Moral and Philosophical foundations of the Doctrine of Preemption
More than fifty years ago the French Nobel laureate Albert Camus looking back on the two World Wars asked of the world: When do we have the right to kill our fellow human beings or let them be killed? This question is relevant even more today with the Bush administration invading Iraq in 2003 taking recourse to the doctrine of preemption.
Is it just possible that the United States may have done the right thing by launching a global war on terrorism after 9/11? While in international law, nations do have the right to self-defense, the US has taken upon itself to preempt any security challenge to it, from any source. This led to the invasion of Iraq and today the US faces a civil war in that country. Civil strife is definitely not desired, more so when it has possibilities of spilling over across the region.
It is hard not to draw the conclusion based on the experience of the US that the doctrine of preemption on which the Iraq war is based is inherently flawed and is in fact dangerous. After all, if the US has the right to preempt what it perceives as a threat to it from other nations or organizations, every nation in the world is likely to claim the right to do so. Is that not so? Additionally, there is a world of difference between retaliating against a known aggressor, i.e., a state or an organization to doing so against an invisible enemy, an unknown terrorist, whose location may not be precise.
The fourth-century bishop, St. Augustine, set very high standards to justify war. He really re-articulated what was by then already a set of familiar theories and contextualized them in the light of Christian moral theology. He noted that the cause must be just and should be designed to overcome a “grave evil”, such as the suffering of innocents. St Augustine also emphasized that only a “legitimate authority” could wage a just war. And he suggested that it must have a strong prospect of success – where the “good” resulting from the conflict outweighed the harm inflicted. And war must be employed only as a “last resort.” The transition from the warfare then and now is dramatic and makes mankind seek answers to old questions of how to justify war.
The 13th century theologist, Thomas Acquinas also took much from Augustine’s philosophy when formulating a ‘just war’ doctrine. The 17th century jurists Grotius and Pufendorf, who set out a prescriptive and regulative process on how war should “rightly” be fought, then developed it. They also made observations on when a nation-state had the right to start a war. Taking the moral high ground in a conflict often gives it support, as the senior President Bush did when the US invaded Iraq in 1990-91 to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was termed as a “Just War” and it provided the moral underpinning of a fight between “Good” and “Evil”. But there is nothing ‘just’ about the present war in Iraq. A just war is based on the principle of proportionality and provides immunity to non-combatants. In theory this is good, but in reality, the 1990 Gulf War witnessed large number of civilian casualties; what the Americans termed as “collateral damage.” Therefore even there one faces a problem of the right moral grounding or logic for war.
Revenge, retribution and retaliation are words often used in the modern lexicon for being able to prevent the enemy from attacking you. Hannibal’s centuries old adage “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” is about revenge. But it begs the question as to whether the person who attacks first has not already crossed the line. Therefore, in order to punish the enemy for one act, which we perceive as being wrong, we retaliate. Do two wrongs make a right? That is the question that comes to mind. And by aiming to prevent the perceived enemy from attacking us, we engage in preemption. This gives us the power to judge that the other party is guilty of acts known and unknown.
Preemption is also about being able to prevent acts of aggression against oneself. That is sending out messages to potential aggressors that aggressive behaviour towards an individual or a nation will not be tolerated. Most commonly this is a societal task, in terms of sending messages to criminals that by setting an example to one, it is hoped that others will be deterred. But the issue is how does one deter acts of terrorism? By engaging in terrorism? That seems to be morally indefensible.
The September 2002 US National Security Strategy states that the country faces an “imminent threat” from global terrorism. “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction — weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly and used without warning.” (NSS, 2002). What is given here is probably accurate, given the 9/11 experience.
But does it justify a doctrine of preemption and that too against Iraq? It is of note that Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a September 13, 2002 letter to President Bush that: “Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.” (Gregory, 2003).
Bishop Gregory (2003) further asked Bush whether a preemptive attack would “succeed in thwarting serious threats or, instead, provoke the very kind of attacks that it is intended to prevent?” An October 2002 Central Intelligence Agency “White Paper” answered this question. Saddam, the paper concluded, is unlikely to use weapons of mass destruction unless attacked. So what is the justification for this doctrine of preemption against Iraq even under the just war theory of “proportionality” and “prospect of success.” (Brown, 2003). It fails on both counts.
The question really is what gives legitimacy to a decision to exact revenge from unknown and unseen enemies who in the first place do not hesitate to kill even non-combatants. This is a difficult one because the post 9/11 world appears to be heading in the direction of prevention of terrorist attacks and in this there will be civilian casualties. Can the non-combatant casualties be reduced?
Michael Walzer (1977) argues in the context of the Catholic doctrine of Double Effect. The original theory makes a distinction between the intended action and the actual impact of the action foreseen. It is all very well to argue that such action is permissible if the death of innocents is not intended. Walzer (1977) points out that in battle conditions, the soldiers are actually focused on the enemy and there should also be signs of a positive commitment to save civilian lives even this implies that lives of soldiers will be at risk.
