Friday, June 1, 2012

Happy Birthday Preemption!

The season of college graduations is most likely just over by now. I was in New York the other week during Columbia University's celebrations, which was fun hearing the waves of cheering as schools finished their ceremonies within minutes of each from one part of the campus to the next. Graduates and their parents beaming as the former chatted into a cell phone to coordinate post-graduation festivities. I didn't catch who the speakers were at any of the ceremonies, but one held later that week made the news. The speech given was nice if only a more eloquent (less?) version of Oh, the Places You'll Go! And yet it seems that as far as commencement speakers go, it really wasn't that bad.  It seems to me that many of these young folks will fondly remember (or not remember as the case may be) the day they symbolically transitioned into real adults and probably not much more.

Today marks 10 years since my own graduation from college. I, too, had a president speak, but this president's speech told us exactly where we would go and not in terms of platitudes.  Just 9 months after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush used my class' graduation from West Point to declare his doctrine of preemption. Granted, our nation was already at war in Afghanistan, but that was a small war we all thought would be over by the time we reported to our units (ah, youth!). But as a few of my classmates lightly dozed through the speech, it was not lost on me that he was telling us that he was sending us to Iraq. I had a flashback to a cocktail party a couple of months earlier when a very senior Army officer told me to prepare to go to Iraq - and this was in March 2002. I should have listened closer instead of lightly guffawing through my "Yes, sir." It would have prepared me for the first of June, 2002, when President Bush used a day that was supposed to celebrate the achievement of surviving the United States Military Academy, our commissioning to second lieutenant, a number of classmates' weddings, and the future in general and instead clouded our horizons with foretold war.

Part of me was grateful. Not about the war, but about the warning. If he had given that speech elsewhere  I may have missed it and his point entirely. But instead I knew I had to focus my preparations and did not necessarily have much to time get ready. Which was in retrospect was one of the wisest things I've ever done: 6 months and a few weeks later (only 3 weeks after signing into my first unit) I was in the Kuwaiti desert preparing my platoon for war. A war which occurred 2 months after I got to Kuwait. The rest, they say, is history. And frankly, it's been a very busy 10 years since I sat through that speech.

While I feel some nostalgia for the days spent at my Rockbound Highland Home on June 1sts, I mainly feel awe in how much that day actually changed my life and not symbolical way. It was one of the most important speeches given in the past 10 years and one that affected the lives of millions of people - myself and the rest of us there that day very intimately. The question is, 10 years on, does the United States believe preemption is still a valid justification for war? I hope not. There aren't many things you want dead by their 10th birthday, but preemption is one of them.


  1. Jason, I appreciate your post and your thoughts on this matter given your personal experience, but I think there's an important distinction you're missing here. The Iraq war was not an example of preemption and the Bush doctrine was about preventive war, not preemptive. While I'm sure people will see view it as a matter of semantics, the difference is important. Preemption requires some type of imminence--that the threat already exists but is yet to have been carried out. Preventive war deals with a threat that does not exist yet, but that may in the future. I'm sure one could quibble with those definitions to a point, but I think they get my point across. The Iraq war was an example of the latter--as Doug Feith acknowledged when discussing his memoirs on 60 Minutes a few years back, they didn't feel Saddam was an immediate threat but they figured they would have to fight him at some point in the future so why not then.

    I agree with you that Bush's speech at West Point was probably the most important in the last ten years and might even be the most important since the end of the Cold War. I do think the distinction between preemptive and preventive is important though and that conflating the two--as the Bush administration did with Iraq--can lead to disaster.

  2. I agree that preemption and prevention is an important distinction, but that does not negate the fact that Bush made the case for preemption and received authorization and public approval for the war based on preemption. The fact that in reality, realized retrospectively by all but the most inner circle, it was a preventive war is somewhat moot. The U.S. doesn't have any moral or legal standing for preventive war, ergo all threats will be sold as imminent to warrant preemption whether they are or not. So yes, it's an important point, but one I didn't find relevant in this particular post.

    1. I don't disagree with what that at all--in fact, the point that the Bush administration sold the war as preemptive is why I think the distinction is so important. I think where we disagree is whether the focus should be what they were actually selling (preventive war) or what they claimed to be selling (preemptive war). This is your post so I have no problem deferring to what you feel is most relevant, but my personal opinion is that the underlying fact of preventive war is more important than the spin the administration with which the administration tried to sell it.

    2. It's certainly something to think about - and maybe something that could have gone in the last paragraph. Iraq was a good indicator that we shouldn't engage in preventive war but that leaves us few good examples on why we should scrap preemption as well. There is nothing more dangerous than an untried doctrine still on the books...