This week, Republican presidential candidate John McCain claimed that he would reserve the right to wage preemptive war, and with good reason. After all, preemptive war could one day be necessary, and every president should reserve the right to wage it.
The problem, however, is that neither John McCain, nor the media for that matter, seem to know what a preemptive war actually is. The Iraq War, for one, was not a preemptive war, but a preventive one. There is a big difference.
While a preemptive war is the act of striking an enemy on the brink of aggression, a preventive war is little more than unprovoked conflict, something that is both criminal under international law, and universally considered to be an immoral act. Preemptive war is about self-defense, while preventive war is the channeling of paranoia, or even worse, ulterior motives.
To better understand the differences, let's look at the textbook example of preemptive war in modern history. Prior to the Six Day War of 1967, Egypt and Syria had been mobilizing their troops for what appeared to spell an imminent attack on Israel. The rhetoric was tense, and the smell of blood was in the air. Having fought two previous wars of survival with its Arab neighbors, Israel decided that it could not wait to be attacked -- it struck first. Israel needed the strategic upper hand that comes with firing the first shots, and many will argue that it had no choice but to act.
A preventive war is something entirely different. Richard Betts of Columbia University's Institute of War and Peace Studies says that a preemptive war is akin to having two cowboys face each other at high noon. One will draw first, shooting in preemptive fashion. A preventive war, on the other hand, would amount to walking up to a cowboy in a saloon while he's playing cards, and shooting him point blank in the head.*
Preventive wars are nothing new. Rome waged its share of preventive conflicts against unruly barbarians. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor knowing (or thinking) that it was just a matter of time before it would have to fight America.
The goal of preventive war has always been to finish off a potential adversary who might or might not one day be powerful enough to pose a serious challenge. A country should consider carefully the kind of historical and ethical legacy it wants to establish, as well as the practical costs associated with acting simply on fears of what might occur one day in the distant future.
In his recent remarks, John McCain seemed to get his definition of preemptive war only half right, saying at a town-hall meeting in Connecticut that "[if] someone is about to launch a weapon that would devastate America, or have the capability to do so, obviously, you would have to act immediately in defense of this nation's national security interests." Someone about to launch a weapon that would devastate a country constitutes an imminent threat. Simply having the capability to do so? That brings us to the dangerous realm of preventive conflict.
The media, unfortunately, have failed to openly discuss the differences between a preemptive war and a preventive one. Like the term "weapons of mass destruction," which gets casually thrown without talk of the specific weapons systems in question, the term "preemptive war" has now taken a life of its own, inexplicably becoming synonymous with the Iraq conflict.
This, from Salon earlier this year: "McCain was among the most aggressive proponents of a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein, cosponsoring the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq."
If we can actually tell the difference between a preemptive war and a preventive one, we might come to terms with the underlying question posed by this war, namely: What kind of threat constitutes an immediate one? Then, and only then, can we begin to grasp the enormity of the blunder we call the Iraq War.
* Engaging Iran, pp. 117-118