The Exquisite Difficulty of Preemption

Ever hear of an obscure German Chancellor by the name of Hitler?  Probably not.  He ruled for three years in the 1930s until he took an aggressive step too far, marching troops into the Rhineland against treaty commitments.  The Wehrmacht was promptly ejected by the French Army, and an appalled and fearful German General Staff liquidated Hitler and called for new elections.

Of course, it didn't work that way. 

Herr Hitler was not removed, because the pacific French and British democracies -- knowing only that any action would result in serious bloodshed, but not the then-future of the German Chancellor -- shrank from the challenge and hoped for the best.  Disaster struck, and instead of disappearing, the name Hitler is a byword for horror. 

It's the perennial problem with democracies -- which naturally abhor violence and dislocation -- and just what we face in the Middle East today with Iran:  If we make war to remove any but the most imminent and specific threat, opponents of the policy can argue without possible refutation that there never really was a threat and that bloodshed was therefore unnecessary.

Anticipating this response, democratic politicians especially are loath to take preemptive action.  That's especially true given today's oppositional, 60s-inspired culture; 24 hour news cycle; and, Iraq's disappearing WMD.

Call it the conundrum of the non-event: A species of the logical fallacy of the false alternative that yields the exquisite difficulty of preemption. 

We live life into the future but can only think about -- and get a grip on -- the past.  No event: no results: no possibility of assessment.  Unlike a science experiment, we can't run a model of history to see what would happen without a Hitler or without the Mullahs.  Politicians cannot disprove a claim that military action, with all its horror, was unnecessary; and they don't get credit for what doesn't happen, only credit -- or blame -- for what does happen.

President Bush temporarily pushed aside this paralysis in Iraq.  Even so, he was allowed by Congress, the UN -- and the media -- to topple Saddam only because of the specific threat of WMD and Saddam's recalcitrance following 9/11.  Had going to war been dependent on the other, less concrete threats that Iraq presented, the President would never have been allowed to proceed. When WMD were not found, the effort was pronounced a failure, and it is now conventional wisdom that the war was a mistake.

There is no consideration of what would have happened if we had not intervened; little concern that Iraq has been rid of a hideous dictatorship with a track record of genocide against its own citizens and of making war on its neighbors; and, scarcely a thought that it is on its way to becoming the lone democracy and model in the Middle East.  The war is widely judged a failure.

The Bush policy of preemption -- broken on the wheel of Iraq -- now only serves to substantiate the views of those reluctant to take on Iran.  There is no way to disprove their ostensibly appealing claims that military force is unnecessary to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

They claim that the only certainty is that the use of force will result in widespread death and destruction -- in Iran, elsewhere in the Middle East, and likely beyond, as Iran wields a substantial proxy force of terrorists around the world.

What they would refuse to acknowledge is the probability of catastrophe averted.  The mainstream media and the rest of the left would remain adamant that the Iranians were not developing nuclear weapons or even if they were, that we could have learned to live with them.

Knowing how difficult it is to refute these charges and shrinking from a level of abuse that can destroy an administration, politicians may now only respond to an actual attack. 

But unlike in the past we might no longer have the indulgence of time and space to recover.  During World War II and before, the U.S. was protected by oceans and the limited effects of conventional munitions and the slow movements of armies.  Today, with intercontinental ballistic missiles, and with the possibility of the most devastating technology coming into the hands of terrorist groups, it is not beyond possibility that our civilization could literally be destroyed. 

Given the mere chance that the Iranians would use a nuclear arsenal should therefore be enough to compel a response.  We have urged them to come clean; we have begged and bribed and warned them.  But the Iranians reject inspections, refuse to abide by treaties, and continue to threaten the West in even more explicit terms than Hitler in the 1930s.  If we need to take warlike steps, then, the moral onus will be completely on them. 

The past offers certainties, the future only probabilities.  But it is probabilities on which humans have to act.  Accordingly, if diplomacy fails and with evidence of a threat as solid as it is with Iran, at the proper time the real statesman will discharge his most fundamental duty: to protect us from harm. 

A real statesman will communicate these hard truths to the American public.  The carping, small creatures of the media and the left will be cast aside, Americans will rally to the cause, and the United States will step forward once again to defend civilization -- as we did in olden times.

Douglas Stone is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C