On Preventive War - I thought the following statement, made by our senator on the subject of preventive war was worth posting in its entirety.
October 7, 2002
STATEMENT OF SENATOR EDWARD M. KENNEDY ON THE BUSH DOCTRINE OF
We face no more serious decision in our democracy than whether
or not to go to war. The American people deserve to fully understand
all of the implications of such a decision.
The question of whether our nation should attack Iraq is playing
out in the context of a more fundamental debate that is only just
beginning -- an all-important debate about how, when and where in the
years ahead our country will use its unsurpassed military might.
On September 20, the Administration unveiled its new National
Security Strategy. This document addresses the new realities of our
age, particularly the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and
terrorist networks armed with the agendas of fanatics. The Strategy
claims that these new threats are so novel and so dangerous that we
should "not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right
of self-defense by acting pre-emptively."
But in the discussion over the past few months about Iraq, the
Administration, often uses the terms "pre-emptive" and "preventive"
interchangeably. In the realm of international relations, these two
terms have long had very different meanings.
Traditionally, "pre-emptive" action refers to times when states
react to an imminent threat of attack. For example, when Egyptian and
Syrian forces mobilized on Israel's borders in 1967, the threat was
obvious and immediate, and Israel felt justified in pre-emptively
attacking those forces. The global community is generally tolerant of
such actions, since no nation should have to suffer a certain first
strike before it has the legitimacy to respond.
By contrast, "preventive" military action refers to strikes
that target a country before it has developed a capability that could
someday become threatening. Preventive attacks have generally been
condemned. For example, the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was
regarded as a preventive strike by Japan, because the Japanese were
seeking to block a planned military buildup by the United States in
The coldly premeditated nature of preventive attacks and
preventive wars makes them anathema to well-established international
principles against aggression. Pearl Harbor has been rightfully
recorded in history as an act of dishonorable treachery.
Historically, the United States has condemned the idea of
preventive war, because it violates basic international rules against
aggression. But at times in our history, preventive war has been
seriously advocated as a policy option.
In the early days of the Cold War, some U.S. military and
civilian experts advocated a preventive war against the Soviet Union.
They proposed a devastating first strike to prevent the Soviet Union
from developing a threatening nuclear capability. At the time, they
said the uniquely destructive power of nuclear weapons required us to
rethink traditional international rules.
The first round of that debate ended in 1950, when President
Truman ruled out a preventive strike, stating that such actions were
not consistent with our American tradition. He said, "You don't
'prevent' anything by war...except peace." Instead of a surprise
first strike, the nation dedicated itself to the strategy of
deterrence and containment, which successfully kept the peace during
the long and frequently difficult years of the Cold War.
Arguments for preventive war resurfaced again when the
Eisenhower Administration took power in 1953, but President Eisenhower
and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles soon decided firmly against
it. President Eisenhower emphasized that even if we were to win such
a war, we would face the vast burdens of occupation and reconstruction
that would come with it.
The argument that the United States should take preventive
military action, in the absence of an imminent attack, resurfaced in
1962, when we learned that the Soviet Union would soon have the
ability to launch missiles from Cuba against our country. Many
military officers urged President Kennedy to approve a preventive
attack to destroy this capability before it became operational.
Robert Kennedy, like Harry Truman, felt that this kind of first strike
was not consistent with American values. He said that a proposed
surprise first strike against Cuba would be a "Pearl Harbor in
reverse. "For 175 years," he said, "we have not been that kind of
country." That view prevailed. A middle ground was found and peace
Yet another round of debate followed the Cuban Missile Crisis
when American strategists and voices in and out of the Administration
advocated preventive war against China to forestall its acquisition of
nuclear weapons. Many arguments heard today about Iraq were made then
about the Chinese communist government: that its leadership was
irrational and that it was therefore undeterrable. And once again,
those arguments were rejected.
As these earlier cases show, American strategic thinkers have
long debated the relative merits of preventive and pre-emptive war.
Although nobody would deny our right to pre-emptively block an
imminent attack on our territory, there is disagreement about our
right to preventively engage in war.
In each of these cases a way was found to deter other nations,
without waging war.
Now, the Bush Administration says we must take pre-emptive
action against Iraq. But what the Administration is really calling
for is preventive war, which flies in the face of international rules
of acceptable behavior. The Administration's new National Security
Strategy states "As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America
will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."
The circumstances of today's world require us to rethink this
concept. The world changed on September 11th, and all of us have
learned that it can be a drastically more dangerous place. The Bush
Administration's new National Security Strategy asserts that global
realities now legitimize preventive war and make it a strategic
The document openly contemplates preventive attacks against
groups or states, even absent the threat of imminent attack. It
legitimizes this kind of first strike option, and it elevates it to
the status of a core security doctrine. Disregarding norms of
international behavior, the Bush Strategy asserts that the United
States should be exempt from the rules we expect other nations to
I strongly oppose any such extreme doctrine and I'm sure that
many others do as well. Earlier generations of Americans rejected
preventive war on the grounds of both morality and practicality, and
our generation must do so as well. We can deal with Iraq without
resorting to this extreme.
It is impossible to justify any such double standard under
international law. Might does not make right. America cannot write
its own rules for the modern world. To attempt to do so would be
unilateralism run amok. It would antagonize our closest allies, whose
support we need to fight terrorism, prevent global warming, and deal
with many other dangers that affect all nations and require
international cooperation. It would deprive America of the moral
legitimacy necessary to promote our values abroad. And it would give
other nations -- from Russia to India to Pakistan -- an excuse to
violate fundamental principles of civilized international behavior.
The Administration's doctrine is a call for 21st century
American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept. It is
the antithesis of all that America has worked so hard to achieve in
international relations since the end of World War II.
This is not just an academic debate. There are important real
world consequences. A shift in our policy toward preventive war would
reinforce the perception of America as a "bully" in the Middle East,
and would fuel anti-American sentiment throughout the Islamic world
It would also send a signal to governments the world over that
the rules of aggression have changed for them too, which could
increase the risk of conflict between countries such as Russia and
Georgia, India and Pakistan, and China and Taiwan.
Obviously, this debate is only just beginning on the
Administration's new strategy for national security. But the debate
is solidly grounded in American values and history.
It will also be a debate among vast numbers of well-meaning
Americans who have honest differences of opinion about the best way to
use U.S. military might. The debate will be contentious, but the
stakes - in terms of both our national security and our allegiance to
our core beliefs - are too high to ignore. I look forward to working
closely with my colleagues in Congress to develop an effective and
principled policy that will enable us to protect our national security
and respect the basic principles that are essential for the world to
be at peace.