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.