by Patrick J. Buchanan – September 25, 2002
Inherent in the Natural Law right of self-defense is the right to strike first if one’s life is in peril. If a criminal demands your money at gunpoint, you have no moral obligation to inquire if he also intends to kill you before shooting him.
People have an innate sense of this right. Americans thus rallied to the side of Bernie Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante,” who, threatened by thugs with screwdrivers demanding five dollars, dropped all four in that subway car in the style of Wyatt Earp.
Nor is a nation obligated to wait and ride out a first strike by a hostile regime, which could bring death to thousands of citizens, the protection of whose lives is the first business of government.
When Khrushchev slipped nuclear missiles into Cuba, JFK was prepared to destroy them, killing Russians and Cubans, rather than let them become operational. And rightly so. What, then, is wrong with the White House strategy paper that asserts a right to launch pre-emptive wars against rogue regimes to keep them from acquiring weapons of mass destruction?
First, this new strategy relegates to the ash heap of history a policy of deterrence that kept us secure for 50 years of Cold War. Regimes as evil as Stalin’s and Mao’s knew we would not attack them, if they did not attack us. While this did not save the Soviet or Chinese peoples from their persecutors, it kept America secure. Was that not the first business of a conservative government?
America has never been a sucker-punch nation. Even when presidents believed war was inevitable, they ensured that the enemy struck the first blow. Polk waited until a Mexican army had shed “American blood on American soil” before asking for a declaration of war. Before calling up volunteers to invade the South, Lincoln provoked the Confederacy into firing on Fort Sumter by sending the Star of the West into Charleston harbor to provision the fort.
FDR provoked Tokyo by imposing an oil embargo and sending the Flying Tigers to China, to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot, in the words of Secretary of War Stimson.
Pre-emptive strikes have been the way of war for nations like Japan, which launched a surprise attack on the Russian squadron in Port Arthur in 1904 that anticipated Pearl Harbor, 37 years later. Or the Kaiser, whose field marshals believed that if war impended, they must strike first, through neutral Belgium, to flank and crush France, before the Russian steamroller could mobilize and flatten East Prussia.
Hitler pre-empted Churchill’s planned strike into neutral Norway, and invaded the Soviet Union to pre-empt an attack he knew must one day come. As Stalin had himself attacked Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Rumania, and stabbed Poland in the back in 1939, few wept for the Bolsheviks.
Pre-emptive wars ended in disaster for Hitler and Tojo, but one nation for whom it did work was Israel. Faced with Nasser’s threat to block oil from passing through the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel struck on June 5, 1967, destroying the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian air forces, and occupying Gaza, Sinai, the West Bank and Golan in six days. But in 1973, Sadat’s army retaliated with a Yom Kippur surprise attack that recaptured Western Sinai and inflicted thousands of casualties on Israel. Only Nixon’s airlift and Gen. Ariel Sharon’s intrepidity saved Israel.
But why would a near-invincible nation like ours embrace a sucker-punch strategy? Through history, few nations (perhaps Mexico in 1846) wanted war with America. In 1812, the Brits had their hands full with Napoleon. The South did not want to fight Lincoln’s Union, only to leave it. Spain was desperate to avoid war with America in 1898. Neither the Kaiser nor Hitler wished to fight the United States. Both sought to avoid any clashes at sea. Japan only lashed out in desperation. Saddam thought he had a green light to invade Kuwait.
While al-Qaida terrorists who have nothing to lose will attack and kill Americans at will, and must be run down and eradicated, a nation that attacks America courts its own annihilation. Why would any nation do it?
To justify a pre-emptive war, two conditions should first be met. The threat should be imminent and grave, and other avenues should have been exhausted. Have these conditions been met with Iraq? To be honest, no. Not only has Saddam neither threatened us nor attacked us – though we smashed his country, decimated his army and tried to kill him – there is no evidence he even plans an attack.
By broadcasting to the world this new imperial doctrine – i.e., we will allow no nation to acquire the power we possess, and we reserve the right to strike hostile nations that build the kind of weapons we possess – President Bush has drawn a line in the sand for every anti-American regime on earth and dared them to cross it. Either he is bluffing, or we are headed for endless confrontations and constant wars.