Richard Reeves

Saving the President From Himself

WASHINGTON -- "A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility," said the president of the United States. "I don't believe there is such a thing, and frankly I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

That was President Eisenhower, answering a press conference question in 1954.

Times change. We don't really have many press conferences anymore. We have just fought -- or are still fighting -- a preventive war. And we do now have a definition for such a thing in the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military Terms: "A war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable and that to delay would involve greater risk."

The White House does not like the term "preventive war," at least as it pertains to Iraq. President Bush and his team prefer "pre-emptive war." But that is a different thing, according to the DOD dictionary: "An attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent."

What we did in Iraq, where the threat to us was neither inevitable nor imminent, is only the fourth war in two centuries that might be considered "preventive." That, at least, is the judgment of the Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan, which since 1963 has been studying the conditions that lead to war and lesser military crises. The project identifies 85 wars and 2,000 military crises around the world going back to the beginning of the 19th century. Only three other wars had "some" preventive motivation.

Those three, identified in a book still unpublished, "The Behavioral Origins of War" by Dr. Scott Bennett of Pennsylvania State University and Allan Stam of Dartmouth College, are Germany's attack on Russia in 1914, the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941, and the Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956.

So we are breaking new ground historically. It is poisoned ground, a pitfall that wiser American leaders have avoided. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quotes three of them in a book review in the current New York Review of Books:

-- "Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will (America's) heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. ... The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force." -- Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, 1821

-- "Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion ... and you allow him to make war at pleasure. If today he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us,' but he will say to you, 'Be silent: I see it if you don't.'" -- Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 1848

-- "We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient ... that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity -- and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem." -- President John F. Kennedy, 1961

Why, here's another:

-- "It is not in the American national interest to establish pre-emption as a universal principle available to every nation." -- former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 2002

George W. Bush turns out to be a man determined to right many wrongs, a man not satisfied to build just America, but ready to build other nations in our image. Or his. But he is a man, ignorant or dismissive of history, who must be slowly getting the idea of why wiser predecessors refused to do what he has now done. He has fallen into the pit, and it is up to the rest of us to help pull him out.

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