Preventive War?

Mr. Kydd is Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University.

In the 2002 State of the Union address and at the West Point graduation ceremony, President Bush articulated a new strategy for the United States in dealing with the threat of terrorism with weapons of mass destruction: preventive war. The president argued pessimistically that "time is not on our side" and that we could not afford to "wait on events, while dangers gather." Americans must be ready for "pre-emptive action" to defend our lives.

The argument is straightforward. In the Cold War, the United States relied upon the threat of nuclear annihilation to deter other states from attacking us or challenging our interests. This strategy of deterrence worked because our main adversary, the Soviet Union, was led by reasonable men who valued their lives and positions and hence had a lot to lose in a nuclear war. Today, however, we face terrorist networks such as Al Qaida that are suicidal and irrational. They have nothing to lose and so are undeterrable. Therefore we need to strike first, to attack these networks and any state that we suspect is sympathetic to them, especially if they have weapons of mass destruction or are close to acquiring them. Time is not on our side because the longer we wait, the greater the destructive capabilities of our enemies and the more likely they are to pass them on to undeterrable terrorist groups.

This is the logic of preventive war, to attack now because our enemies are growing stronger and will attack us later with disastrous consequences. It is better to fight now rather than later, because now our costs will be lower and our chance of prevailing higher. This logic has often motivated decisions to start a war. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides tells us that Sparta attacked Athens because Spartans feared its growing power. The result was a 26 year war that was extremely costly for both sides, and though Sparta did eventually prevail the war so weakened the Greek city states as to invite foreign intervention in their affairs.

More recently, in a case well worth reflecting on, Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century believed it faced a rising threat from Russia. In 1905 Russia was defeated by Japan in the far East, and weakened by revolutionary disturbances at home. With her Russian ally prostrate, France alone was no match for Germany and a dispute over Morocco arose which could have served as a pretext for war. Some Germans advocated attacking at that moment of maximum advantage, but the British stood by the French and the German leadership feared the people would not support them in a war over colonial interests. So Germany waited, and as the years went by, her military and political leaders grew more pessimistic. Russia began to recover from defeat and near-revolution, and her economy began to grow again. Because of Russia's vast population and undeveloped resources, it was clear that if Russia were allowed to grow undisturbed, it would eventually become vastly powerful, perhaps more powerful than Germany. In 1913, in response to German and French military increases, Russia also announced a program to increase the strength of her armed forces and improve her strategic rail system so that she could more quickly bring forces to bear against Germany.

Fearful of the projected increase in Russian power, and convinced that time was not on her side, Germany initiated the First World War in August 1914. The primary goal was to destroy Russia before she grew so strong as to be unconquerable. In this sense, Germany's goal, narrowly speaking, was security, she was acting out of fear and to protect herself, just as the Bush administration wishes to protect America by acting preemptively against Iraq. Unfortunately for Germany, and her neighbors, this quest for security was a catastrophe for all of Europe which was not really healed until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For Germany, though more than a match for her two immediate enemies--the Franco-Russian alliance--was fought to a bloody standstill on the Western front, and though temporarily successful in the east in 1917, lost the war in 1918. The millions of fatalities and deep hatreds engendered by the war led eventually to the rise of Hitler and the Second World War, while the collapse of the Russian autocracy led to the Bolshevik revolution and the eventual Cold War standoff. Thus for Germany, the war produced not security but heavy casualties, defeat, extremism, renewed warfare and devastation, forty five years of partition and permanent territorial losses.

Why did this strategy of preventive war failed to produce the desired results? One key answer is that initiating a war sends the worst possible signal to other states about one's motivations, and hence tends to generate overwhelming counter-coalitions that defeat the initiator. States face constant uncertainty about each other's motivations. Some states just want security, to live in peace with what they have. Others are more aggressively motivated, they want new lands or world domination. Asking a leader about his ultimate intentions is likely to be futile because even a Hitler will claim to have modest ambitions in order to lull potential victims into a false sense of security. Therefore, states look to each other's actions, more than their words, in assessing each other's motivations. States which flout international law, ignore the desires of others, extend their power as far as it will reach, dominate weaker neighbors, etc, signal to others that they have aggressive motivations and cannot be trusted. Such states tend to become encircled with a ring of enemies, as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.

