What’s wrong with “preemptive” war, exactly? What’s new about it?
All wars are preemptive. Wars cost lives and money, and can only be justified to preempt the presumably worse damage of not going to war. One of the lessons of the 20th century is that a little more preemption would have saved a good deal of cure. How much better off might we be had the Allies stamped out the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918 instead of sending in an inadequate force with instructions to twiddle their thumbs? Or if we had listened to Patton and marched on Moscow in 1945? Wouldn’t it have been nice to wipe out Al-Qaeda before 9/11?
The anti-preemptionists (is that a word?) often speak of proportion and retaliation, as if the purpose of war were to balance the scales of cosmic justice — you killed one of mine, I’ll kill two of yours now. Retaliation has no more place in war than it does in criminal justice. The trouble with waiting to be attacked is that it permits the aggressor to choose when to start the war. If a country is building up its army with belligerent intent, like Germany in the 1930s, it is silly, not to say dangerous, to wait for the actual invasion. A few weeks ago some evidence came to light that the United States may have fired the first shot at Pearl Harbor. But obviously we did not become the belligerents on that account.
War rules, the Geneva convention, such things are beside the point. It is wrong to fight for Saddam Hussein no matter how scrupulously you adhere to the U.N. guidelines, and it is right to fight for the Allies against the Nazis even if you do firebomb Dresden. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the democratic, capitalist countries; the bad guys are everybody else. The good guys have the right to invade the bad guys and take their nasty toys away whenever they see fit. Everything else is just a question of strategy. What makes a war moral or immoral is not how it’s conducted but who’s at which end of the gun.