My blog of March 5, 2013 “Thoughts on the Tenth Anniversary of the Iraq War,” drew a response from someone who had worked on Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policy staff at the time of 9/11. Currently the writer teaches a course at Oberlin College on historical and cultural factors that affect national security policy and strategy. He was kind about my piece but wanted to correct my use of the term preemptive strike as opposed to a preventative one. He wrote:
Preemptive is attacking to spoil an imminent attack from a clear and recognizable foe because one has irrefutable evidence of their preparation and decision.”
Preventive war is attacking because one thinks the other is a potential foe who hypothetically can develop the capability and will attack you in some indeterminate future.
Preemptive strikes, according the author, are legal under international law. A preventative war is illegal.
I found the clarifications useful and thanked the respondent for setting the record straight. As a layman, however, the definitions he provided were not only new to me but seemed to a difference without much distinction. The dictionary defines the words as similar:
Preemptive: intended to prevent
Preventive: serving to prevent (Oxford Pocket American Dictionary of Current English)
It occurs to me there might be some danger in parsing words in a way that allows experts to make distinctions where, in common parlance, there are none. A preemptive strike and preventive one is a split hair. In both cases we are talking about attacking before being attacked.
I understand the concept of “a clear and present danger.” North Korea certainly seems to have a desire to pose one. Perhaps Iran, if it develops nuclear weapons capability, will do the same. Preemptive or Preventive, if we strike first, will we have the higher moral ground because of the word we use to describe our action?
(Courtesy of www.sodahead.com)