Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 the justification of pre-emptive, or in that case preventive war, has been seriously questioned. With the benefit of hindsight opponents of the war have cited the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction or significant ties to Al-Qaeda (the ostensible reasons given for the Invasion of Iraq) to criticize the Bush Doctrine, which promoted pre-emptive action against potential threats to the United States. However, while it can be argued that the United States was mistaken about Iraq’s potential of being a threat, this does not mean that the concept of pre-emption is inherently flawed. Historically, nations have used pre-emptive strikes in order to gain military advantages in unavoidable wars, as well as to eliminate hostile threats before they become too dangerous. In other word, pre-emptive and preventive wars are effective in forestalling imminent threats as well as potential ones.
There is a key difference between the two types of war. A pre-emptive attack (or pre-emptive war) is waged in an attempt to repel or defeat an imminent offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (usually unavoidable) war, whereas the rationale for preventive war is the claimed prevention of a possible future attack. Put simply, the difference is that a pre-emptive war is waged to eliminate an immediate threat while a preventive war is initiated to prevent such a threat from developing. The political significance is that the former can usually be justified as self-defence while the latter can be seen as an act of aggression since the targeted state has yet to become a serious threat to the nation concerned.
Pre-emptive strikes give the attacker many advantages. By invading a threatening nation the attacker can fight the war on the enemy’s soil while safeguarding its own. This stratagem has been frequently adopted by Israel, a small country that is vulnerable to being quickly overrun. While Israel fought and won two relatively short and bloodless wars when it pre-empted its enemies in 1956 and 1967, it suffered heavy casualties in two longer conflicts when it failed to pre-empt the Arabs in 1948 and 1973.
Additionally, pre-emption can allow a state surrounded by hostile nations to strike first and keep opposing powers off balance and unable to execute their initial plans. For example, Frederick the Great pre-empted his enemies at the outset of the 7 Years’ War by invading Saxony and managed to catch the Saxons and Austrians off balance. Another example was when the Germans pre-empted the allies in 1916 by attacking the French at Verdun. The allies had planned to attack Germany simultaneously on all fronts, in order to limit its advantage in interior lines, which allowed it to move reserves quicker to threatened sectors than the allies. By attacking the French army, the most effective allied army at that point in the war, the Germans seized the initiative and took much force out of the allies’ combined offensives later that year.
However, perhaps the greatest advantage of a pre-emptive strike is the potential of inflicting a knockout blow on the enemy from which it is unable to recover. Arguably the best example of this was the Israeli air strike that crippled the Egyptian Air Force, the centre of gravity for the Arab war effort, at the outset of the Six Day War. The Schlieffen plan initiated by the Germans at the outset of the First World War was another attempt to inflict a knock out blow, and while it ultimately failed to knock France out of the war it at least allowed the Germans to fight on French territory for the rest of the war (no major battles were fought on German soil on the western front during the entire conflict). All of these advantages demonstrate that it is often safer to pre-empt the enemy rather than waiting for him to attack.
Preventive wars are waged in order to rout hostile nations before they become significant threats. These wars are planned when policy makers determine that a hostile state is becoming a significant threat to their nation and conclude that diplomacy is futile and war is inevitable. Machiavelli summarized such an attitude when he wrote in The Prince that “there is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of others.”
The attacker enjoys all the same advantages in preventive warfare as in pre-emptive warfare. The key difference is timing. Preventive wars are launched to destroy stillborn threats, not imminent ones. Needless to say, the additional advantage of a preventive war is the relative inferiority of the enemy. Since the point of initiating a preventive war is to prevent an enemy nation from even becoming a serious threat it is assumed the enemy will be unable to effectively resist attack. A few examples of preventive wars include the Third Punic War, where Rome was afraid of a resurgent Carthage after its defeat during the Second Punic War, the German attack on the Soviet Union, where Hitler wanted to defeat the Russian army before it recovered from Stalin’s purges, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 when President George Bush Junior decided he could not risk Iraq providing terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
Pre-emptive and preventive wars are interpreted differently according to international law. As stated above, pre-emptive wars can be justified by self-defence, while preventive wars are often seen as acts of aggression. Pre-emptive wars are usually seen as just because international law recognizes that states have the right to defend themselves against imminent threats. However, it is much harder to justify invading a country that poses no immediate threat to the concerned nation. This is why international law does not distinguish preventive wars from acts of aggression.
