Sunday, September 23, 2007

Pre-emptive vs. “preventive” war — A vital distinction

In his 1956 short story “The Minority Report,” science fiction author Philip K. Dick considered a future where murders are prevented — and their would-be (but not-yet) perpetrators punished — by Precrime, a system which interprets the visions of three mutant, “precognative” humans or “pre-cogs.” (I've not read the story, but highly recommend the 2002 film adaptaion by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise.)

It's astonishing that while we consider the idea of preventive punishment absurd and abhorrent on an interpersonal level, we readily accept it on an international level.

Today, the United States operates a de facto Department of Pre-War. Since 2002, we claim not only the ability to see into the future and discern with certainty the eventual aggressive actions of our enemies, but also the moral authority to act upon those visions, and to punish the would-be (but not-yet) perpetrators.

Just War doctrine does, in fact, allow for pre-emptive war. If a nation has evidence that they are clearly in danger of an imminent attack, they don't have to wait to be hit first and then retaliate. They can pre-empt the attack with a counter-attack of their own:
Having a sufficient cause is the most important condition justifying war. Historically this has involved (a) self-defense (b) against an act of aggression and (c) used as a last resort. Initiating an act of war violates this requirement, since the only sufficient reason for warfare is self-defense against physical aggression.

The right to preempt an anticipated attack can be extrapolated from the self-defense principle if preemptive strikes meet a high standard of justification: the attack being prevented must be imminent, not merely conjectured or vaguely feared in the long run.

But with the advent of the “Bush doctrine,” the US has supplanted the lawful (pre-emption) with the unlawful (prevention). This became crystal clear to me when I read the following [my bold]:
The contributors to Hitting First have criticized the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS 2002), because it deliberately confuses “preemptive” war, initiated in the face of an imminent threat and thus considered legal under international law, with “preventive” war, which, under international law, is indistinguishable from naked aggression. As Tom Rockmore notes: “It follows that defensive, or preemptive, war, which is intended to respond to a clear and present danger, including an ongoing or clearly looming attack, is moral, hence licit or justified. But what the Bush administration calls ‘preemptive’ war, which is widely regarded as preventive, or offensive, war, designed for a situation when an attack is not clearly in the offing, when it may not ever take place, is immoral, hence illicit or unjustified.” [Ibid, p. 146]

According to Mr. Rockmore, in NSS 2002, “the term ‘preemptive’ is being used, perhaps deliberately, in a nonstandard way that extends and broadens the justification for the United States to wage war against real or imagined adversaries. The consequence is to turn on its head the very idea that military action should be defensive only.” [Ibid, p. 140] Although many Americans might remain confused by such slight of hand, the rest of the world has seen through the ruse.

~ Walter C. Uhler, “Deceit About Iraq: ‘Things Related and Not’” (a review of Hitting First: Preventive Force in U.S. Security Policy, ed. by William W. Keller and Gordon R. Mitchell)
A preventive war is not a just war for the same reason arrest and punishment to prevent a possible crime is not justice.

While police (or citizens, in fact) may act to pre-empt a crime that appears to be imminent, they may not act to prevent a possible “future” crime. The same principle holds true for nations. They may act in response to an imminent threat; they may not act to “prevent” some possible future act of aggression.

Knowledge of the future is an attribute of God alone. And when the State claims both certain knowledge of the future and the moral authority to act on that knowledge, it is appropriating to itself this divine attribute.

(See also “A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy,” by Wendell Berry, Orion magazine, March/April 2003.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Followed you through your post on Will Griggs site. Just wanted to say that since the "State" will always justify its actions whether they're true or not. The later more likely. They'll cloak themselves in the mantle of "national security" and refuse to elaborate further. It is for you, slave/citizen, to discern the tea leaves and divine whether their mutterings are descended from heaven. But woe if you should proclaim they erupt from hell.