Saturday, March 18, 2006

Prevention Means What?

by Joe Miller

Thanks to Tom at Liberty Corner who alerted me to the existence of a couple of posts on JWT at Right Reason, I've been spending my evening alternating between attempting to perfect my martini recipe and reading Edward Feser's first two of a projected three-part series of posts on Paleoconservatism and the War in Iraq (see here and here for parts I and II respectively). I had intended to start with a long and sober fisking of the entire series. But with sober not so much on the horizon, the longer post will probably have to wait. In the meantime, the following caught my eye.
Another tactic of critics of the war is to concoct an absurd caricature of the idea of "preventive war" and then present this caricature as if it were the justification for the war in Iraq. The "“Bush doctrine" of prevention or pre-emption, they say, amounts to something like: We have the right to attack a country which has done nothing wrong just in case it might choose to do something wrong in the future. But no one in the administration has ever suggested such a ridiculous policy.
Well no shit no one in the administration has ever suggested that; the only really interesting question to ask about such a policy is whether its political stupidity outweighs its moral obtuseness. And while I sometimes question whether the administration worries all that much about being morally obtuse, I'll be the first to say that Bush, Rove, et. al. are decidedly not politically stupid. Of course, the other rather obvious point to make here is that, well, critics of the war (at least not the serious sort whom Feser is theoretically addressing) haven't actually accused the administration of endorsing this ridiculous policy.

Indeed, it's hard to see how it is the Feser could have gotten this point so dreadfully wrong. For starters, 'prevention' and 'pre-emption' have very different meanings in the JWT literature, a point that could hardly have escaped Feser's notice. 'Pre-emption' means something like: We have the right to attack a country when that country presents a threat that is "instant and overwhelming" such that it leaves "no choice of means and no moment for deliberation." Walzer clearly articulates this point in Just and Unjust Wars, but it's hardly a new principle. Daniel Webster argues for such a position in the Caroline case in 1837 (indeed, the quoted portions above are Webster's), and it's been an accepted principle of international law pretty much ever since. 'Prevention,' OTOH, means: We have the right to attack a country in order to preserve a balance of power, to prevent what is thought to be a good or just distribution of power from shifting into something less good or less just.

Now admittedly, Feser isn't offering his straw-man definition of prevention and pre-emption as his own view but is rather attributing that view to (all?) critics of the war. That characterization is plainly false, though as I haven't read the book he is reviewing, I suppose that it might accurately characterize the views of the various contributors. Certainly, though, there are rather a lot of critics of the war who properly distinguish between prevention and pre-emption, so at the very least, Feser should be clear as to just who he is criticizing.

So far, though, this is only a minor quibble, one not really worthy of it's own post. What really caught my attention was this howler:
"Prevention"” or "“pre-emption"” has always quite clearly meant instead something like: We can no longer allow tyrannical regimes to get away with violating their agreements, for though such violation, despite its being a prima facie justification for military action, might for several reasons have been allowed to slide in the past, it is in the post-9/11 world too potentially dangerous to permit.
WTF? This is what prevention and pre-emption have always quite clearly meant? Feser's definition builds in a freakin' date! So all those people who talked about pre-emption prior to 2001 were just prescient? How could this be what prevention has always meant? The fact is that prevention and pre-emption have always quite clearly been regarded as two distinct sorts of things. It's only in the past five years or so that Iraq War apologists have begun conflating them. Now perhaps a more charitable reading of Feser would be:
The Bush administration has always quite clearly meant by 'prevention' and 'pre-emption' something like: We can no longer allow tyrannical regimes to get away with violating their agreements, for though such violation, despite its being a prima facie justification for military action, might for several reasons have been allowed to slide in the past, it is in the post-9/11 world too potentially dangerous to permit.
This version at least has the virtue of being plausible. The cynic in me wonders a bit whether the set of things properly picked out by the phrase "The Bush administration has always quite clearly meant" has any members. Snark.

More to the point, I wonder to what extent the version of preemption that Feser attributes to the administration really differs in substance from the "ridiculous" policy that he attributes to critics of the war. Certainly Feser's sounds better; it lacks the political stupidity of the one that he attributes to critics. But is the real difference all that substantive? In effect, Feser substitutes "has violated its agreements" for "has done nothing wrong". Certainly Feser is right to point out that Iraq violated (the letter) of a number of its agreements in the 1991 cease-fire agreement with the Security Council. Most critics of the war will acknowledge this point as well. So Feser's new formulation really reads something like: We have the right to attack a country that has done a wrong act that, in and of itself, does not amount to a casus belli because we think that it could potentially do something harmful to us in the future. Politically that's much better. Morally? I'm not so sure there's all that much difference.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home