If international law condoned preventive wars, nations would be less constrained to attack other countries, even if the targeted nation in question was not a potential threat. Obviously some nations would take advantage of this in order to settle old scores, annex territory, procure vital resources like oil or water reserves, etc. As Frederick the Great cynically noted about his seizure of Silesia from the Austrians during the 18th Century, “I begin by taking. I shall find scholars later to demonstrate my perfect right.”
This interpretation of international law explains why many nations, besides those who had cynical interests in keeping Saddam Hussein in power like France and Russia, opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The United States could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Iraq posed an imminent threat, or that its motives in deposing Saddam Hussein were just. It should be stated that this war was not a pre-emptive war, but a preventive war, as the United States was attacking Iraq before it could become a direct threat. However, the threat of terrorism does much to complicate the theory and definitions of preventive and pre-emptive wars.
One argument President Bush made for the invasion was that it would deny terrorists from procuring weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. While it has been established after the invasion that Iraq did not possessed such weapons, this does not rid the international community of a serious problem: What to do with rogue states that have the potential to build weapons of mass destruction and have significant ties to terrorist organizations. With hindsight, Iraq posed no such threat, but a nation such as Iran, which is close to developing the technology to build nuclear weapons and has indisputable connections to terrorist organizations, does.
Pre-emptive and preventive wars are more effective at defending nations than waiting to be attacked. Pre-emptive wars allow the concerned nation to wage war on the enemy’s soil, keep its enemies off balance, and offer it the chance to inflict a knockout blow. Preventive wars offer the additional advantage of easily overcoming the targeted nation because it has yet to become a serious threat. There are many moral and philosophical questions regarding the validity of pre-emption, but it cannot be said that it is an ineffective means for countries to defend themselves against hostile nations. The unfortunate case of Iraq has significantly reduced pre-emption as a serious option for democratic nations to defend themselves. While it goes without saying that pre-emption should never be the first option, it should at least be considered.
Even though war should only be waged when necessary and inevitable, history has shown that democracies often wait until the last minute to defend themselves. For a perfect example, it is widely accepted that had the French and British stood up to Hitler during the mid 1930s that Germany would not have been able to stop them. Instead, the French and British appeased Hitler as he tore up the Versailles Treaty, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938. Even during the crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938, they told Czechoslovakia, which was an ally of France, to give in to Hitler’s demands. If France and Britain had invaded Germany before 1939 it is more than likely that World War 2 would have been prevented and millions of lives would not have been lost in the most bloody war in history. Winston Churchill, the venerable British statesman whose name is synonymous with effective wartime leadership, was once asked by President Roosevelt during the war what the conflict should be named. Churchill’s response was instantaneous, “The unnecessary war.”
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Churchill, Winston. The Second World War. London: Mariner Books, 1948.
Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146 BC. London: Cassell, 2004.
Marston, Daniel. The Seven Years’ War. Osprey: Oxford, 2001.
Jafarzadeh, Alireza. The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the coming Nuclear Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Oren, Michael. Six Days of War. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson. The First World War. London: Cassell, 1999.
Warner, Philip. World War Two: The untold story. London: Cassell, 2002.
Wikipedia article on The Bush Doctrine [Online]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_Doctrine [2011, January]
Wikipedia article on Pre-emptive War [Online]:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-emptive_war [2011, March]
Wikipedia article on Preventive War [Online] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preventive_war [2011, February]