Choosing Your Words

Iraq war cheerleader Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg examines McCain and the “doctrine of pre-emption.”

The story grapples with John McCain’s philosophy of war, and in particular with the doctrine of preemption, which McCain still endorses. So do I, in certain cases, but that’s not the point. The point is that McCain knows that preemption isn’t the easiest sell these days: “It’s very hard to run for president on this idea right now,” he told me.
    So, what do you do when one of your core ideas is out of sync with the predispositions of the American public? You spend your days talking about lipstick on pigs. This might win him the election, but I’d rather see him debate preemption.

This is rhetorical hackery and deception, but it’s something that’s been accepted at a very high level for quite a while now, and it’s something the foreign policy far right worked very hard to put into the popular lexicon, in so far as blurring the lines on pre-emptive action. “Pre-emptive” action is rather straight forward. You’re acting pre-emptively when you have good reason to believe an attack on yourself, an ally, an interest, etc., is imminent, and in response you act first to forestall the attack. It’s somewhat similar to how a person might act to having a gun pulled on them, regardless of whether or not the gun has actually been fired. It’s also more or less universally accepted as a completely valid choice of action, and indeed, is viewed as a defensive action under international law. In other words, almost no one disagrees with the concept.

What we’re really talking about, the idea that we have the right to attack someone who is not now an imminent threat but may be one at some point in the future and/or may be a hostile state, is really called preventive action, and it’s a much murkier area. Namely because there’s no particular line or standard to define it. Who exactly is allowed to act in such fashion? If the United States is allowed to act preventively, does China get to as well? How about Russia? If yes, will we get upset if they attack an ally of ours? If no, do we really expect the rest of the world to stand by and watch us without objection? Also, what standards must be met to be attacked? Is there some minimum threat threshold that should be met first? Does a state have to be actively hostile at the time? Spain could conceivably be a threat sooner or later at some future point, should we invade now and install a puppet government?

Now obviously this sounds absurd, but it’s exactly what the Bush Doctrine asserted as the right of the United States of America. The Bush administration, and the journalists like Goldberg who enabled them, had and have a vested interest in reframing the debate as one of pre-emption, instead of what it really is. And to some degree this is fine. Lots of pundits are going to have a vested interest in shaping the views of their audience after they make a mistake as monumental as Goldberg’s in terms of Iraq. But is it too much to ask that the outlets who publish them try to inform their audience about these inherent conflicts of interest?