Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.1 (Spring 2003): Roundtable: Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force: Just War Not Prevention [Full Text]

Mar 2, 2003

The debate over going to war in Iraq has in many quarters become a debate about the ethical implications of preemption and prevention rather than about the war itself. But neither prevention nor preemption can have any moral standing in the abstract, since it is the circumstances, not the concepts, that inform their qualities as strategies. The question, rather, is whether the decision to engage in a new war against the Iraqi regime is just.

Indeed, it is surprising to find that so much less has been said about basic principles of just war—that is, a just cause, a right intention, proportionality, and so on—than about the largely legal questions of preemption and prevention. But concepts like preemption and prevention are really about the timing and method of war; they say nothing about the moral content of the conflict itself, and in the end an emphasis on them obscures the fundamental question of justice. Put another way, if a particular military action, including launching war, is just and proper, then the means and scheduling are subject, like anything else, to scrutiny under the guidance of the principles of just war. But they are not separate questions in and of themselves.


An attack on Iraq would represent a legitimate recourse to war by a coalition of powers exercising their collective right to engage in the last resort of violence against a regime whose actions have finally rendered any other course impossible. It is not clear that such a move against Saddam Hussein and his regime would even qualify as "prevention"; preventive war envisions an attack on an enemy based on a naked calculation of power that favors the attacker, a situation that may be temporary and that the initiator must seize or lose. This is not the case in Iraq. Even if Saddam uses weapons of mass destruction, it would increase the casualties to coalition forces, but Baghdad would without doubt lose any such war now or in the foreseeable future.

More to the point, Iraq itself long ago provided ample justifications for the United States and its allies to go to war that have nothing to do with prevention and everything to do with justice. To say that Saddam’s grasping for weapons of mass destruction is the final straw, and that it is utterly intolerable to allow Saddam or anyone like him to gain a nuclear weapon, is true but does not then invalidate every other reason for war by subsuming them under some sort of putative ban on prevention.

The record provides ample evidence of the justice of a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Iraq has shown itself to be a serial aggressor led by a dictator willing to run imprudent risks, including an attack on the civilians of a noncombatant nation during the Persian Gulf War; a supreme enemy of human rights that has already used weapons of mass destruction against civilians; a consistent violator of both UN resolutions and the terms of the 1991 cease-fire treaty, to say nothing of the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions before and since the Persian Gulf War; a terrorist entity that has attempted to reach beyond its own borders to support and engage in illegal activities that have included the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president; and most important, a state that has relentlessly sought nuclear arms against all international demands that it cease such efforts.

Any one of these would be sufficient cause to remove Saddam and his regime (and wars have started over less), but taken together they are a brief for what can only be considered a just war. Preventive and preemptive war are weighty questions, but they are the wrong questions as we remind ourselves why it is long past time to liberate Iraq. Two issues, defiance of UN resolutions and recent Iraqi aggression, illustrate the importance of the matter of justice and the relative unimportance of preemption and prevention.


Resolutions by the UN Security Council are by themselves perhaps the weakest justification for war. They are political products reflecting varying degrees of wisdom—witness the spiteful resolutions against Israel. Nevertheless, in 1991 the Security Council authorized the use of force against Iraq, and then as now the recourse to force was manifestly just and need not have rested on a political document produced in New York.

What makes these resolutions relevant to the Iraqi situation is not that the United Nations has issued them over the past decade, but that Saddam has pretended to accept them. In a repeating pattern, Iraq is served notice with resolutions, agrees to them, and then breaks them. The noncompliance with weapons inspections is just the most obvious example, but the point is that Saddam has now established, permanently and by his own doing, that he can never be trusted, and that no agreement with him now or in the future has any realistic hope of being observed.

There is no longer a credible way to envision any peaceful road to Iraqi disarmament. If Saddam were to open his warehouses, destroy his nuclear, chemical, and biological programs, and sign a pledge never to seek such weapons again, it would not be enough. He has pledged and promised and agreed, and then reneged, so many times that only the most trusting (or cynical) diplomats would encourage him to play and win such a pointless game one more time.

Ironically, Iraq might have avoided the necessity to reach this conclusion had it simply rejected the demands of the international community out of hand. It is easier to reach an agreement with an honest enemy than with a false friend; even the Soviet Union understood that repeatedly abrogating its own agreements would not, in the end, serve it well if all ability to negotiate with its enemies broke down. If after a decade of summary refusal to abide by UN resolutions rogue regimes like Baghdad or Pyongyang were found to be well along their way to a nuclear bomb, they would be able reasonably to claim that no one had the right to feel surprised or betrayed, and that no conclusion about their trustworthiness could be drawn. In such a scenario, if they were willing to negotiate, it would be incumbent upon the United States at least to try. But by making clear that they will sign any piece of paper with no serious intention of observing it, dictators like Saddam forfeit the right to demand further negotiation and make military action—or at least some immediate internal path to regime change, whether by resignation or revolution—the only reliable and permanent means of ending their nuclear and other lethal aspirations.