Launching a preventive war is the surest way to generate this kind of self-encirclement. Germany's attack in 1914 persuaded the fence-sitting British that Germany was aggressive and had to be stopped, and British troops helped halt the initial German offensive and held the line for four years. Even distant America was ultimately persuaded that Germany was a threat and entered the war against her in 1917, just in time to stop the 1918 German offensive that otherwise would have won the war for Germany.

The same pattern has been repeated many times. The Japanese pre-emptive strike on Pearl Harbor convinced the Americans that the Japanese militarists had to be destroyed, and hence generated the very determination to fight a long war that Japanese planners hoped would not exist. German and Japanese protests that they were only acting to increase their security fell on deaf ears because actions speak louder than words. Preventive attacks persuade the opponent and third parties that one is an aggressive state, even if they are not motivated by aggression.

In light of this historical pattern, the United States should think long and hard before it adopts a policy of waging preventive war. Our traditional strategy has been to wait for enemies to unambiguously identify themselves, by attacking others or ourselves, and then to respond with overwhelming force and with the aid and blessing of a large coalition of similarly minded states. These coalitions were a product of the aggressive conduct of the enemy, other states saw the same signals we did and shared our beliefs about what needed to be done. If we instead become the initiator, it is the United States that will look aggressive in the eyes of the world, and it is our enemies that will begin to collect allies against us.

In the current conflict with Iraq, we have signally failed to regenerate the coalition that supported us in the Gulf War, and even many of our NATO allies are beginning to distance themselves from us. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaida may be undeterrable. Regime change in Iraq is highly desirable from many points of view. But we should not jump to the conclusion that a Saddam with nuclear weapons would be undeterrable, or that he could not be dissuaded from passing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists by the threat that if we are hit with such weapons, he will be first on the list for retaliation. Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and warheads capable of delivering them during the Gulf War, but refrained from using them presumably because of the threat that U.S. forces would proceed to Baghdad if it did. Before we launch a preventive war, we should carefully consider the alternatives, lest we join Kaiser Wilhelm in the long list of those who sought security through preventive war, but did not find it.

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michael - 12/9/2002

1. pearl harbour WAS japans declaration of war.2. germany was all butdeafeted when the us entered the first ww(sorry your not the heros you thought you were).preventitive war is the sort of 'friendly fire' term only america has a use for, giving the reality of the term legitimsy in crafting historical events around it , for no other reason than to push a current political stance (however nobel)becomes nothing more than another historical propaganda land mine we need to deactivate in order to see the reality.

michael - 12/9/2002

1. pearl harbour WAS japans declaration of war.2. germany was all butdeafeted when the us entered the first ww(sorry your not the heros you thought you were).preventitive war is the sort of 'friendly fire' term only america has a use for, giving the reality of the term legitimsy in crafting historical events around it , for no other reason than to push a current political stance (however nobel)becomes nothing more than another historical propaganda land mine we need to deactivate in order to see the reality.

Benjamin Raty - 10/6/2002

Forgive me if I sounded like an agnostic. It was a knee-jerk reaction to claims that, I felt, sounded a little too sure. I do enjoy reading the various theories being offered, and I agree that insight is gained in this way. I become warry, however, when the line between theory and absolutism is blurred. After re-reading your post, however, I find that I greatly misinterpreted what you were saying. Thank you for setting me straight.

Gus Moner - 9/11/2002

I'm with Dick. Let's make war!

Send in the marines - it's time to do 'regime change' in a kingdom that gives medieval a bad name

Preventive war against whom? The basis for al Quada stems from their disdain for US presence in their Holy land. Most of the perpetrators were Saudis. Why the obsession with Iraq? Are the Saudis any less dictatorial or is it just that their Sheikhs and enormous family who plunder the oil wealth are friendlier towards us?

Read on.

