James Leroy Wilson's blog

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sovereingty and preventive war

Daniel Larison directs us to a two year-old blog post from Tom Nichols on the difference between preemptive and preventive war. Nichols justifiably takes Ron Paul to task for confusing the two (this was during the 2012 debating season).

Nichols explains that a preemptive war...

"...is a war that takes place when one country is imminently about to be attacked by another, and instead launches a war in self-defense. This is a kind of spoiling attack, meant to screw up the other guy’s plans. Think of it as something facing a drunk in a bar who’s about to slug you, and instead you kick him in the shin first.  You won’t be arrested; domestic law recognizes your right (within limits) to protect yourself, and you don’t have to take a punch in the nose before you react."

A preventive war...
"... takes place when one state decides to snuff out a potential rather than actual threat, acting far in advance of any material danger."
A preemptive war is justified when, as Daniel Webster explained, the threat is "instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation."

Preventive wars, in contrast, "have a long and ugly history." For obvious reasons: "you can’t go around killing people for things they might do."
 "If every state gave in to the temptation of preventive war, fighting when it felt it had the advantage against any potential threat, the world would descend into more of a jungle than it already is."
Nichols explains, however, that...

"People have reached the end of their rope with the world’s bad guys, and they’re ready to start taking preventive action because nothing else seems to work."
He says it's still a very, very bad development, and has written a book on the topic.

Nichols concludes by explaining that a war with Iran would clearly be a preventive war, and its advocates should be honest about it.

But before he gets there, he says something curious. He acknowledges that preventive war might have prevented some humanitarian disasters such as the 1984 Ethiopian famine, and says

"If the Iranians are counting on the international system’s traditional norm about the absolute inviolability of state sovereignty — something Ron Paul is obsessive about — is going to protect them from attack, they’re crazier than they already seem to be." [NOTE: This was when Ahmadinejad was still President.]

It seems Nichols is a) sympathetic in theory to preventive war if genocide or other humanitarian disaster is the thing to be prevented, and b) seems comfortable in theory that the principle of national sovereignty is no longer inviolable, yet still concludes that c) preventive war is bad, most of the time.

I agree with the conclusion, but I question whether humanitarian disasters can be avoided by intervening in another country's civil war, or otherwise invading it. How could troops have been deployed to Rwanda, for example? Our "leaders" were barely aware of national and religious differences among the people of Iraq before invading; they know no more than a tenth as much about virtually any country in sub-Sarahan Africa (or even North Africa; Libya, anyone?).

How can we intervene in wars in which we don't have any stake in the outcome, don't know anything about the roots of the conflict, and don't even know the "good guys" from the bad?

That leads us to national sovereignty, which Nichols accuses Paul of being "obsessed" about. I'm not speaking for Paul, but here's my impression: in today's world, what other principle can maintain peace? What other principle can, well, "prevent" the "bad development" of preventive wars?

Respect for national sovereignty is necessary, but not because foreign rulers are good. Not even because State regimes are "legitimate" (they're not). It's necessary because these are the conditions into which we were born. We can blunder about, attacking one foreign monster after another, only to find out that we're not saving foreign civilians from anything, we're just adding to the killing.

And the more we do so, the more we lose our own blood, treasure, and liberty.

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