Pre-Emptive Strikes and Iraq

Pre-Emptive Strikes and Iraq

William Thomas

3 Mins
September 28, 2010

Question: Rand argued against the initiation of force, and accepted the use of force only in retaliation. However, what of "pre-emptive" strikes, such as their use against Iraq by the United States? Has Iraq already initiated force by virtue of its aggressive actions (pursuing the creation of weapons of mass destruction, harboring terrorists)?

Answer: Pre-emptive use of force may be proper when one is faced with a clear and present danger. This might be a credible threat from someone, or perhaps in some cases the reasonable expectation that a dangerous person or country is soon to act. An obvious case would be a person reaching for a gun while saying "I'm going to kill you." You're entitled to make sure he doesn't get a chance to try.

This does not violate the principle against initiating force, but it does stand at the borderline of that principle. Thus one must be very careful in concluding that there is a clear and present danger.

Now, the case of Iraq may be one of a clear and fairly present danger. Most of us in America realized after last Sept. 11 that our country needed to re-think what constituted a dangerous country or movement. And this re-thinking makes it clear, at least to me, that we cannot allow to thrive governments that both deeply hate us and are not motivated much by self-interest.

But the case of Iraq does not in fact require any appeal to such a principle. As I heard Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) say yesterday in the Senate, Iraq is a country that invaded a peaceful neighbor, was defeated in the war that followed, and agreed at the cease-fire to accept the terms stated in the U.N. Security Council resolutions. As President Bush outlined in his speech to the U.N. last month, the Iraqi government is in violation of many of these terms: not only those regarding weapons, but also those regarding the freedom of Iraqi citizens. In effect, as Biden said, Iraq has re-started the war. Since the U.S. was a party to the war and the peace, that's a war with us. It's up to us how we want to go from there.

Finally, I would add that in my Objectivist view, no dictatorship is a just government. Any free people have the moral right to overthrow such a regime, and replace it with a better. The U.S., being the government of some free people, and Britain, as the government of others, are perfectly justified in crushing a government like that of Iraq (or like that of Saudi Arabia, or China, or Cuba) should it prove necessary and prudent to do so. In this Objectivist view, the only reason to tolerate fundamentally unjust governments is realpolitik. If we have the ability to replace and improve a fundamentally unjust government, and we have an interest in undertaking the expense and risk to life, then morally we should do it. But let me be clear: This is not carte blanche to invade any country with policies that our party in power dislikes; the German government may have some unjust policies, for example, but it is freely elected and upholds basic freedoms of assembly and speech for political opponents. Germany is a fundamentally just government, in this sense, as Iraq is not.


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.