Home/Daniel Larison/ISIS, Preventive War, and “Pacifism”

ISIS, Preventive War, and “Pacifism”

Richard Epstein grossly misrepresents Rand Paul’s positions here, but the more remarkable thing is how readily he still embraces the logic of preventive war after it has done so much damage to both the U.S. and the Near East:

It is hardly wise to wait until ISIS is strong enough to mount a direct attack on the United States, when its operatives, acting out of safe havens, can commit serious acts of aggression against ourselves and our allies. It is far better to intervene too soon than to wait too long [bold mine-DL].

If the U.S. made a habit of attacking every group or state that might conceivably be able to launch an attack on the U.S. or its allies, it would be at war without interruption. Even when limited to the specific case of ISIS, this is mostly alarmism in place of analysis. According to what the government claims to know about ISIS’ intentions and capabilities, it is not planning to attack the U.S., and it is also not able to do so. To the extent that it is a threat to the U.S., it is not one that is so unmanageable that it absolutely demands military action in Iraq or Syria. It may make sense to cooperate with some of the governments that ISIS currently threatens when they request assistance, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the U.S. should commit itself to a major military campaign to that end.

When people talk about “destroying ISIS,” they are setting a goal that doesn’t seem to be realistic at an acceptable cost, and their policy would require committing the U.S. to a war in Iraq and Syria that would almost certainly ensnare the U.S. in the latter country’s ongoing civil war for years to come. Opposing such a poorly thought-through and ill-defined policy doesn’t amount to pacifism, as Epstein tendentiously claims, and one doesn’t need to be anything close to a pacifist to see the dangers of overreacting to potential threats with military action on a regular basis. ISIS and other groups like it thrive on such militarized overreaction, which is one reason why it is doubtful that such a group can ever be thoroughly “destroyed” without creating more like it in the process.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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