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The Temptation for Preventative War Just Won’t Go Away

From Hitler’s Germany to Saddam’s Iraq: The Enduring False Promise of Preventive War, Scott A. Silverstone, Rowman & Littlefield, December 2018, 336 pages. [1]

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 [2]. 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 [3] the more than 60 times that former Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol had publicly referenced Hitler and Churchill since the late 1990s.

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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 [1], 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.

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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 [4] 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.

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "The Temptation for Preventative War Just Won’t Go Away"

#1 Comment By david On January 9, 2019 @ 1:39 pm

Chamberlain and Munich are grossly misunderstood and poorly used as a “lessons learned”. When Chamberlain went to Munich he knew that the French prime minister had no intention of going to war with Germany over the Sudetenland one of the many mistakes of the Versailles peace treaty. WWI was in everyone’s mind the horrible death toll and France simply wasn’t prepared to risk another like it. We also forget that the somewhat misnamed “Spanish Flu” came right at the end of WWI and arguably killed more people worldwide than WWI and WWII combined. The “western” powers were not prepared to take the risk. And show me anyone, anyone in 1938 that saw Auschwitz on the horizon. No one did. Also for Chamberlain Britain was still rearming and was in no position to fight a war certainly not alone.

But we also forget that Jefferson said in the Declaration that confronted by a despot, you have the right AND the obligation to deal with him. You do. Others have no obligation to act on your behalf against your despot. Benes, the Czech prime minister had an obligation to mass his troops at the border and oppose Hitler regardless of what Chamberlain did or didn’t do at Munich. He chose to do nothing. He and he alone bears the final responsibility for what happened, it was his country that Hitler was threatening.

Neoconservatives consistently forget all this.

#2 Comment By Sid On January 9, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

The “if only” retrospective narrative often only plays out the scenario wished for.

Rather than the imagined victory for the Brits in the Rhineland, perhaps their progress is slowed long enough for Molotov and Ribbentrop to get together sooner than 1940. Of course then there is no Operation Barbarossa, instead the Red Army joins the fray against the West. There will no D-day because England will be occupied by about 1938…

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On January 9, 2019 @ 2:59 pm

How many of these neocons have worn a uniform and put their life on the line? No, it will be Black kids, Hispanic kids and rural White kids who get killed.

#4 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 9, 2019 @ 3:28 pm

World War II was a continuation of the brief interlude from exhaustion of World War I. Every malignant development can be laid to its pernicious continuation and punishing armistice, events that provoked both the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of the Nazis after the collapse of Wall Street, which had made war reparation loans, led to impoverishment of the middle class worldwide, but particularly in debtor nations like Germany.

It’s always easy to take a snapshot out of context, that completely misinterprets history and misunderstands its lessons, with dire consequences for us now and in the future.

A needed corrective to these delusions (which are also driven by dreams of economic and military empire profits) is Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke,” which from public records of the period between the two phases of the world war reveals how false these canards are, no matter how often repeated as propaganda.

The truth of the matter is, that further wars of choice will not be preventative, but lead to the next wars after that. Which they do not see as a bad thing, either.

#5 Comment By Sid Finster On January 9, 2019 @ 3:35 pm

The neocons also make the mistake of assuming that the United States is ever always only on the side of Good and Right, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact an evil empire.

If anyone is entitled to have an aggressive and muscular foreign policy, it is our supposed enemies.

#6 Comment By Whine Merchant On January 9, 2019 @ 4:38 pm

Like chickens and eggs, at what stage is a ‘preventative war’ not a continuation of pre-existing battle, no matter how long it has been dormant? Is there a distinction between wars of aggression and expansion and self defence? Isn’t the best defence often a strong offence? And what about side-shows and distractions to bolster a leader’s popularity on the home front?

What about lebensraum invasions for “traditional lands” such as the Rhineland, Sudetenland, Gaza or the West Bank? Maybe even manufactured “traditional lands” such as Tibet or the new islands in the South China Sea?

Thank you –

#7 Comment By Nathaniel Hellerstein On January 9, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

My alternate-history machine is on the fritz, so I can neither confirm nor deny anything in this article.

