blind fools embarking on a suicide mission, Silverstone shows that Britain in the mid-1930s was in the midst of a complicated debate over the proper way to respond to Nazi Germany, recognizing that there was no silver bullet and preventive war could very well backfire and make things worse. True peace and security requires political solutions, not merely dominating your rival on the battlefield. The ingredients for a lasting political solution were not present.
Silverstone’s book provides an important and necessary model for thinking about the costs and benefits of any given military action. Given the disastrous experience of the Iraq war, we would do well to remind future preventive war hawks (of which there will inevitably be many), whether we’re dealing with a nuclear Iran or a rising China, of the history of preventive war’s false prophecy.
Jerrod A. Laber is a D.C.-based writer and journalist, and a contributor for Young Voices. His work has been published in The National Interest, Defense One, and the Columbus Dispatch, among many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.