The Right To Pre-emptively Strike

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the right to pre-emptively strike

When the big bully at school walks over with clenched fists and that mean look in his eye, is it ok to hit him first? When you see your enemy in the school yard making a pea shooter with no other intention but to ‘shoot’ you during class, is it ok to walk over and step on it? When discussing pre-emptive strikes on other countries we can put it into simple terms like this. But between what’s right and wrong lies this huge plain of grey that sparks great debate. How can one justify an attack if it causes death, injury or emotional and financial hurt? Two words lie at the centre of this issue; defence and threat. It is deemed under international law that it is ok to defend yourself if there is an imminent threat. But defining an imminent threat and defence is the grey area where debate rages.

Defence can be defined as “military action or resources protecting a country against potential enemies; "they died in the defense of Stalingrad"; "they were developed for the defense program” (WordNet 2.0, 2003), which implies that it is ok to attack if you are protecting your country from potential enemies. So just what is a potential enemy? Potential is “existing in possibility” (WordNet 2.0, 2003), and therefore when looking at the modern situation, Iraq is a potential enemy of the US. The US is a potential enemy of North Korea. But to decide where a pre-emptive attack is right or wrong we must analyse the direct threat. A threat is a “declaration of an intention or a determination to inflict harm on another” (WordNet 2.0, 2003), and therefore although the US is a potential enemy of North Korea, they are not a direct threat. When breaking it down into simpler terms like this we have a smaller grey area when distinguishing whether pre-emptive strikes are right or wrong.

The US attack on Iraq in 2002 is probably the most hotly debated pre-emptive strike. The US defined Saddam Hussein as a direct threat for his suspected Weapons of Mass Destruction and his links with terrorism (Bennett, B. 2003). But upon a closer look we find that although he was a potential enemy, he was not a direct threat to the USA and its people. It had not been proved that Saddam did in fact have WMD’s at the time and he had not declared that he wanted to lay a strike on the US. It is debatable that even if Iraq did have WMD’s, they still couldn’t attack the US. The US also focused on that Iraq was a threat to its neighbors as well as the US. But if this was the case then wouldn’t Iraq’s neighbors, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, be all for the US invasion. They all opposed the war. Kuwait was the only remote neighbor to be in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ (Stanley, T. 2005). This blatantly states that the main motive behind the invasion of Iraq was to change a regime that the US opposed and to establish a US presence in the region. So the pre-emptive strike on Iraq was wrong. Saddam Hussein’s country and regime were not a threat to the US and the strike was not an act of defence, as Iraq was not a direct threat to the US.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is another example of a pre-emptive strike. Although the US backed Japan into a corner, militarily and economically, they did not pose a direct threat to Japan. Japan did not have land rich in raw materials such as oil in which the country heavily relied on. They relied on trade deals with other countries to gain these materials that their military (situation in WWII and Manchuria) and economy needed to develop. The US cut off the trade deals with Japan, (oil etc) in retaliation to Japan’s decision to control the natural resources in South East Asia (Portillo, M. 1997). Without this oil, it was feared, that the Japanese industry and military’s progress would come to a halt, and there was also widespread thought that if Japan did not attack the US now, then in a few years time they would be incapable of doing so (Portillo, M. 1997). Although this is an example of being backed into a corner, the US did not pose a direct threat to the people of Japan. Yes, the US did station a fleet at Pearl Harbor but it was merely as military protection if Japan disobeyed US orders and invaded the Philippines, they did not state any intentions to attack Japan. Therefore their attack on Pearl Harbor was not justified and was ‘wrong’. It is not fair to call a country protecting another country from invasion a threat.

There have been a number of times in history though where pre-emptive strikes have been justified. In 1967, Israel was backed into a deep hole with an iron clad threat. Egyptian forces surrounded it on the south-west, forces from Jordan on the East and shells raining down on its north-western farms from Syria (Bard, M. 2004). There is absolutely no argument that these actions were not direct threats. Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt destroying the backbone of the Egyptian air force in 190 minutes and nearly 300 planes were destroyed by the end of the day (Carciente, E. 2005). Israel issued an appeal for Jordan to stay out of the war (Sachar, cited by Carciente, E. 2005). Jordan refused and opened heavy fire in the west which forced Israel to counterattack. These pre-emptive actions by Israel are deemed as being right as Israel was under a direct military threat. A “declaration of an intention or a determination to inflict harm on another” was declared by Egypt and Jordan and therefore Israel’s actions were justified as defence.

In 1981, Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in an air strike (Beichman, A. 1998). This pre-emptive strike was condemned by both the US and the UN as being the ‘wrong’ thing to do as it killed one French technician who was working there at the time (Beichman, A. 1998). Iraq sits on some of the biggest Oil mines in the world and has enough oil to last their country almost two hundred and fifty years (MacNevin, S(n.d)), so Iraq had only one use for that reactor, to use it to build nuclear bombs. This Israeli action can then be defined as being defence, as Iraq’s intention (although never publicly admitted) was to destroy land and lives. Ultimately, Israel doesn’t profit in any way by destroying the reactor. Iraq doesn’t suffer either; their energy needs are still being taken care of. The only casualty was a French technician. This pre-emptive strike was justified as Iraq was a direct threat on Israel and its neighbors.


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