Originally Published: 8/2/2006
PREEMPTION vs. PREVENTION
By The Issue Wonk
We’ve been hearing it since the inception of our attack on Iraq. At first there was a little discussion about it. That quickly faded, however. In light of the potential for additional wars against other countries, I think it’s time to clarify our definitions so that we all understand what is being said. I’m referring, of course, to the Bush “doctrine of preemption” which is really a “doctrine of prevention.”
My Webster’s New World Dictionary is very old, to be sure. In fact, the copyright is 1970. But I don’t imagine definitions have changed significantly. It defines “preemption” as: “action taken to check other action beforehand.” This implies that the action being checked is imminent. Under “prevent” it says: “implies a stopping or keeping from happening, as by some prior action or by interposing an obstacle or impediment.” So, let’s look at these definitions as they pertain to war.
A preemptive war may be justified by an imminent threat of attack, a clear and present danger. In the case of our war on Iraq, however, the administration wanted to neutralize, or prevent, a potential future threat. If the criteria for a preventive war are that a country be dictatorial or despotic and have weapons of mass destruction then we should be invading Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, China, and maybe even Russia, just to name a few. And I won’t even delve into how credible the threat of an attack by Saddam Hussein was. There was just a possibility that, at some time in the indeterminate future, he might have the weaponry to conduct some attacks or give to others to conduct attacks. Vice President Dick Cheney said, “Many of us are convinced the Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon. Just how soon, we cannot really gauge. Intelligence is an uncertain business, even in the best circumstances.”1 This, then, was a preventive attack, not preemptive.
I’m no expert in International Law, and won’t even attempt to sort through those issues. However, the Center for Defense Information says:
While aggression is traditionally considered unlawful, and self-defense lawful, more problematic is the question of whether a first-strike could ever be considered a defensive act rather than an act of aggression. The right of anticipatory self-defense assumes that an aggressor is poised to strike, and that one acts defensively in anticipation of the attack rather than waiting for the attack to occur. Traditionally, it was deemed theoretically possible that even a first-strike could be deemed defensive in nature, and lawful, if it was to forestall an attack that was imminent.
Regardless of the rhetoric and regardless of legality, according Ron Suskind,2 Cheney has invoked the 1% solution. This is the idea that if a terrorist threat is deemed as little as 1% likely to happen, the United States must act as if it’s a certainty. This is not preemption, as no one would refer to a 1% chance of anything as “imminent.” In fact, I don’t know that it could even be called prevention, as a 1% chance of occurrence would not be indicative of something that is likely to happen in the future. Remember these terms as we see another march to war.
1 Press Conference, August 26, 2002. Vice President Speaks at VFW 103rd National Convention. White House.
2 Suskind, Ron. The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
© The Issue Wonk, 2006