#8 Comment By Tim On January 9, 2019 @ 6:59 pm

Thanks for an interesting, thought provoking piece. The fraught politics of the interwar period has been subjected to reductive oversimplification as surely as hindsight is always 20/20. The photos accompanying the article are testimony to the papering over of the complexity of the situation in Europe, since they depict leaders whose alliance during the first 2 years of the war profoundly effected strategy and foreign policy on all sides. Poles and Finns have never forgotten this, of course, but contemporary Americans who should know better have evident trouble recalling the impact of the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939. Of course, people of the time were well aware of it; it would be most illuminating to read a study of the pact’s influence on the desire of Americans to stay out of the war before Pearl Harbor. The evil collaboration is also conveniently overlooked in most left-leaning interpretations of McCarthyism.

#9 Comment By kingdomofgodflag.info On January 9, 2019 @ 7:00 pm

Regarding preventive war from a Just War perspective:

While I acknowledge that The American Conservative is a national publication devoted to covering American culture and politics, I note that at least some of its writers are Christians. The subject of America’s wars is a common theme here and the Christian writers who cover it do so from a national interest perspective. As a Christian, this puzzles me. I think we can agree that, as Christ was not of this world, we who are his followers are not of this world. We are citizens of the kingdom he inaugurated, manifested by fellow citizens around the world, but living in a kingdom of the world.

America’s wars are prosecuted by a military that includes Christians. They never question the killing their country orders them to do, as though the will of the government is that of the will of God. Is that a safe assumption for them to make? German Christian soldiers made that assumption regarding their government in 1939. Who was there to tell them otherwise? The Church failed. (The Southern Baptist Convention declared the invasion of Iraq a just war in 2003.) This is where the Christian writers of The American Conservative come in. Rather than commenting upon whether a particular war is in the best interest of the kingdom of the world in which they live, they should be considering whether it is the will of God and whether Christians should participate. That means that, if they’re not pacifists, they should be applying Just War criteria in their evaluations. If Just War theory is now irrelevant, we’re left with Christian Pacifism as the default response. Christian soldiers need to know.

#10 Comment By Dimitri Cavalli On January 9, 2019 @ 9:14 pm

The other thing no one asks is why the other European governments didn’t start re-arming (not for preventive war but for self-defense.) Peter Hitchens (“The Good Hitchens Brother”) points out that the British Labour Party consistently opposed re-armament. In fact, the much-maligned America First Committee favored re-armament, which its progressive counterpart, the Keep America Out of War Congress (KAOWC) opposed.

What are readers’ thoughts on the British offering to mediate the Sudenten Crisis on behalf of the Czechs? Wouldn’t it be better to let Czechoslovakia and Germany settle the issue themselves (which would have produced the same result anyway) and not involve themselves?

Am I the only who’s noticed how starting in the 1930s, the left helped create an odd double standard? They condemn even the slightest contacts with Nazis, Fascists, and Latin-American military dictators as “appeasement,” “collaboration,” and “giving moral legitimacy to evil,” but defend negotiations with Communists, including mass murders such as Stalin and Mao, as prudent acts of statesmanship.

#11 Comment By Gibbons of Gibraltar On January 9, 2019 @ 9:25 pm

“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. “

The British Empire verged on bankruptcy after a death-by-a-thousand-cuts policy of fighting preemptive and low-level wars and police actions in dozens of imperial flashpoints, stretched beyond its limits, refusing to recognize the need to retrench and replenish itself. After WWII it did go bankrupt.

You would think that Harvard and Yale educated people like Kristol and Boot would understand these basics. Perhaps they do. And perhaps they ignore it because historical knowledge that might benefit the American imperial core doesn’t necessarily benefit its client states, and they are keener on advancing client state interests than those of the core.

And perhaps they recognize that they themselves are symptomatic of another imperial phenomenon, which is that empires tend to rot from the inside out.

#12 Comment By Rossbach On January 9, 2019 @ 10:19 pm

Britain’s decision to issue a war guarantee to Poland in 1939 was decisive in turning a German-Polish irredentist dispute into a general European war. Ironically, it was a similar irredentist action that triggered WWI.

A policy that only responds to the symptoms of an international dispute instead of addressing the underlying problem is a recipe for global chaos and endless war.