Maureen Dowd
Thursday August 29, 2002
The Guardian

I was dubious at first. But now I think Dick Cheney has it right. Making the case for going to war in the Middle East to veterans on Monday, the vice-president said that "our goal would be... a government that is democratic and pluralistic, a nation where the human rights of every ethnic and religious group are recognised and protected". OK, I'm on board. Let's declare war on Saudi Arabia! Let's do "regime change" in a kingdom that gives medieval a bad name.
By overthrowing the Saudi monarchy, the Cheney-Rummy-Condi-Wolfy-Perle-W contingent could realise its dream of redrawing the Middle East map. Once every one realises that we're no longer being hypocrites, coddling a corrupt, repressive dictatorship that sponsors terrorism even as we plot to crush a corrupt, repressive dictatorship that sponsors terrorism, it will transform our relationship with the Arab world. We won't need Charlotte Beers at the state department, thinking up Madison Avenue slogans to make the Arab avenue love us. ("Democracy! Mm-mm, good.")

If America is going to have a policy of justified pre-emption, in Henry Kissinger's clinical phrase, why not start by chasing out those sorry Saudi royals? If we're willing to knock over Saddam for gassing the Kurds, we should be willing to knock over the Saudis for letting the state-supported religious police burn 15 girls to death last March in a Mecca school, forcing them back inside a fiery building because they tried to flee without their scarves. And shouldn't we pre-empt them before they teach more boys to hate American infidels and before they can stunt the lives of more women?

The vice-president declared on Monday: "This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes." I am absolutely with him. Why should we (and our SUVs) be at the mercy of this family that we arm and protect and go to war for? The Saudis have never formally apologised to America for the 15 Saudi citizens who came here and killed almost 3,000 Americans as they went to work one sun-dappled September morning.

They have never even tried to rewrite their incendiary terrorist-breeding textbooks or stop their newspapers from spewing anti-American, anti-semitic lies, like their stories accusing Jews of drinking children's blood. They brazenly held a telethon, with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah giving millions, to raise money for families of Palestinian suicide bombers, or "martyrs". Last week the Saudi embassy here put out a glossy brochure hailing their "humanitarian work" at the telethon.

It was embarrassing, given President Bush's swagger on Iraq, to watch him fawn over the Saudis on Tuesday. At lunch at his ranch he entertained Prince Bandar, the man who got private planes to spirit Osama bin Laden's relatives out of the US after the attacks. Mr Bush also called Crown Prince Abdullah yesterday to assure him of the "eternal friendship" between their countries and to soothe hurt Saudi feelings over a lawsuit filed by September 11 victims charging Saudi support of terrorism.

Mr Cheney argues that we must invade Iraq while we have a strategic window for action, while Saddam's army is still reeling. But attacking the Saudis would be even easier. They are soft and spoiled. Only this week Jerome Socolovsky of Associated Press wrote about how King Fahd brought thousands of members of the House of Saud to Marbella, where they stocked up on luxury items and hired north African servants. Women in veils and waterproof robes rode jet skis, and members of the royal family talked about the September 11 attacks as an Israeli-CIA plot.

A Saudi invasion would be like the Panama invasion during Bush I. We already have bases to use there. And this time Mr Cheney won't have to beg the royals to use their air space, or send American forces. Once we make Saudi Arabia into our own self-serve gas pump, its neighbours will get the democracy bug.

The Saudis would probably use surrogates to fight anyway. They pay poor workers from other countries to do their menial labour. And they paid the Americans to fight the Iraqis in 1991. The joke among the American forces then was: "What's the Saudi national anthem? Onward, Christian Soldiers."

We haven't been hit at home by any of Saddam's Scud missiles. But the human missiles launched by Saudi Arabia have taken their toll.

© New York Times

Gus Moner - 9/11/2002

True, they were slow to act, nearly a month. But bear in mind, the world moved a lot slower then, and support from key allies had to be obtained. Moreover, lengthy and slow military preparations had to be made. To understand the difficulty in going to war, the most telling example of all is that it took the USA from September to late November to counter-attack beyond its borders.

Regarding the fairly accurate comments on the sequence of events, I agree there was no contrived preventive war by Germany, AH, France or Russia. Again we must bear in mind the slowness of events 92 years back. Serbia refused to capitulate on the most important request; that Austria Hungary be allowed to go into Serbian (as Bush requested of Afghanistan), hunt for and clean up terrorist bases and support elements. Seventy-six years after 1914, sluggish and poor communications gave Saddam the perception the USA approved his Kuwaiti fling. It happens all the time.

