Stony Brook University
Provost’s Lecture Series on Global Issues
The People Speak: America Debates its Role in the World
October 15, 2003
Learning From Recent History
Panel Contribution by Wolf Schäfer
One cannot learn from historical deeds that have to be executed yet. This means that people are regularly unprepared for new things in history. Take the most recent war. The American people were unprepared for what has been termed "The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy."(1) This revolution has made preventive war an official policy of the United States. So, if I would have to answer the question, when do we learn from history? My answer would be, after the fact.
Let me introduce a detail — the distinction between preventive and preemptive war. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has clarified this distinction in a recent article.
We all know that the current administration has presented, and vigorously defends, its new foreign policy doctrine as an emergency measure allowing preemptive war. In the words of Vice President Dick Cheney, "terrorists and tyrants" fail to put "us on notice before they strike." This is the justification for preemptive war. But the ugly fact is, the war against Iraq in 2003 was not a preemptive but a preventive war.
If you ask why, the answer is, the preventive warrior attacks a potential threat, something that could, or could not happen in the future, a threat that some people may know, or may not know about. If this sounds iffy let me quote the F.B.I officer Peter Ahearn who said about the Lackawanna terror investigation: "If we don't know for sure they're going to do something, or not, we need to make sure that we prevent anything they may be planning, whether or not we know or don't know about it." (3)
This is the preventive attitude. It does not fit Webster's requirement of self-defense, a threat that is "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." However, before the war, neither the American people nor the world could know for sure that the local and global threats posed by Iraq were that iffy. We, the people, are at a great disadvantage with respect to secret intelligence. So, what is the bottom line here?
The American and British governments could have acted on intelligence that pointed to a clear and imminent danger (remember the 45 minutes argument that both Bush and Blair made). Yet what we are beginning to see now is that Bush and Blair misused secret intelligence to justify a war that was de facto preventive. Both governments mislead us, the people, by selling a preventive as a preemptive war. Now is the time to learn from having waged this preventive war. Some of the lessons are:
As you can see, we can learn from history. Remember the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the lesson was learned that nuclear war must be avoided. Now the lesson can be learned that preventive war places too high a burden on accurate intelligence and honest government. Preventive war is unsustainable as a universal principle. It cannot be claimed as a right for the United States only. A legitimate fight against global terrorism must find and use other means.
Finally, the good and the bad news. The United States has become a lone superpower on the verge of global empire, partly by design in the Cold War and partly by chance after the implosion of the Soviet Union. The good news is that the global policy blunders of the current administration are simple and clear; learning from these mistakes should be easy. However, the bad news is that great empires have always set the rules for others and never for themselves.
(2) "Eyeless in Iraq" in New
York Review of Books, vol. 50, no. 16, Oct. 23, 2003, p.
24. — Professor Neta Crawford, Brown University, has
detailed the historical circumstances of Webster's arguments
against preventive war in an e-mail; Dr. Crawford wrote: Webster
wanted to limit the scope for preemption so that it would not
slide into preventive war. Here is the case and what Webster