#13 Comment By Waz On January 10, 2019 @ 12:22 am

The premise of the book does not account for the real possibility to prevent the WWII. When Germany attacked Poland Stalin waited 17 days to make sure that England and France will not attack. Hitler shrewdly reading the British and French acted on that assumption. Had the Britain fulfilled their obligations pursuant to the Polish-British pact of 1939 and attacked Germany instead of dropping leaflets the French would likely join, even if they initially did not, Hitler was in no position to win. Even “blitzkrieg” in Poland necessitated a very large military commitment leaving the western flank very vulnerable. Also Poland, attacked from the West, North and South could fight much longer in the eastern provinces with better defensive terrain of Polesie marshes since Stalin would sit still as his strategy was to wait for the West to hemorrhage before joining his numerous comrades in the West to destroy the capitalist monsters. In all likelihood the allied victory would be ensured in relatively short time.
The Brits are the masters of propaganda and their 1939 treachery, cowardice and miscalculation they dearly paid for later are invariably glossed over when 1939 is discussed. And BTW – German atrocities did not start in Auschwitz, over 300.000 civilians perished in the Polish campaign.

#14 Comment By Wayne Lusvardi On January 10, 2019 @ 3:36 am

Was Truman’s dropping two a-bombs on Japan “preventive” of an invasion with massive casualties on both sides?

Did we have no treaties with Britain and France as our allies in the event of war with Germany (after WWI)?

#15 Comment By Michael Kenny On January 10, 2019 @ 7:23 am

It is well established from the Nazi regime’s own documents that Hitler was determined to start a war. Thus, the idea that WWII was “avoidable” doesn’t stand up to analysis. The debate as to whether it might have been better to stand up to Hitler as an earlier stage is wholly theoretical and thus tells us nothing about present or future conflicts. Professor Silverstone’s book is interesting academic speculation but no more than that.

#16 Comment By Dan Green On January 10, 2019 @ 8:27 am

However it happened , for numerous debatable reasons, we will always pursue wars.

#17 Comment By Luke On January 10, 2019 @ 1:52 pm

I’m waiting for the (paleo)conservative view to arise (beyond say Rand Paul) that says making peace with Iran, without trying to buy them off, is in our best interests. Donald Trump is the most likely candidate.

#18 Comment By KD On January 10, 2019 @ 3:47 pm

With respect to Germany, Germany had a much smaller economy with limited access to strategic resources compared to France, England, and the United States.

“Appeasement” was about delaying the onset of war to provide the Allies with additional time to rearm, with an end toward being able to materially overwhelm Germany when they were good and ready.

Hitler’s original plans for war were accelerated in response to the Allies rearmament (when they realized they would be hopelessly outgunned), and the economic disparity between the Axis and Allies always required the Germans to succeed on a short time table.

In hindsight, “appeasement” was a good strategy, as the long game was inevitably going to favor the nation with more human capital and economic production.

“Appeasement” coincided with a massive increase in defense spending in England:

[5]

There was also a spike in US military spending (see page 27):

[6]

Not to mention the Lend/Lease program (which began in 1939).

Unless their fantasies about instant Communist collapse had come true, it was always hopeless for Germany.

#19 Comment By Longtime TAC reader On January 11, 2019 @ 6:32 am

@kingdomofgodflag – yours is a thoughtful, important comment that deserves an answer. I’m not in a position to do that, being a realist as to foreign policy and a Deist as to religion, but I hope one of the Christians here addresses your question with the seriousness and obvious goodwill with which it was asked.

#20 Comment By SteveJ On January 11, 2019 @ 11:35 am

But the political objectives linked with World War II made sense. Why not use the military in such a situation? And a lot sooner than we did.

Germany and Japan were actual nation-states — and on top of that they were nation-states that had lengthy Constitutional periods and then briefly backslid into dictatorship. So removing the dictators and holding national elections made some sense.

In these two ways and others, they are not models for most of the middle east.

For a quality book on when national elections are effective I recommend “America’s Inadvertent Empire” by General Bill Odom and Robert Dujarric.

#21 Comment By peter mcloughlin On January 12, 2019 @ 10:20 am

I haven’t read Silverstone’s book yet, but this article is a very good introduction to it. To quote the reviewer: ‘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.’ If I may add a few insights. The problem for the world, moving ever-closer to nuclear war, is the pattern of history: Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict of the past – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power. Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war. Every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat. Leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid their fate. [7]
But is it possible to stop the world going over the abyss like ‘blind fools’, taken in by ‘preventive war’s false prophecy?’

#22 Comment By Klaud On January 12, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

to david; a new evidence recently surfaced in the Czech archives suggesting that Benes send an secret envoy to France, prior to Munich, offering Sudetenland to Hitler in exchange for peace. The condition was clear, ‘never expose the offer and we will not fight.’