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