Monday, August 09, 2004

Important Distinctions: Preemption vs. Prevention

Almost every story I see that discusses the justification for the invasion of Iraq frames the national defense aspect of the case in terms of preemption. It is also common to see people refer to a "Bush Doctrine" of preemptive war.

These are errors.

First, there is, to the best of my knowledge, no question that a preemptive war can be just. Poland, for example, would obviously have been justified in attacking Germany in August of 1939. I believe that Aquinas and Grotius both admit that preemptive attacks are morally defensible.

Second, however, the invasion of Iraq was apparently not a preemptive attack. A preemptive attack occurs when nation A has good reason to believe that an attack by nation B is imminent and A attacks B in order to...well...preempt B's attack.

A preventive war, on the other hand, is apparently a war undertaken under conditions that fall short of those required for preemption--undertaken, that is, in order to prevent a possible (but not probable) future attack. That is, a preventive war is one that is initiated for purposes of national defense, but not in response to an imminent threat. Grotius, as I recall, specifically says that such attacks--attacks initiated purely out of fear and not in response to an immediate threat--are not just.

The contrast is apparently analogous to this one: if I see you go for your gun and have good reason to think that you are going to shoot at me, I do not have to wait for you to take the first shot, but am entitled to shoot you first. However if I merely know that you are kind of a dangerous character and suspect that you might try to shoot me some day, I am not ipso facto entitled to shoot you. These points seem beyond doubt to me.

The case of Iraq, however, is complicated by the duplicity of the Bush administration. There is little doubt that in the run-up to the war they intended to convince us that the threat from Iraq was imminent. They were, in effect, strongly suggesting and hoping that we would believe that we were starting a preemptive war. However, after it became undeniable that Iraq posed no imminent threat, the administration repudiated its earlier position, pointing out that they had usually been careful to avoid describing the threat as 'imminent,' using cognates such as 'immediate' instead. Now, if 'immediate' is synonymous with 'imminent' then the administration's point is senseless and changes nothing: they said that the threat was imminent/immediate, whereas the best evidence indicated it was not, ergo (ignoring details about a possible humanitarian justification) the war was unjust.

However, if the Bush administration is right and 'imminent' and 'immediate' are not synonymous, and if immediacy is something less than imminence, and if the threat from Iraq was merely immediate and not imminent, then the war was merely preventive hence unjust.

So, the preemption/prevention distinction is an important one.

(I suppose it goes without saying that there are more relevant details here that I don't discuss. And, of course, it goes without saying that I may be wrong about some of the details. As is always the case, this post is supposed to be the next word, not the last word, in this bit of public inquiry.)


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