The cease-fire accords are a different matter. Violation of a cease-fire treaty has long been accepted as one of the clearest moments allowing the renewal of hostilities; the United Nations itself has repeatedly declared Iraq to be in "flagrant" violation of the cease-fire recorded in 1991 Security Council Resolution 687, and Iraq’s repeated transgressions have been so blatant and so contemptuous that the real question is not whether they present a legitimate recourse to war, but why the United States and the international community have allowed them to go on for so long.


It would be unjust to invade Iraq now as retroactive punishment for acts of aggression against Iran and Kuwait. Ex post facto reasoning is no more acceptable in international life than it is in domestic law. This does not mean that Iraq can now reset the clock and demand that any calculation about war in the future must be made in the absence of any knowledge of the past. Criminal law provides harsher punishment for repeat offenders while still protecting them from ex post facto judgment, and there is no reason that a similar principle cannot be applied to regimes as well. For acts of aggression since 1991 there is more than enough justification for removing the Iraqi regime and Saddam personally, including the abrogation of the cease-fire.

Iraq does not accept the no-fly zones instituted to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that would have taken place had Saddam been free to attack the Kurds and others as he had done before. To make their point, the Iraqis have fired on coalition aircraft over 700 times since 1998 alone, in an attempt to harm those engaged in the protection of the innocent—itself an action sufficient to trigger a presumption of just war. The slow-motion tit-for-tat exchanges, in which the Iraqis fire at coalition forces and then those forces bomb the offending sites, are strategically pointless. But they draw attention to the fact that the United States and its allies are already at war with the Iraqis; one cannot "preempt" or "preventively attack" a regime whose forces one is already attacking on a regular basis.

Moreover, attempting, as a policy of state, to assassinate a former U.S. president is itself an act of war, no matter the relationship of the current and former presidents, and offers a perfectly justifiable recourse to violence in return. The U.S. response in 1993 to Iraq’s attempt on George H. W. Bush was an utterly ineffectual rain of cruise missiles, but even President Bill Clinton's halfhearted attack spoke to a basic truth: to attempt to murder an American leader is to court legitimate retaliation.


A serious objection raised to military action in Iraq is that it is inconsistent to the point of being morally objectionable. Why Iraq, when there are so many other odious and dangerous regimes loose in the world? Why engage North Korea—a nation closer to developing a nuclear missile than Iraq will ever be—in diplomacy, but use force in the Middle East?

The comparison of Iraq to North Korea is a poor one that misses an important fact. North Korea has been held at bay for the past half-century, raising a hope that it, unlike Iraq, is deterrable. As long as there is that hope, and as long as all other diplomatic options short of acceding to nuclear blackmail have not been exhausted, then the moment of decision about military action in Korea is not yet upon us. But it must be borne in mind that the current crisis in North Korea has only just begun. The crisis in Iraq, by comparison, has reached its end after over a decade, with no reasonable chance of accommodation. North Korea, through its continual and dire rhetorical threats, may yet foolishly manage to put itself in the crosshairs as Iraq has already done, but that is no reason for demanding that Washington treat the first days of the crisis with Pyongyang in exactly the same way as it is treating the last days of the conflict with Baghdad.

What makes the Iraqi case different is that the regime in Baghdad has signaled repeatedly to the international community that it is willing and able to launch repeated high-risk acts of aggression and that it will under no circumstances observe any nonviolent settlement of the demands made by fellow nations. North Korea, Iran, and others have not yet forced observers to conclude that they are invariably deceitful and irredeemably aggressive, and so prudence and justice demand that the international community offer alternatives to such states that are no longer available to Iraq.

Finally, there is the issue of precedent. To confirm that the removal of the Iraqi regime would be just is not to underestimate the impact on the international community of what many will see as a preventive war. But it is crucial to bear in mind that such concerns will be raised only among liberal nations that already share the basic values and norms of the status quo. It will have no effect on the conduct, present or future, of rogue states like Iraq and North Korea, nations that have made clear that they observe no law or custom, and who reserve the right to attack their neighbors without provocation or to shred the agreements they have signed as they see fit. Rogues are unconcerned with the legalities of war, and they will act as they please, constrained only by power and self-interest, and not by abstract notions of the right order of international society, no matter what the United States does.

Indeed, to believe that an invasion of Iraq will create some sort of precedent or a new international norm is to believe that states, leaders, and societies are incapable of elementary moral reasoning, and that they cannot draw even rudimentary distinctions between nations acting to defend the global peace and rogues who engage in vicious wars of conquest. The idea that nations currently observing the injunction against unjust attack will somehow draw from American and allied actions the conclusion that such unjust attacks are now acceptable under the rubric of prevention is just as risible as the idea that there are malevolent regimes wishing to engage in such attacks that were only waiting for someone else to pull one off first so as to establish the precedent. Liberal nations will continue to abjure such attacks; aggressive and inhumane regimes have never observed such self-imposed moral limitations and never will.

Those concerned that the United States is about to revise the international status quo might consider that Western inaction will allow the status quo to be revised in any case, only under the guns of a dictator commanding an arsenal of the most deadly materials on earth. These are the two alternatives, and sadly, there is no third choice.

* The views expressed are my own and do not represent any agency of the U.S. government.

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