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Pre-emption and Preventive War

Andrew Roberts defends sneak attacks:

When—and it is most probably now a question of when, rather than if—Israel is forced to bomb Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities, the Israeli government will immediately face a cacophony of denunciation from the press in America and abroad; the international left; the United Nations General Assembly; 20 secretly delighted but fantastically hypocritical Arab states; some Democratic legislators in Washington, D.C.; and a large assortment of European politicians. Critics will doubtless harp on about international law and claim that no right exists for pre-emptive military action.

Roberts’ op-ed is another attempt to refashion what would obviously be an illegal, aggressive war as a war of self-defense. This is hardly the first time this has been done in recent years or in the long history of warfare, but it’s important to recognize this as the propaganda that it is. If Israel bombed Iran, it wouldn’t be pre-empting an Iranian attack. Since Israel apparently lacks the capabilities to do much more than set back Iran’s nuclear program by a few years and an Israeli attack would make the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon more likely, it wouldn’t even be a successful preventive measure.

Some hawks have made a point of deliberately confusing concepts of pre-emption and prevention in order to justify the latter as a form of pre-emptive self-defense. Pre-emption can be legally justified under a broad definition of self-defense, and international law affirms the right of self-defense, but there is no way to justify preventive war as defensive in nature. It is simple aggression committed in order to inflict a large amount of damage against another state. If Israel were so foolish as to start a war with Iran, that war would certainly be illegal under international law as a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter. There would also be some well-known historical precedents for launching sneak attacks on another country, but Israel and its supporters wouldn’t want to boast about these comparisons.

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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