I’ve always loved that quintessential little kid excuse: “But, Mommy, he hit me back first….” Even kids understand, although they don’t always appreciate, the notion of a preemptive strike. Lately, there’s more and more talk about Israel engaging in a preemptive strike against Iran (cheered by friends, feared by foes). George Bush painted our attack on Iraq as a preemptive strike. In 1967, Israel engaged in a preemptive strike against Egypt.
All of which got me thinking about what exactly constitutes a preemptive strike. Because really, when you think about it, even if you call it a “preemptive strike,” it is actually the first act of cross-border aggression. When Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force in 1967, that air force hadn’t yet crossed into Israeli airspace. Israel acted first. I happen think Israel acted correctly because, had she waited for Egypt to cross into her airspace, it would have been too late to mount any defense. While Egypt lost merely airplanes and military personnel, Israel would have lost her towns and her citizens.
Likewise, while we were worried about Iraq’s WMDs, we actually didn’t know whether Saddam actually planned an immediate attack. The problem from our point of view was that we couldn’t wait for that attack to reach fruition. We were engaged in conventional warfare, but a WMD attack would have constituted destruction on a scale almost impossible to contemplate.
Israel again faces the same dilemma. If we play purist and ignore the fact that Iran is funding almost daily attacks on Israeli soil via Hamas (which is Iran’s proxy), Iran itself has actually not crossed Israel’s borders. Nevertheless, most thinking people believe that Israel cannot wait but must engage in a preemptive strike. Otherwise, she risks apocalyptic destruction — and Israel believes, with good reason, that Obama’s honeyed words to the Muslims, generally, and Iranians, specifically, won’t stop that.
So, I’m thinking that a preemptive strike is a responsive, not an aggressive act, when your enemy has given overwhelming strong indications that it intends to engage in an apocalyptic strike against you. That is, without even crossing your border, its actions constitution an act of war, justifying your response. Moreover, preemptive strikes are directed solely at military targets, with every effort made to minimize collateral (i.e., civilian) damage.
Under this line of thinking, Japan, even though it had a military objective at Pearl Harbor, was engaging in an act of pure aggression, rather than a preemptive strike. This is so because it did not satisfy the predicate requirement of facing an enemy that was planning its imminent, and complete, demise.
Because this will surely be an issue in the upcoming weeks and months, I’d love to know what you think on this subject.