It’s more likely that the result of a quicker response, had it been possible (AH was not the powerful USA, remember), would have elicited a similar sequence of blunders, just more rapidly. Therefore, we must always bear in mind the slowness of events 92 years back

“In reality, war followed the unnecessary mobilization of Russia and overreaction of Germany - in response to a distant, Serbian act of terror”.

Yes, but everyone on the continent knew that given the military conditions of the era, once mobilisation began, it would be like dominoes falling. So, in the end, Russia was really the culprit, or at least the initiator. If there was a preventive war motive somewhere it was in the UK, where, licking their chops, they thought they had a perfect opportunity to debilitate Germany, what with France and Russia on their side. The entangled web of alliances and rivalries made all that preceded the UK’s entry a certainty.

Gus Moner - 9/10/2002

While I agree with the most of the points, the general sense and the conclusions of this article, I am astounded at the inaccuracies used in making the case. Many are simply wrong.

“Fearful of the projected increase in Russian power, and convinced that time was not on her side, Germany initiated the First World War in August 1914. The primary goal was to destroy Russia before she grew so strong as to be unconquerable”.

This is wide of the mark. Germany entered the war when Russia mobilised to defend Serbia in the anti-terrorist war launched by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (AHE), whose descendant to the throne had just been murdered by a (Christian Serbian) fanatical terrorist. The entry decision was taken early to achieve tactical military advantage in a situation where Germany was obliged to go to war. It was bound to live up to its defence treaty with the AHE, facing a Russian ultimatum. So, a preventive war launched by Germany? No, an inevitable outcome of the Russians misguided defence of Serbia and their terrorists. In light of what today we all know as moral, just and deserved retribution for terrorism, the AHE was the precursor of a war on terrorism in self-defence.
Given how the Bush administration characterises terorists and the War on Terrorism, imagine what Cheney would do in place of a GW Bush murdered by terrorists!!!

“Germany's attack in 1914 persuaded the fence-sitting British that Germany was aggressive and had to be stopped, and British troops helped halt the initial German offensive and held the line for four years”.

This is another confusing assertion. Britain’s involvement came when the German Schlieffen Plan for war was put into effect. The German strategy to attack France (who had declared war due to a treaty with Russia) through Belgium violated a treaty of Belgian neutrality Britain was bound to uphold. At least, that was their excuse. Perhaps I needn’t add it here, but I shall, that it suited the UK’s interests like kid gloves to fight their main European adversary when two other powerful nations were already at war with Germany. In effect, Britain’s was the only, and real, preventive war!

All the nations made grave miscalculations that led to an appalling conflagration that killed scores of millions and caused suffering beyond description, famines, illness and disease, and most importantly, hatred, to many more scores of millions.

An entire generation was wiped out, nations disappeared and we got the Soviet Union and Fascisms as the consequences. That led to WWII, proxy wars and confrontation world-wide till 1989. That, my friends, is 75 years of mayhem and brutality defying imagination!

What has come since, we all know too well.

By the way, British troops were not involved in the incredible French stand on the River Marne that halted the German War Plan’s advance on Paris.

Ronald Dale Karr - 8/22/2002

In other words, might makes right.

It might be noted that the destruction of Carthage was an important step in transforming Rome from a republic to an empire.

Bill Heuisler - 8/22/2002

Mr. Raty,
What a kill-joy. Part of fascination with the study of history and "alternative history" is to mix variables and enjoy the myriad "theoretical" consequences. The utility of such exercise has demonstrated itself throughout human history: past is usually prologue; we can anticipate by reflecting.
Mr Kydd proposed a theory with a certain outcome; I proposed another. Each of us has factual substantiation for our theory/thesis, but neither can postulate reality without traveling through time. In the ether of ideas either is equally valid or invalid. Take your choice, but don't ask us to be perfectly omniscient or there will be no discussion at all.
Your theory - an argument based on the premise of disproving a theory with another theory doesn't hold up - doesn't hold up. Ask Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Marx, etc. With your posit, why bother discussing anything we can't prove?

Markham Shaw Pyle - 8/22/2002

It is curious how often emanations from, inter alia, Harvard, remind me how thankful I am to have gone to Washington & Lee.

