“Under what conditions, if any, may a country wage a preventive war of self-defense?” That’s the first question on last semester’s War and Justice exam at the University of Edinburgh. In layman’s terms: When can you go to war in order to address something not happening now, but something you expect to happen later? It’s a very practical question. In 1941, Japan struck Pearl Harbor, presumably to prevent the U.S. navy from being able to strike at them. In 1967, Israel launched the Six-Day War by decimating Egyptian air fields in anticipation of a massive Egyptian-Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi invasion. In 2003, the United States went to war in Iraq in order to prevent – in advance – the use of weapons of mass destruction. Wars are often justified in terms of self-defense, but does it count when the defense happens before the attack? Thanks for tuning in; it’s philosophy night.
First off, a warning about Just War Theory. If you’re a pacifist (you don’t think we should be going to war in the first place) or a realist (you don’t think it matters whether a war is right or wrong; it’s going to happen anyway), you’ll have to put that aside for a while. We’re talking about justice in war; whether or not that’s possible, we’re talking about what it would look like if it were.
American philosopher Michael Walzer explains preventive war as a war fought to prevent an anticipated change in the balance of power. The 2003 Iraq War is a good example; the U.S. feared that Iraq was developing weapons which, at some point in the future, could pose a threat. Preventive wars are justified on fears, often backed by the arguments that fighting them will preserve long-term peace and that fighting early will save more lives than fighting later. Similar logic could be used to justify an invasion of modern-day Iran, under fear of their developing nuclear program.
But Walzer argues that preventive wars are something of a slippery slope. It’s hard to tell what might happen a long way down the line, and allowing war every time someone thinks something might go wrong can lead to a whole lot of “frivolous” fighting.
Law professor David Luban agrees. After all, how are states to judge just how much ‘threat’ is enough to justify preventive war? Maybe if your enemy is amassing troops along the border, that looks pretty bad… but what about when they’re just increasing their military budget? Or just their general budget? Or what if they look at you funny at the UN?
If fear is all it takes, India and Pakistan should launch the missiles now. And they’d both be justified, too. After all, they could argue they were just preventing the other side from launching the preventive war first! Clearly, an allowance for preventive war has the potential to spiral out of control.
Window of Opportunity
But surely we can’t commit our armies not to fire unless fired upon. It sounds like a good policy for policemen, but this is war. Enemies have the capacity to launch nuclear warheads, capable of destroying entire cities in one go. You want to wait until after they’ve launched before you take out the targets?
When the Israelis launched Operation Opera in 1981, destroying an Iraqi nuclear reactor with an air strike, they argued that they were preventing a nuclear threat while they still had the chance. Much longer, goes the logic, and it could have been too late to act. (The Iranians, who had damaged the same nuclear facility months prior in a similar operation, made the same argument.) Surely, then, there are practical reasons for needing to be able to strike ahead of time: to maintain an element of surprise, to destroy a weapon before it can be deployed, to strike before reinforcements arrive, and so on.
But, as we’ve seen, justifying just any old preventive attack is dangerous. So what kind of conditions can we set up?
Walzer draws a distinction between preventive war and so-called preemptive strikes. If you want your operation to count as a preemptive strike, you have to meet the qualifications:
1) Enemy has intent to injure
2) Enemy has taken preparations, making the intent an imminent danger
3) Failure to act increases the risk of danger
If that’s the situation, then you can launch a preemptive strike, which Walzer considers justified. There’s a threat, it’s imminent, and doing something about it now is better than not. Fire away.
That’s pretty good, but there’s still ambiguity. How do we know if the danger is imminent? Take Iran, for example. It’s talked about destroying Israel (intent), and it’s funded militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah which carry out attacks against Israel (acting on intent). Now it’s developing a nuclear program (preparations). So is a preemptive strike justified? Or is the intent just talk; are the preparations just clean energy initiatives? Would it really be so risky to leave them alone?
Maybe we need more restrictions. In an effort to avert excessive confrontations, Luban suggests that only “rouge states,” that is, militant states with violent track records and a growing capacity to threaten, are legitimate targets of preemptive action. Hitler’s Germany is the poster child here. But rouge states are hard to define. This is starting to sound more like a don’t-do-it-unless-there-are-Nazis exception than a broadly applicable principle.
Supposing we manage to work out which threats are imminent or rouge, is it then alright for just anyone to step in and do something about it? Luban suggests that only those states threatened can launch the preemptive attack. This is interesting.
On the one hand, it’s a rather unfair restriction. If your country is weak, you’ll have a rough time taking down your enemy’s nuclear facility. Why can’t your powerful ally help you out? Such a restrictive policy would advantage wealthier, more capable states, both offensively and defensively.
On the other hand, argues Luban, allowing preemptive war on behalf of third parties encourages a great deal more war. Weak states would begin asking for assistance far too often, as they would not bear the cost (financial or lives-lost) of their allies’ operation. Meanwhile, strong states would encourage weak allies to “ask” for protection any time they sought an excuse to go blow something up. Ergo, a more violent world.
But there are problems with this reasoning. Firstly, weak states would not necessarily be led to seek preemptive assistance more frequently. Should their strong allies fail (or even should they not), they could easily provoke the enemy into war, resulting in great danger to the weak state. Moreover, just because the weak state asks doesn’t mean the strong ally will go for it. The strong ally has the costs to consider. Does it really want to commit to wars every time one of its little friends gets in a fight on the playground?
As for the tendency for the strong to seek new excuses, this is a legitimate concern. But going to war with the wrong intention (that is, under pretenses) is already unjustifiable under Just War Theory. Besides, the strong states would need to find a weak state in actual imminent danger of attack. And if there’s a weak state in imminent danger, all the better that it be defended.
Borrowing from a domestic analogy: If someone is about to be murdered, and you can kill the murderer, may you? Surely the aggressor has forfeited his right to life, and the victim may shoot him, had he the means. Any hesitance to allow vigilante interference surely stems from a belief that the law enforcement is best qualified to make life-and-death judgement calls. But in the arena of states under anarchy, there only law enforcement comes from one another. If one state is threatened, its lack of military means shouldn’t amount to a forfeit of its rights.
It’s true that we can’t launch preventive wars against every possible danger, in part because we cannot anticipate all possible dangers, but importantly because far too much war would result. However, we can attack before ‘they’ do, so long as conditions are met. An imminent threat seems like a good, albeit inexact, requirement. It echoes the Just War sentiment of last resort; because the threat is so near, there’s no time to resort to anything else. It’s kill or be killed, and ‘be killed’ is worse.
As for only using preemptive strikes against certain types of states, or only so long as third parties do not get involved, such measures would certainly reduce the numbers of preventive strikes, but without good reason. They are fairly arbitrary restrictions on who can take defensive measures against whom. The weak should not be deprived of their allies in preemptive war when they would be permitted to call upon them in other defensive wars.
The bad news is, this question didn’t show up on the exam, despite my having written this mock-essay-disguised-as-a-blog-post Sunday night.
The good news is, a different question did – and in preparation for that, I had a 35-comment discussion on Facebook with some mates. Looks like slacking off online counts as studying, after all.
Learn British: Sorted. To work out, get settled. As in, “I didn’t understand how to do the assignment, so I went to the tutor and got it sorted”, or, “Are you all sorted to go home this weekend?”