Words That Don’t Matter

The new buss vocabulary of anti-Americanism.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

“Preemption” is supposed to be the new slur. Its use now conjures up all sorts of Dr. Strangelove images to denigrate the present “trigger-happy” Bush administration. Partly the hysteria is due to the invasion of Iraq. Or perhaps the venom of the Left comes from recent disclosures that, in the post-9/11 era, the United States has publicly proclaimed it may strike terrorists and their sponsors — or indeed rogue nations who have the history, capability, and desire to obtain frightening weapons — before they strike us.

But instead of a rational discussion about the wisdom and feasibility of that logical policy, we have had two years now of national frenzy over a purported new “dangerous departure” in American foreign policy, one that “threatens” to “destabilize” the world order.

Rubbish. Preemption is a concept as old as the Greeks. It perhaps was first articulated in the fourth book of Thucydides’s history. There the veteran Theban general Pagondas explained why his Boeotians should hit the Athenians at the border near Delium, even though they were already retreating and posed no immediate threat. The Boeotians did, and won — and were never attacked by the Athenians again. On a more immediate level, preemption was how many of us stayed alive in a rather tough grade school: Confront the bully first, openly, and in daylight — our Texan principal warned us — before he could jump you as planned in the dark on the way home.

Despite the current vogue of questionable and therapeutic ideas like “zero tolerance” and “moral equivalence” that punish all who use force — whether in kindergarten or in the Middle East — striking first is a morally neutral concept. It takes on its ethical character from the landscape in which it takes place — the Israelis bombing the Iraqi reactor to avoid being blackmailed by a soon-to-be nuclear Saddam Hussein, or the French going into the Ivory Coast last year, despite the fact that that chaotic country posed no immediate danger to Paris. The thing to keep in mind is that the real aggressor, by his past acts, has already invited war and will do so again — should he be allowed to choose his own time and place of assault.

Hitler was ruthless in starting a war against Poland. Yet he could have been stopped far earlier in 1936 or so — had the democracies preempted him. Indeed, a failure to preempt is often far worse than the act itself. Serbia posed no “imminent” threat to the United States in 1998; but President Clinton — with no U.N. sanction, no U.S. Congress resolution — finally decided to act and end that cancer before it spread beyond the Balkans.

Nor has the United States established “a dangerous precedent” in hitting Saddam Hussein before he could add any more corpses to his three-decade-long record of carnage. Turkey did not jump back into Cyprus. We did not move on to hit Havana. Pakistan and India are now talking — not in smoke amid cinders. Neither was emboldened by the three-week war — as shrill critics in the United States promised — to strike the other first. No front-line Arab state saw the March 2003 attacks as an invitation to bomb Israel, now convinced that the United States has sanctified first-strike strategy.

Nor is preemption always even a sign of strength. Italy regretted its 1940 surprise invasion of Greece. Argentina tried it in the Falklands and a paid a high price; so did Syria in 1973, and al Qaeda and the Taliban on September 11. Up until now, when democratic states took preemptory action against fascists and succeeded, the doctrine was largely ignored in silent satisfaction. Yet when autocracies have invaded other democratic states, or democratic states have failed in their anticipatory efforts, then it was roundly condemned as a flawed concept. The wisdom of preemption was determined relatively; having a good cause and achieving success, it seems, made it worthwhile. What is new is the absolutist, blanket condemnation of the strategy altogether.

In short, preemption is now a politicized, debased word. It is part of the anti-Bush lexicon and has lost any real meaning for the foreseeable future of its usage. The same may be true of “multilateralism” and “unilateralism.”

Perhaps the greatest example of “multilateral” military action was the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Think of the vast multilateral coalition! Germans, Austrians, Romanians, Czechs, Finns, Spaniards, Bulgarians, and Italians all united together to attack Communist Russia, which in turn had no other combatants on its front but unilaterally-minded Russians.

In 1939 Great Britain was a unilateral power, threatened by a broad multilateral axis and without any real ally. The 1956 Suez Crisis was a multilateral enterprise — an undertaking by France, Great Britain, and Israel. It was stopped unilaterally by the Eisenhower administration. Israel in 1973 reacted unilaterally to a preemptive strike from a multilateral coalition involving Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. The only real constant was not preemption/multilateralism/unilateralism, but simply that a democratic state was fighting those who were not.

Allies themselves are not always wonderful assets: Dozens of coalition members helped Hitler butcher thousands of Ukrainians and enabled the Soviets to spread worldwide terror. Too many allies were largely the reason that we did not go to Baghdad in 1991 and take out Saddam Hussein when it would have been far easier — and would have spared the lives of thousands long since dead. The European Union had gads of countries in a truly multilateral coalition, only to watch a quarter-million Bosnians and Kosovars die until a unilateral United States intervened.

Of course, today multilateralism is deemed “good,” while unilateralism is “bad” because, in the unipolar, post-Cold War era, the United States has a military monopoly unparalleled in civilization’s history. For good or evil it alone can alter political situations rather rapidly through use of its military power, while friends and enemies alike flock publicly to the U.N. to object — or flock privately to us to ask for help.

The Left’s problem is not our embrace of the concept of “unilateralism” per se — or it would have attacked Clinton’s U.N.-be-damned use of force in Iraq, Kosovo, and Haiti. No, the rub is something altogether different. A Christian, southern-accented, conservative Republican president, coming off a disputed election, has chosen to preempt. And when you hit first in a therapeutic America, you are at least supposed to bite your lip and squeeze Hillary’s hand on national television. You do not dare say, “Bring ’em on” and “Smoke ’em out” — much less fly a jet out to an aircraft carrier.

If the embrace of multilateralism is meant to imply the desirability of U.N. sanction, then it is just as dubious a moral concept. Ask the Cambodians, Rwandans, Bosnians, or Kosovars whether they were encouraged by “multilateral” U.N. resolutions of “concern.” In the last 40 years almost half the U.N.’s resolutions have been aimed at Israel — in an era when that body watched silently as tens of millions were butchered around the globe. Only a unilateral United States organized vetoes against Yasser Arafat’s array of “Zionism is racism” resolutions. Usually the singular action of one democracy is worth more than all the majority votes of dozens of autocracies.

So like preemption, in today’s super-charged political climate, unilateralism and multilateralism no longer convey any meaning. Those words too have now become little more than coded nomenclature to denigrate the present American administration’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is perhaps a rule of American politics that Democrats can preempt and intervene pretty much wherever they want and be called “sober” and “reluctant” — given their protestations of pacifism and lip-service to “multilateral frameworks.” And to be fair, Republicans can raise deficits that would tar liberals as “tax-and-spend” and “big-government” naifs — and get away with it as purported advocates of “supply side” and “growth.”

But whereas President Bush is receiving criticism from both left and right for his fiscal policies, he is not getting praise for his courageous attempt at ending the political and cultural climate that led to September 11. The present bastardization of our language proves it.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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