Mr Kydd has, as others have suggested, reached the wrong conclusion; but then, on his flawed and partial premisses, how could he not?

Mr Kydd's chosen sample of past wars achieves two distinct objects of his parti pris position: forcing the conclusion that pre-emptive or preventive warmaking is inherently doomed, and establishing a moral equivalency between any nation that engages in such action and such states as pre-war Showa Japan and the Wilhelmine Reich.

To this is added at least one notable inaccuracy: the statement that British intervention on the side of the Entente powers in 1914 derived solely from a perception that Germany was the aggressor. (That was Italy's loophole.) In fact, not even the strategic logic that has always driven British policy:

firstly of balancing power in Europe by throwing HMG's weight on the side of the secondary powers, so as to prevent any Continental power, rashly aspiring to European domination, from actually becoming a Continental hegemon,

and secondly of never allowing the primary power in Europe to seize the Low Countries and the Channel ports:

not even this ancient rule would have or did suffice to bring Britain into the lists in 1914. Nor, indeed, would have the longstanding, if loose, commitments to the French, which successive governments persisted in viewing as ad hoc despite the moral implications of having allowed the French, in lawyer's terms, to 'detrimentally rely' on them. The only thing that allowed the Liberal government and the House of Commons as a whole to take up arms, and have the country behind them, was the German Empire's violation of the Treaty of London's guaranties of Belgium's neutral status.

Mr Kydd believes, or purports to believe, (A) that waging preventive war or engaging in a preemptive strike necessarily sows dragon's teeth by calling up, against the power so engaged, an insuperable coalition of opponents and (B) that the onus of a preventive war properly ought do precisely that, ought create an unstoppable opposition, as such actions signal that the power engaging in them is morally repugnant and reckless of international law.

These propositions are untenable.

For example, Nelson's actions at Copenhagen, and Moore's in seizing the Spanish treasure flota so as to draw the teeth of any effective implementation of the secret clauses of the Treaty of San Ildefonso, occurred at a time when the correlation of forces was much more balanced, as between Great Britain and Bonaparte's France, than is the correlation of forces between the United States and any imaginable coalition Iraq could acquire. Neither such action – not tactically, not operationally, not strategically, and not, in the end, diplomatically – injured the British cause: rather the reverse.

Certainly neither such action created an overwhelming, reactive coalition in opposition to Albion, however perfidious. On a pragmatic basis, preventive actions are not inherently counter-productive.

Another classic instance may be taken from Mr Kydd's own chosen ground, the Great War. While it was not an act of outright war, it was certainly a hostile act on the part of HMG – or more specifically, the Admiralty; more accurately still, on the part of Winston Churchill – to seize the two Ottoman warships, the Sultan Osman and the Reshadiah (later HMSS Agincourt and Erin), then a-building on the Clyde. But we now know, and have for years known, that this affected events not a whit: it was not the motive for, nor would its non-occurrence have prevented, the Ottoman decision to throw in with the Second Reich. Similarly, whilst the Ottoman Empire was ostensibly neutral, but already secretly allied with the Germans, it would have been the better choice, and might have been the only thing that could have caused the Sublime Porte to renege on that alliance, for Berkeley Milne's hot pursuit of the SMSS Goeben and Breslau – which promptly became the ostensibly Turkish vessels, Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midillih – to have continued into Turkish waters, despite that's being an act of war.

A similar situation occurred at Oran, of course, when the Royal Navy, in Operation Catapult, sank the French fleet in July, 1940: a pre-emptive act of war against a fallen ally.

Has anyone seen the victorious, coalition-supported, righteously-angry, defiant-of-British-aggression Ottoman Empire or Vichy France recently? I thought not.

As a final counter-example, I advert to the IAF's destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981. There was a good deal of tut-tutting at the time, but I don't care to imagine what the First Gulf War would have been like for the coalition had the Israelis not acted preemptively a decade before it.

One must conclude that Mr Kydd has failed to make the prudential argument against acts of preemptive war. What of the moral argument, then?

The next question Mr Kydd poses – or rather, does not pose, but insinuates by weaseling around the subject – is whether preventive acts of war are indeed perfidious. They need not be.

