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The Doctrine of Preemptive Strike

One evening in 2002 a friend of mine was home in New York form his job at the Department of Justice and we met for a drink at the Four Seasons.  The DOJ is in one of these buildings that embodies mega institution.  You can feel the weight of its Presence with a capital P and my friend was naturally proud to be part of such Big doings.

He had always been a lover of ideas and intellect and at the DOJ he felt he was contributing to the big ideas of our time.  The drums of war were sounding in America, and the DOJ was promulgating the Doctrine of Preemptive Strike.  I felt like a lucky anthropologist.  To my mind any half-wit or 5 year old or Christian could see the wrongness of that Doctrine and I was eager to have insight into the type of persons and minds, heretofore unknown to me, that would develop and actually believe such a miscarriage.

Or had he had a hand in it himself? Had he fought to temper some wrong?  I knew it would be a good story.  I had no idea he would be thesis of the doctrine himself, however.  That he had drunk the kool-aid and argued with conviction on the goodness of the doctrine and the necessary right of it.

I was flabbergasted.  I had been prepared to understand the supporters of this doctrine to have gills, or five arms or to be breathers of freon.  I had expected to understand those believers as "them" and here was my friend espousing those views as "us".

I actually couldn't believe I understood him correctly and I proposed a hypothetical, the most absurd example I could imagine to illustrate the madness of pure self interest:


The 9 Planets

If America were a planet, I proposed, and 9 planets circled us; and one of those planets was shooting missiles at us, but for whatever reason we couldn't tell which one, did we have the right to shoot any of the other 9, or even all of them to protect ourselves?  Was our self-interest so paramount that innocent outside interests could be destroyed to defend our own if need be?

Yes, he said, we would need to shoot all of them according to his doctrine and that would be fine and right.

It was four or five years before I spoke with him again and five or six years before I started to understand the root of this wrong.

There are three things I have come to understand about my friend's proposed policy:

  1. It is viscerally attractive - the lizard part of our brains knows we must defend ourselves if we are attacked.  No one would expect to be passive if attacked in their home.  all manner of force is justified if necessary to defend our life.  to discount that is to go against our nature.
  2. It is the product of a carefully developed and nurtured ideology.  for 30 years the Conservative movement has funded think tanks, policy journals and organizational machines not the least of which is the Republican Party around the ideologies built on hawkishness and defense.
  3. It is obviously wrong - certainly on a Christian moral level it flies in the face of do unto others since no one would choose this doctrine done unto themselves.   But nothing to do with religion even a five year old understands that punching is only ok if you cannot be punched in turn.   This 9 planets illustration only works if you are the central planet orbited by the other 9 and with the means to destroy the others.  In the event the policy and means were equal among all, then one planet would always be able to destroy everyone by simply firing at anyone.  That this leads to peace in the short term is a farce compared to the obvious unsustainability of the policy in the infinitude of time.

The Failure of this policy is self evident right now in 2008, but part of the failure rests squarely on the failure of a Liberal ideology to articulate itself with the intentionality articulated by the conservative movement. The Liberal values of inclusion, dialog and heterogeneity have too long been viewed as self evident by those who believe and follow those values.   There is a great opportunity to articulate and manifest in policy those thoughts over the next 30 years with the same intentionality and methodology followed by Conservatives over the last 30 years.  If that effort is successful it will bring us one step closer to the Utopia we glimpsed in our childhood eyes.