For months Washington and the world have been debating the Bush administration’s professed desire to carry out a pre-emptive war against Iraq. In early August, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat of Delaware), opened hearings on the anticipated conflict. A week later the House majority leader, Dick Armey (Republican of Texas), declared that in the absence of convincing justification, a U.S. attack on Iraq would violate international law.
In the United Kingdom, Pax Christi circulated a denunciation of U.S. war plans that garnered the signatures of Anglican and Catholic bishops, including that of the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Jordan’s King Abdullah visited the White House to caution the president against an attack and to deny U.S. troops permission to use his country as a launching pad for an invasion. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, campaigning for re-election, has been openly running against a U.S. attack on Iraq.
In both international law and just-war analysis, pre-emptive war is itself a problematic notion. The accepted norm in international affairs is that nations may resort to armed force only in defense against aggression; pre-emptive strikes are forbidden. Even those who would justify such attacks acknowledge that they may be permitted only by way of exception in the most extreme circumstances. Indeed, the in extremis justification is far from universally accepted.
The widely used, though far from authoritative, twin standard for pre-emptive strikes is that for such an attack to be allowed, the risk of an enemy attack must be both grave and imminent. Even the defenders of the Bush policy do not try to make the case that an attack by Iraq on the United States is likely to occur soon. What they fear is either that at some time in the future Saddam Hussein might unleash weapons of mass destruction against the United States in a massive terrorist attack or, more likely, that he would launch an attack on nearby Israel. But they cannot make a case for an imminent attack, because the evidence is lacking.
Unlike the test of imminence, the question of gravity is seldom discussed. The advocates of pre-emption seem to presume that the potential use of any weapon of mass destruction would count as an injustice of significant gravity to justify an unprovoked U.S. attack. But the gravity in question has to do not with a damaging blow, but rather with a disabling one, which would undermine the targeted country’s military capacity and so put the nation’s survival at risk.
Such may have been the case, as some have argued, in the 1972 Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It is not now the case between the United States and Iraq, nor will it be in the foreseeable future. The United States is the world’s pre-eminent military power, and any Iraqi attack employing weapons of mass destruction, while threatening, is not likely to challenge U.S. national survival. The conditions of extremity simply do not exist.
If war talk does not meet the ethical test, rhetorically it still conveys a message that needs to be challenged. After Sept. 11, 2001, a heightened sense of insecurity has made many people ready to accept exceptional measures without argument. For the average American, limiting U.S. military options to the case of national extremity may seem too scrupulous. Americans remain highly sensitive to the damage that can be wrought by weapons of mass destruction. Pre-emption seems to offer a quick fix.
The administration and its cheerleaders need to be reminded that war is a remedy of last resort precisely because it risks so much. Increasingly those risks are borne not by the military, but by civilian populations. The likely scenario for a U.S. invasion of Iraq places the fighting in populated areas. War against Iraq would put other populations at risk as well. To begin with, there are the Kurds and the Shiites now protected by U.S. and British no-fly zones, who have repeatedly been victims of Saddam’s cruelty. There are also the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, who would likely suffer directly from Saddam Hussein’s retaliatory strikes, and their neighbors, especially in Jordan and Syria, who will not be immune from the spread of contagion or radiation.
In the absence of solid evidence, then, that Saddam’s weapons capacity represents an imminent and grave threat to the United States, the notion of a pre-emptive strike needs to be resisted energetically. For the good of the nation and of the world, the president’s advisers, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and the dark thinkers who gather round them, hawking pre-emption, need to be contained.