The Immorality of Preemptive War
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian and onetime
aide to President Kennedy, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
New York -
One of the astonishing events of present months is the presentation of
preventive war as a legitimate and moral instrument of United States foreign
This has not always been the case. Dec. 7, 1941, on which day the Japanese
launched a preventative strike against the US Navy, has gone down in history
as a date that will live in infamy. During the Cold War, advocates of
preventive war were dismissed as a bunch of loonies. When Robert Kennedy
called the notion of a preventive attach on the Cuban missile sites "Pearl
Harbor in reverse," and added, "For 175 years we have not been
that kind of country," he swung the ExCom-President Kennedy's special
group of advisors-from an airstrike to a blockade.
The policy of containment plus deterrence won the Cold War. After the
collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone thanked heaven that the preventive-war
loonies had never got into power in any major country.
Today, alas, they appear to be in power in the US. Rebaptizing preventive
war as preemptive war doesn't change its character. Preventive war is
based on the proposition that it is possible to foretell with certainty
what is to come.
The Bush administration hawks just know, if we do not act today, that
something horrible will happen to us tomorrow. Vice President Dick Cheney
and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld evidently see themselves as Steven
Spielberg's "precogs" in "Minority Report," who are
psychically equipped to avert crimes that are about to be committed.
Certainty about prediction is an illusion. One thing that history keeps
teaching us is that the future is full of surprises and outwits all our
Consider the instant case: Iraq. The policy of containment plus deterrence
has kept Saddam Hussein behind his own frontiers for the last decade.
What is it that Pentagon precogs know he is planning? What is the clear
and present danger, the direct and immediate threat, to justify sending
the Army into Iraq?
Do the administration's precogs expect that he will use his mass-destruction
arsenal against Kuwait? Against Israel? Against the US?
Since Hussein is not interested in suicide, he is unlikely to do any of
these things. Aggression would play into American hands. By using his
weaponry, Hussein would give the US president his heart's desire-a reason
the world would accept for invading Iraq and enforcing regime change.
The one thing that would very probably lead Hussein to resort to his ghastly
weapons would be just this invasion of Iraq by the US.
Meanwhile, the containment policy seems to be working. If it doesn't work,
war is always an option. And Hussein, after all, is mortal. He is sure
to be gone one of these days. What is so vital about getting rid of him
next week or next month?
The possibilities of history are far richer and more various than the
human mind is likely to conceive-and the arrogance of leaders who are
sure they can predict the future invites retribution.
"The hardest strokes of heaven," the English historian Sir Herbert
Butterfield has written, "fall in history upon those who imagine
that they can control things in a sovereign manner, playing providence
not only for themselves but for the far future-reaching out into the future
with the wrong kind of farsightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky
calculations in which there must never be a single mistake."
Unilateral preventive war is neither legitimate nor moral. It is illegitimate
and immoral. For more than 200 years we have not been that kind of country.
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