It cannot be too much stressed that Iraq is not a party to any universal treaty ending the hostilities of the First Gulf War. It is a party to an armistice, which armistice, along with all relevant United Nations resolutions, it has been in blatant, flagrant, and daily violation of since the day the armistice was signed.

By comparison, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich as its successor – for the violations did not begin only under Hitler, or only after 1933 – were signatories to the Treaty of Versailles, which legally transformed the 1918 armistice into a peace, and of a number of other ancillary pacts and treaties, notably the 1925 Locarno Pacts. The German regimes of the interwar period were moreover bound by various League of Nations resolutions, its Covenant having been incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles and Germany having become a member of the League in 1926, although it subsequently withdrew therefrom, in 1933.

In short, Germany in the interwar years was technically at peace with the rest of the world, not merely in a period of armistice during which hostilities were suspended.

Nonetheless, Germany then, as Iraq has done since the First Gulf War armistice, engaged in continuing material violations of its obligations, more than sufficient to create a casus belli under any reckoning.

It is fashionable, of late, to suggest that the Chamberlain government was right, albeit for the wrong reasons, not to go to war with the Third Reich at the time of the seizure of Austria or the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia: the correlation of forces, it is argued, was unfavorable, and the Western powers required time to rearm, especially once they failed to secure Soviet cooperation and still more after the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact worked out by Ribbentrop and Molotov. This argument overlooks the plain and unquestioned fact that Britain – and France – had become relatively weaker than the Nazi regime through prolonged inaction and the failure to wage preemptive war.

At numerous stages in what Churchill called the 'long, downward slurge,' the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments had just cause and ample power to engage in pre-emptive action that would have staved off the Second World War and the Holocaust. Open German defiance of the arms limitation provisions of the Versailles Treaty; denunciation of that treaty; the reoccupation, and then in 1936 the militarization, of the Rhineland: each such action on Germany's part would have justified preventive measures by the Great War Allied Powers. Each was allowed to pass without effective, armed response. In each instance, it was the failure by the civilized powers to act that increased Hitler's domestic as well as projected power, riveted further shackles upon the Germans and the peoples of the lands they occupied, undercut any possible German resistance movement, and made war and genocide inevitable. The direct and proximately caused result of this supine dereliction of duty by successive British and French governments was the death of millions in the Second World War and in the Holocaust within German-held territories.

If German actions in the interwar period, relative to an actual peace treaty, various pacts, and the deliberations of the League of Nations, were – as they assuredly were – just cause for preemptive war, how much more, a fortiori, are Iraq's similar acts in violation of a mere armistice that suspended but did not conclude hostilities justly undertaken by this nation under all precepts of international law and at the behest of the United Nations?

Would it have been perfidious, or the mark of an aggressor, for Britain and France to have taken any of these successive German acts as a casus belli and to have waged preventive war against Germany before its might increased and its plans matured? Of course not: to pose the question is to reveal its absurdity. What was immoral, perfidious, and base was the failure to wage preemptive war, and the blood of millions is upon the hands of the Cliveden Set and the Labour Party of the Twenties and Thirties and the pacifists and the Baldwin-Chamberlain Tories and the appeasers. In short – not to be overly subtle in pointing the moral and adorning the tale – the moral responsibility for failing to prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust rests in large measure upon the intellectual and spiritual progenitors of Mr Kydd and his fellow modern appeasers.

No doubt Mr Kydd is a brilliant and distinguished scholar of government, an ornament of Harvard, kind to his mother, and one of nature's gentlemen. But as a military historian and as an ethicist, he is a failure, and his article, of suggestio falsi and suppressio veri all compound, is folly.

Benjamin Raty - 8/21/2002

That historians claim the first World War would have been prevented had certain steps been taken is easy to say, but not so easy to prove. I haven't met an analyst yet who could comprehend all possible variables and their outcomes to any historical situation. Especially one with a theoretical ending.

An argument based upon the premise that you can disprove a theory with another theory doesn't hold up well.

Dave Linz - 8/21/2002

Iraq lacks the great/super power allies to intervene which caused the misfortunes cited in the 1914 example..

