Preventive Wars: The Antithesis of Realpolitik

"Like torture and genocide, preventive war is a foreign policy option which civilized countries deny to themselves, at some cost if necessary." 

In the domestic debate about the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations including the United States, it is often routinely asserted, by Democrats and Republicans alike, that “all options are on the table,” including “the military option,” by which is meant an unprovoked preventive war by the United States or perhaps Israel to destroy Iranian facilities which might be used to produce nuclear weapons. The casual and widespread acceptance of “the military option” is a disturbing development.

Before the presidency of George W. Bush, preventive war was not considered a legitimate tool of anti-proliferation by the United States. In 2003, the United States fought the only preventive war in its history, on the pretext of preventing Saddam Hussein from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. The inadvertent result was the disintegration of Iraq, a regional Sunni-Shia proxy war and the emergence of the Islamic State. The preventive war against Iraq was the stupidest blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy. That some Americans today, only twelve years later, can even consider the possibility of repeating that blunder in the case of Iran is as remarkable as it is appalling.

International law distinguishes between preemptive war, which is legal, and preventive war, which is not. In 1842, following an incursion into U.S. territory by British forces against anti-British Canadian rebels, Secretary of State Daniel Webster made the classic observation that a preemptive attack is justified only when a state can “show a necessity of self‐defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”

Six years later, in 1848, Abraham Lincoln dismissed the Polk administration’s use of Texas-Mexico border skirmishes as an excuse for the invasion, occupation and dismemberment of Mexico: “If, today, [the president] should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us'; but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.’”

The distinction between preemptive and preventive war is a matter of common sense and basic morality. In December 1941, the United States would have been justified in defending itself by attacking the Japanese fleet before it could reach Pearl Harbor. But it would have been criminal folly if the United States had bombed Japanese factories and shipyards in 1921, on the theory that some of their output might be used in a sneak attack on the United States at some point in the next few decades.

Incurring the costs of war to avert a speculative future threat which may never materialize is the antithesis of realpolitik. Otto von Bismarck, one of history’s great realists, is often quoted as saying “preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death.” In his memoirs, Bismarck considered “the question whether it was desirable, as regards a war which we should probably have to face sooner or later, to bring it on anticipation before the adversary could improve his preparations.” Bismarck argued that the uncertainties were too great—“one cannot see the cards of Providence far enough ahead.”

Following the unprovoked  June 7, 1981 Israeli air strike against Iraqi nuclear facilities in Osirak, Iraq, the Reagan administration supported a unanimous UN Security Council resolution which condemned the Israeli raid. Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick compared the “shocking” Israeli attack to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, like Reagan a conservative friendly toward Israel, also condemned the raid. Thatcher told the House of Commons:  “Just because a country is trying to manufacture energy from nuclear sources, it must not be believed that she is doing something totally wrong.”

The repudiation of preventive war as a tool of statecraft has served the United States and its allies well. Unfortunately, to justify its unnecessary and disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush sought to redefine preemptive war so broadly that the distinction between preemptive and preventive war collapsed. Bush’s strategy was encapsulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy:

"For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.