Ironically, the US National Security Strategy undermines the sovereignty of the sole superpower in the world by disrespecting the sovereignty of other nations. America’s assumed moral leadership of the world is not a result of a democratic process; it is not even an ethical one. This ‘leadership’ is rather one that arises from its military might, its economic muscle and its preparation to use such utilitarian justified but strictly realist actions as pre-emptive war itself. It makes sense to ask how one can fight a war to defend values that the war itself flouts. As Morgan (2000, 191) argues: “Even if whom the state may legitimately deploy extreme measures, the other is ultimately never capable of precise definition and identification in practice.”
Can one argue that the Iraq war is morally justifiable as a humanitarian intervention? This is to suggest that the aim of the invasion in 2003 was to defend the Iraqi people from mass slaughter by Saddam’s brutal regime. It would be wrong to apply the doctrine of humanitarian intervention retrospectively to justify the invasion by arguing that Saddam should be punished for his past record, such as the mass killing of Kurds in the Anfal campaign. This occurred almost 15 years before the 2003 invasion. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention requires actually occurring or imminent large-scale killing to justify the use of military force because it is essentially a principle that permits the defense of others. Otherwise it does not hold good.
Any war which is not very regulated cannot be justified on utilitarian principles. (Ellis, 1992). The very unregulated nature of this new style of pre-emptive war undermines the values and the ethics that are the very foundations of a human rights- and law-based society. Ironically, the ultimate and true utilitarian objection to pre-emptive action and such a transformation to the ancient jus ad bellum doctrine, therefore, is that it corrosively de-legitimizes the state.
There is an interesting analogy generated on the doctrine of preemption. This correlates American action worldwide to the cowboy who colonized the West. The cowboy saw himself as a superior human being to the ones he colonized. This was much like the civilizing mission that the Europeans saw themselves as doing in their colonies, in Asia and Africa. There was also the good-evil dichotomy in most of these narratives about the cowboys in America’s wild west. Like the cowboy, the Bush doctrine presupposes a sense of superiority, a lack of willingness to negotiate and carries with it a “democratizing” mission. The aim is to democratize the world!
The world is told by President Bush that it fighting for or dying and standing up for freedom and democracy in Iraq is worth it. But no one bothered to ask the Iraqi people who were killed in the war and continue to be killed every day whether they were willing to sacrifice their lives as part of a global process initiated by the US to instill democracy in countries they choose to do so. One feels that the minimum that the people of a nation can expect from anyone trying to impose democracy onto their nation, is that the nation trying to do so must first honour the principle that any mayhem caused is with representation of the indigenous people.
This actually provides the moral underpinning to the civilizing mission of the US. Like the cowboy who tamed the savages, the US is today justifying the use of violence to bring democracy to the various corners of the world. Not only is such action justified, it also means that the US has to do it alone. Despite the best claims of President Bush, clearly his own allies in the war on Iraq are beginning to feel uneasy at the prospects of getting further embroiled in the quagmire.
Therefore, what we have before us today is the vital question of whether preemption is a morally justifiable doctrine. As seen above it cannot be justified, because it tends to make an assumption about the nature of the aggressor and presupposes that because a threat is likely to emerge, it is okay to use force, military force, to put down such violence. (Crawford, 2003). This is despite the fact that the likelihood of inflicting more than intended damage to innocent people is ever present. It is incorrect to hide the fact of civilian killings by calling it “collateral damage.” This means that the world is poised dangerously for a new wave of a conflict, both within nations and between nations, as societies strive to morally and philosophically justify for engaging in war.
Crawford, Neta C. (2003). The Slippery Slope to Preventative War. Ethics and International Affairs, 17, 1, 2003.
Ellis, Anthony. (1992) Utilitarianism and International Ethics in Terry Nardin and David Mapel, eds., Traditions of International Ethics. Cambridge.
Morgan, Rod. (2000). The utilitarian justification of torture. Punishment & Society, Vol. 2(2): 181-196.
NSS. (2002). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The White House: Washington D.C., September 2002.
Walzer, Michael. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars. Basic Books: 1977.
Gregory, Wilton D. (2003). Statement on War with Iraq.
March 19, 2003. Accessed at http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/peace/stm31903.htm on 28 March 2007.
Jackson, Robert. “The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States.” Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2000.
Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. Basic Books: 1977.
Brown, Chris. “Self-Defense in an Imperfect World.” Ethics and International Affairs, 17, 1, 2003.
Crawford, Neta C. The Slippery Slope to Preventative War. Ethics and International Affairs, 17, 1, 2003.
Ellis, Anthony. “Utilitarianism and International Ethics.” in Terry Nardin and David Mapel, eds., Traditions of International Ethics. Cambridge, 1992.
Morgan, Rod. “The utilitarian justification of torture.” in Punishment & Society, Vol. 2(2): 181-196.SAGE Publications: London, 2000.
Nichols, Thomas M. “Just War, Not Prevention.” Ethics and International Affairs, 17, 1, 2003.
NSS. (2002). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The White House: Washington D.C., September 2002.