Friday, October 4, 2002

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Preemption, prevention, and surprise

In an effort to counter Michael Walzer’s argument that an attack on Iraq would be an unjust war, Max Boot argues that the U.S. has a long tradition of acting pre-emptively. Boot is right on the history, but that doesn’t necessarily undercut Walzer’s thesis. Just because states have a history of pursuing a particular activity does not mean that the activity is therefore a good and just one. I’m not saying Walzer is correct. If you look at U.S. actions in the region for the past two decades – tacitly and not-so-tacitly supporting Saddam, stationing large numbers of troops in Saudi Arabia, leading an embargo that Saddam has allowed to devastate the Iraqi people – America has a moral obligation to fix the problem. I’ve said this before, but Andrew Sullivan says it today with a louder megaphone [What about Kristoff’s argument that the Iraqi people will resist Yankee imperialists?—ed. I’m shocked, shocked that under the current regime Iraqis are making anti-American noises!! Why, it could be like Nicaragua or Afghanistan all over again.]

This debate about preemption vs. prevention confuses a key point, however. A key difference between the cases that Boot and other anti-war critics cite and this case is the element of surprise. What makes many uncomfortable is the notion of the U.S. attacking without provocation and warning. And there’s no question, the bar should be pretty high for the U.S. to engage in those types of attacks. What’s being debated now is whether there is sufficient provocation; I think there has been, but it’s not a settled question. However, the framing of this debate has led pro-attack commentators like Boot to rely on historical cases of surprise attacks to defend their position.

That’s a mistake, because no one is going to be surprised if the U.S. attacks Iraq. It’s not going to happen before a Congressional resolution passes, and it likely won’t happen without U.N. Security Council action as well as a consultation process with key allies that has lasted at least six months. Allegations that the Bush administration is acting like a unilateral, gung-ho cowboy are absurd; the Iraq question will have had as much due process as any decision to wage war in modern history.

If anti-war commentators want to argue that there’s insufficient provocation for an attack, fine, make that argument. But no one should insinuate that this will also be a surprise attack.

posted by Dan on 10.04.02 at 12:09 PM