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.

"Preemptive" war hovers on the margin of legitimacy. International lawyers still cite Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s 1841 statement that preemptive attack could be justified if the attacker showed "a necessity of self-defense, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." Preventive war has no such claim to legitimacy. (2)

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:

  • Rumsfeld's blitzkrieg was not necessary but optional.
  • The fine distinction between preventive and preemptive war invites executive manipulation.
  • The US military approaches its global missions with no cultural and linguistic competence to speak of.
  • Area and global studies need more support in our universities.
  • The George W. Bush administration has squandered a worldwide groundswell of sympathy after the attacks of September 11.
  • Nation-building and postwar-reconstruction must receive at least as much attention as precision bombing.

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.





(1) Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, 2003: America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Brookings Institution Press.

(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 said.
In December 1837 British military forces based in Canada learned that a private American ship, the Caroline, was ferrying arms, recruits, and supplies from Buffalo, New York, to a group of anti-British rebels on Navy Island on the Canadian side of the border. On the night of December 29, British and Canadian forces together set out to the island to destroy the ship. They did not find the Caroline berthed there, but they tracked it down in United States waters. While most of the crew slept, the troops boarded the ship, attacked the crew and passengers, and set it on fire. They then towed and released the Caroline into the current headed toward Niagara Falls, where it broke up and sank. Most on board escaped, but one man was apparently executed and several others remained unaccounted for and presumed dead.
In a letter to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, British ambassador Henry Fox defended the incursion into U.S. territory and raid on the Caroline. British forces were simply acting in self-defense, he said, and protecting themselves against "unprovoked attack" with preemptive force. In his eloquent reply to Fox, Webster rejected the British argument and articulated a set of demanding criteria for acting with a "necessity of self-defense" — in particular for a legitimate use of preemptive force. Preemption, Webster said, is justified only in response to an imminent threat; moreover, the force must be necessary for self-defense and can be deployed only after nonlethal measures and attempts to dissuade the adversary from acting had failed. Furthermore, a preemptive attack must be limited to dealing with the immediate threat and must discriminate between armed and unarmed, innocent and guilty. The British attack on the Caroline failed miserably by these standards.
Webster: "It will be for that Government [the British] to show a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation. It will be for it to show, also, that the local authorities of Canada, — even supposing the necessity of the moment authorized them to enter the territories of the United States at all, — did nothing unreasonable or excessive; since the act, justified by the necessity of self-defense, must be limited by that necessity, and kept clearly within it. It must be shown that admonition or remonstrance to the persons on board the 'Caroline' was impracticable, or would have been unavailing; it must be shown that daylight could not be waited for; that there could be no attempt at discrimination between the innocent and the guilty; that it would not have been enough to seize and detain the vessel; but that there was a necessity, present and inevitable, for attacking her in the darkness of night, while moored to the shore, and while unarmed men were asleep on board, killing some and wound[ing] others, and then drawing her into the current above the cataract, setting her on fire, and, careless to know whether there might not be in her the innocent with the guilty, or the living with the dead, committing her to a fate which fills the imagination with horror. A necessity for all this the government of the United States cannot believe to have existed."
Webster concluded that "if such things [as the attack on the Caroline] be allowed to occur, they must lead to bloody and exasperated war." For a full exposition of Neta Crawford's critique of the preemptive war doctrine, visit the Boston Review online.

(3) "An Unclear Danger: Inside the Lackawanna Terror Investigation" in The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2003, p. 35.