October 4, 2002

Who Says We Never Strike First?


In 1587, as Philip II massed a formidable fleet for the invasion of England, Queen Elizabeth did not wait to be attacked. Sir Francis Drake launched a pre-emptive assault and destroyed part of the Armada while it was still anchored in Cádiz. Partly as a result, England won a famous victory the following year.

In 1756, as Austria, Russia and France plotted to crush Prussia, Frederick the Great did not wait to be attacked. He struck first, invading Saxony and Bohemia, and eventually winning important victories against his far more numerous foes.

In 1967, as Arab armies gathered on Israel's borders, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol did not wait to be attacked. Israeli forces struck first and defeated their enemies in just six days.

It is certainly true that pre-emptive wars are not the norm in history. But they are not as rare as President Bush's critics suggest. The president's pre-emption doctrine — and its first application, in Iraq — is firmly rooted in centuries of tradition. Although England, Prussia and Israel all technically struck the first blow, the consensus is that they were smart to do so. Contrariwise, who today thinks it was wise of Britain and France to stay their hands in the 1930's when they could have thwarted Hitler's ambitions early on?

Some critics, such as Michael Walzer, the political theorist, argue that the current threat from Iraq is different from and less immediate than those faced in the past. Attacking Iraq now, they argue, would make this a preventive, not a pre-emptive, war, and hence less morally justified. This is a distinction that may have made sense in the past, when mobilization took time and diplomacy proceeded at a slower pace. But today weapons of mass destruction can be used without warning. For this reason, the distinction between pre-emptive and preventive collapses. "Preventive" actions like Israel's 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility have become essential.

Nevertheless, as Congress and the American people debate war against Iraq, there is unease that pre-emptive war, even to eradicate weapons of mass murder, runs against the American grain. The presumption of those, like Dick Armey, the House majority leader, who have made this argument is that Americans are a generally pacific people who will put down their ploughshares and take up swords only if attacked first. Leave aside the question of whether we can afford for the enemy to strike the first blow when that blow might leave millions dead. What about the historical accuracy of this idea that we are a nation animated by the spirit of Cincinnatus?

As support for this proposition one can cite the defensive justifications offered for major American wars, from the attack on Fort Sumter to the attack on Pearl Harbor. But some supposed provocations do not stand up to much scrutiny — as critics at the time pointed out.

Mexico attacked United States troops in 1846 because they had moved into disputed border territory; President James Polk used this as a convenient casus belli, but he was preparing a war message for Congress even before the attack. A half century later there was no credible evidence (there still isn't) that the Spanish sank the Maine in Havana harbor; Congress declared war anyway to liberate Cuba and flex American muscle. And the United States entered Vietnam not to avenge two attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin (one of which didn't occur) but because President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to prevent the spread of Communism.

This is not to suggest that the United States was necessarily wrong to enter these wars; the Mexican War, Spanish-American War and Vietnam War all had large elements of moral purpose. The point is simply that we have often sought out battle, not waited for it to come to us. Many such interventions have been undertaken as part of America's long-standing commitment to act as a global policeman. Between 1800 and 1934 Marines staged 180 landings abroad. Some were in response to attacks on United States citizens or property but many were launched before such attacks had occurred.

In the 20th century, these interventions often became quite prolonged. Woodrow Wilson sent Marines to occupy Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1915 and 1916, respectively. They wound up staying for 19 years in the former, 8 years in the latter. In neither case had there been a direct attack on the United States. Wilson acted for a variety of motives, but probably uppermost in his mind was a concern that Germany might exploit the political instability on Hispaniola to establish a naval presence that might threaten the Panama Canal.

Are these pre-emptive interventions a relic of bygone imperial days? Not quite. Witness the United States landings in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983. What were these if not pre-emptive assaults? In the former case, President Johnson feared that Communism might take root in the Dominican Republic; in the latter, President Ronald Reagan, regardless of what he said about imperiled medical students, feared that the Soviets might make use of an airfield being built on Grenada.

The Cuban missile crisis fits a similar mold. President Kennedy resisted calls to invade Cuba but he did not stand idly by waiting for Soviet missiles to be activated. He sent the Navy to quarantine Cuba, an act that easily could have sparked World War III. Kennedy acted even though there was no immediate or likely threat the missiles would have been used against the United States.

And what's wrong with that? Diplomatic eminences often natter on about preventive action, making the obvious point that it's better to cure festering ills before they metastasize into something much worse. Admittedly they usually have in mind diplomatic, not military, action. But history suggests America has seldom hesitated to draw the sword when sweet-talking would not suffice.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

© New York Times 2002


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