James Thornton - 8/20/2002

I respectfully disagree with the professor on the grounds that the military power of the U.S. today and that of Germany and Sparta is like comparing apples and oranges. While Sparta and Germany may have been major military powers in their day, they cannot compare to the U.S. of today. I think a more correct analogy could be made with Rome. The Roman Republic launched pre-emptive strikes on Carthage to establish a buffer in the First Punic War, and to further Roman interests in Spain in the Second Punic War. Remembering that Carthage had pillaged the Italian Peninsula during that war, Rome initiated the Third Punic War fearing a revitalized Carthage and completely destroyed the Carthaginians. The U.S. today spends more than all of the other major powers on defense COMBINED according to the special edition of the Economist on American power. Never in history has the world witnessed a nation with such a concentration of military, economic, or cultural power as the United States currently possesses. A coalition of enemies banding together against the U.S. is diminished because it is more in the interests of major powers to enjoy good relations with the US than to be hostile towards it. Note all the nations that declared support for the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in the wake of 9/11. No nation would commit suicide by openly endorsing the attack and even sponsor states moved quickly to denounce the attack with the exception of Iraq. Once the U.S. makes it clear that it will stay the course on waging war against Saddam's Ba'ath regime many of the current naysayers will quickly join our side to have a say in the post-Saddam peace. The worse thing that the U.S. could now do is not attack. By not doing so it will not only give Saddam a victory and damage American credibility, it will also say to all of the regimes around the world that the U.S. can be influenced through aggressive diplomacy and that it pays to stockpile Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Terrorist organizations will therefore be enbolded to acquire these terrible weapons and nations hostile to the US which are willing to gamble that there will be no "smoking gun" will be more inclined to grant stateless organizations the means to inflict terrible damage upon the United States. A pre-emptive war against Iraq is therefore vital to the national security of the United States. The U.S. now only needs to execute a better public diplomacy campaign to not only strengthen the resolve of the American public, but to also convince the world that we are acting in not only American interests, but have the world's interests at heart.

Bill Heuisler - 8/20/2002

In my opinion, Professor Kydd's example disproves his argument. Many historians believe swift Austro-Hungarian reaction to the Sarajevo terror attack may well have prevented a wider war.
On June 27th, 1914 five terrorists, four Serbs and a Bosnian Muslim, murdered a Duke and Duchess. This rather provincial event ignited the First World War because The Austro-Hungarian Empire delayed for diplomacy rather than destroying the terrorist-sponsor government immediately. The First World War was caused not by precipitate (pre-emptive) action, but by the paralysis of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Hungarian Count Tisza in the face of Serbian-sponsored terrorist atrocity.
In eerie similarity to today, failure to act against the mindless barbarity of terrorist societies - Narodna Odbrana and the "Union of Death" or Serbian Black Hand - led to largely reflexive declarations and stubborn ultimata among costive cousins. Sluggish communication and confused allies played out a terrible farce: Aging Franz Josef feared decisions; German Minister of war, Falkenhayn, was told not to mobilize while his Kaiser went on a Nordic cruise; as late as July 25th the Serbs were ready to capitulate to aimless Austria; on 27 July Sazonov, Russian Foreign Minister, proposed a moderation of the already tentative Austrian terms; British Foreign Secretary, Grey proposed a Four Power conference; on the 28th Russia's Chief of Staff, Janushkevich, announced full mobilization. Madness tangled with stupidity, but there was no contrived pre-emption.
Which, in retrospect, is too bad.
To quote John Keegan, "Had Austria struck at once in anger, trumpeting dynastic wrath and righteous belief in Serbia's guilt, Europe might have allowed her to mount positive measures without outside interference. Russia, a great Slav brother, had tender feelings toward the Serbs, but feelings are different from vital interests and certainly no motive for war." In reality, war followed the unnecessary mobilization of Russia and overreaction of Germany - in response to a distant, Serbian act of terror.
How different our last Century might have been had the Austrians "pre-emptively" attacked Serbia while the Duke and Duchess were still warm.
Bill Heuisler

Tom Spencer - 8/19/2002

Mr. Kydd --

Nice job! In my blog last week on this site I asked for similar historic situations to the one facing us now and you answered me just this week! This is an interesting and insightful article. I can't help but notice that none of the "preventive wars" you cite as examples turned out well. That really should caution us.

Thanks again for your article.

Tom Spencer

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