But what if I wanted to take a pre-emptive approach to self-defense? Let's say that I have a pretty good idea which person in my neighborhood would invade my home and kill me or a member of my family if he had the chance. I am convinced that this person has the means to do it. After all, other neighbors have told me that this person has a collection of knives and guns, and it is rumored that he visited the gun shop across town to inquire about purchasing some hollow-point bullets.
Would anyone agree that I have a moral obligation to attack this person before he has the opportunity to attack my family or someone else's? Would I be justified in going over to his house, knocking down the front door and capturing or killing him or anyone else in that house who got in my way?
"Absolutely not!" you'd say. "The fact is he hasn't done anything to you, so you would be breaking the law by attacking him first."
True, I would be in violation of a number of laws. But couldn't I justify it by insisting that my actions would protect not only my own family, but the entire neighborhood?
"No. The fabric of society depends on the rule of law. Imagine where we would be if everyone were allowed to take matters into their own hands."
Okay, so the doctrine of pre-emption doesn't exactly have local applications. Why do we think it's any different on a global scale?
Just as there are state laws designed to prevent me from going on a vigilante killing spree in an effort to eliminate would-be assailants, so too is there a law against pre-emptive military strikes against sovereign nations that haven't attacked us. It's called the U.S. Constitution.
That document charges Congress alone with the power to declare war, a decision that cannot be passed on to the president or anyone else. In short, the Founding Fathers did not want the decision to send soldiers off to kill and die to be an easy one. They understood that in addition to the immediate cost of American lives, there would be international ramifications that could come back to haunt us later.
Our early political leaders spoke often on this very subject. George Washington, in his farewell address, said: "The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled, with perfect good faith. Here let us stop."
John Quincy Adams, while serving as Secretary of State, addressed the subject of foreign policy in a speech before the House of Representatives on July 4, 1821:
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. Compare the words of Washington and Adams to those of President Bush:
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....
[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.The president, unlike his predecessors, believes the U.S. should be more pro-active in the world. Unfortunately, his call for a global crusade for democracy is nothing more than a prescription for perpetual war, breaking the law of the Constitution he swore to uphold.
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
We've strayed a long way from the principles upon which this nation was built. War is no longer considered an act of self-preservation; it has become a fundamental part of U.S. foreign policy. And judging from the rhetoric of Washington bureaucrats, the act of dropping bombs on foreign civilians in Iraq is no more serious than shipping electronic components to Taiwan.
Welcome to the America of the 21st century.