Monday, February 5, 2007

The Preemption Paradox

Every decision we make involves risks and benefits. On the world stage, the upside of preemption is that we don't have to live through the consequences of appeasement.

The downside is the endless chattering and speculation of politicians and pundits because preemption assures that we'll never know what those consequences might have been.

For parents of teenagers the analogy is obvious. We're confronted every day with conflicts that require parental judgment and the judicious application of authority. When my sixteen year old son asks if he can get on the subway and go to a video-game show in the city, I'm forced to say yes even though I know that it's going to turn out badly. He and his suburban friends will get lost, wind up in the bowels of Brooklyn and be calling me to pick them up. Worse, it will be on the way back rather than on the way in so the call will come at 11PM just as the wind-chill factor reaches -21.

But I say yes anyway. The consequences of this misadventure are far outweighed by the lessons learned from going out into the world to stumble about on his own--to find his own way--always with the lifeline of having me at the other end of the cell phone.

On the other hand, what if he wants to spend the weekend with Herman and his family at their vacation house in the Adirondacks? The answer is a swift, unequivocal and preemptive: "NO!" And there's no debate. I know that Herman's father drinks a bit and has a habit of leaving his loaded hunting rifles scattered about the house unattended. The consequences of appeasing my son here could be horrifying, but we'll never know because he's never going. The art and craft lie in the delicate balance known as "picking your spots."

For example, what would have happened if the world had said no to Hitler?

What if the Allies preemptively bombed the German glider clubs before they developed into the Luftwaffe?

What if there were preemptive raids on German forces before they became strong enough to mount Blitzkrieg against Poland and do an end run around the Maginot Line into France?

The American isolationists would have called FDR a war monger and defeated his re-election bid. Chamberlain, hailed as a great hero, would have led Britain for the next twenty years.

My father would have graduated from Pratt Institute in 1944. In the summer of that year, rather than driving his tank off of an LST and onto the beach at Normandy, he would have traveled to Paris to continue his art studies. And while there he would have met and fallen in love with Elsie Glicksman, another art student from a small town in Bavaria called Dachau. They would have married, had children and lived long and productive lives without ever imagining that their world might have been very different.

But none of this ever happened because young men were forced to fight a war that could have been averted and millions were killed by monsters that could have and should have been preemptively destroyed.

Today, we can't imagine what would have happened had the Israeli Air Force not conducted a preemptive bombing raid on the Osirak reactor. But when Arab leaders proclaim their vision of a world without Jews and pledge to wipe Israel off the map we can be thankful that we don't have to experience the consequences of appeasement firsthand.

A current world leader has pledged that he will kill one million Jews with a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv. "They", he says, "will retaliate and kill ten million Muslims. In the end we will win because there are more of us." Yet Jacques Chirac announced last week that the world may have to get accustomed to a nuclear-armed Iran.

No problem for him. At the first sign of trouble he'll simply surrender to Germany.

In facing today's tyrants, we don't have to speculate about their intentions. Like those that preceded them, they continue to tell us what their intentions are time and time again.

In years to come will our children experience the consequences of appeasement?

Let's pray that they merely have to endure the chattering speculations of politicians and pundits.


R. Reynolds said...

So why not send Ahmadinejad up to Herman's place in the Adirondaks. It's cheaper than starting World War III.

R. Reynolds said...

Seriously though, you inadvertently make my point. I wish we could knock out Iran's growing nuclear capability. Had we not blundered into Iraq, we probably could have. Now we're paying the price of losing our reputation in the eyes of the world. What would have been a pre-emptive, surgical strike, would now likely provote a war of civilizations.

Joseph Martini said...

Nothing inadvertant about it. If you recall (which you don't) I never supported the operation in Iraq.

Iraq was an artificial construct slapped together by the British Empire after The War to End All Wars.

The three tribal regions of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra contain people who will NEVER agree to be ruled by anyone from a rival tribe. I don't think that the military mission was misguided. Ridding the world of Saddam was a worthy goal, even though (as you know) I am opposed to the death penalty in all cases.

As is nearly always the case, the political goal of keeping Iraq intact was and is the great blunder.

Tito proved that keeping an ersatz nation together requires an extraordinary amount of coercion and brutality. When he died, Yugoslavia (also an arbitrary construct) fell apart.

R. Reynolds said...

I don't see the net gain in lives knocking out Saddam. When you break a functioning country, you have no choice but to fix it. Otherwise the resulting sectarian violence is worse that the cure. Since the military operation under GWB was unable to put the pieces back together, one might deduce that it was unwise to go in in the first place-- at least with anything less than a half million troops. Since no one was willing to do that, I don't see how this squares with your history lesson above. Many people smarter than you and me anticipated this tragic result.

R. Reynolds said...

I read that Baghdad, even with the surge, has fewer US troops per capita than New York City has cops. Could you imagine the anarchy if the NYPD faced age-old enemy factions? And the NYPD has body armor!

roadie454 said...

Joe: you didn't say you were a friend of Rick's. I'm not sure that helps your credibility any, but already I like you better.
Getting rid of Saddam has always been a thorny issue for me. It's unthinkable we not remove all the Hitlers, Pol Pots, and Ahnadinejads we can. Hussein was right up there. In most cases, it is not possible to remove the worst despots: Stalin, the Korean dude, Il Kim -whatever his name is, and the never-ending African stream of genocidal leaders- except over the long term. But our Iraqi caper seems not to embody these ideals, at least at its inception. So how far do you go to shore up a botched war?

bilbo riley said...

Joe - this was a terrific piece. But why does Rick save his best writing for your blog?

Joseph Martini said...

Yo... Bilbo... thanks for the kind words.

I don't think that today's critics would be any less critical of any military incursion.

It's reflexive. Depending, naturally, on who's occupying the Oval Office.

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