Public Release: 

Preventive wars are rare in American history

Penn State

The Bush administration's claim that it is fighting a preventive war with Iraq now to forestall a more dangerous war later is a virtually unprecedented foreign policy move in American history and even among other nations over the past two centuries, a Penn State political scientist says.

"The Bush administration has argued that, if America waits, Saddam Hussein will build more weapons of mass destruction and is likely to give them to assorted terrorists who will use these weapons even if he won't use them himself," says Dr. D. Scott Bennett, associate professor of political science.

This poses an almost unparalleled situation for the United States, which has virtually no history of preventive wars, not to mention preemptive strikes, in which the country is in immediate danger of being attacked. Preventive wars have been just as rare for most countries over the past 200 years, notes Bennett, co-author of the forthcoming book "The Behavioral Origins of War: Cumulation and Limits to Knowledge in Understanding International Conflict" (University of Michigan Press). His co-author is Dr. Allan C. Stam, associate professor at Dartmouth College.

For the past seven years, Bennett and Stam -- marshaling data from the decades-long Correlates of War (COW) project --- have been examining the causes of all international wars and crises that may have led to war. Their time frame was 1816 to 1992, during which period they traced the relationship of dyads or pairs of countries (e.g. France and Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union), examining and comparing the causes of conflict between the two countries. The researchers analyzed the reasons for 85 wars and 2,000 lower-level crises, noting that there has not been a single predominant cause for war over the past two hundred years. Instead, a variety of elements must come together in particular combinations to provoke wars, with some of the more powerful factors including democracy, bipolarity, geography and trade relationships among states.

A preventive war with Iraq, prior to 9/11, would have been out of the question to most Americans. The events of 9/11 suddenly made the threat of attack against the United States real enough that preventive war was viewed as necessary and could be justified to the public, according to Bennett. The Bush administration, with a coolly rational calculus, seems to believe that invading Iraq now is better than waiting indefinitely to see what happens next. Several reasons can be given for this, the first of which is raw military advantage. Political leaders historically don't start wars unless they believe the fighting will end quickly; the U.S. government is no exception here, the researcher adds.

"Secondly, the Bush administration does not face a number of restraints that have prevented wars in other situations," Bennett says. "Since Saddam Hussein lacks any real supporters, the United States will not be seriously jeopardizing any alliances or friendly relationships by attacking him. Third, the Bush administration need not fear incurring the wrath of some other superpower which might consider itself a protector of Iraqi interests, such as the former Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China. Fourth, the United States has no shared political or ideological views with Iraq or anyone in its leadership that would make us hold back; and an Iraqi war entails no damage to trade or other major economic interests. Even if Iraq destroys its own oil reserves, the United States has access to others.

"By contrast, wars with the two other 'Axis of Evil' nations would be more complicated and costly," says Bennett. "In Iran, the government contains a certain percentage of moderates, and so there is hope that Iran will exercise restraint, resulting in improved relations without war. With North Korea, an armed conflict would be more protracted and expensive. Moreover, the United States would have to deal with critical allies, especially South Korea, who are opposed and whose support is essential for the Bush administration, if only logistically. Furthermore, the United States risks antagonizing China with a war on its southern border."

In the 20th century, the United States, for the most part, employed its armed forces in retaliation for aggressive acts against U.S. citizens or territory, the primary cases being World I and II (the latter triggered by Pearl Harbor in 1941) and the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950. In these three cases, obvious military buildups and even ongoing war with countries friendly to the United States did not push the United States into hostilities. Hence, these conflicts have been remembered as "good wars." A minor example occurred in 1916 with Pancho Villa's raid into New Mexico, followed by a punitive expedition into Mexico by Gen. John Joseph Pershing.

None of these conflicts could be considered preventive wars, the researchers note. The same can be said for the War of 1812, the Mexican War (1846-48) and the Spanish-American War of 1898. The last confrontation was sparked by the alleged blowing up of the U.S.S. Maine, although the United States harbored other reasons for wanting war to occur.

Preventive wars are also rare elsewhere in the world, Bennett says. Germany in 1914 had some preventive incentive to fight a war against Russia, which was in the process of modernizing its military; some scholars have argued that this contributed to World War I. Israel also appears to have had some preventive motivation in attacking Egypt in the 1956 Arab-Israeli war.

"A third example would be Japan in 1941," Bennett adds. "There were clear arguments in the Japanese government that, with the economic stranglehold that the United States was putting on Japan from the late 1930s, it would be better to fight a war against the United States sooner than later, because the military and economic balance would only worsen. That would be only the third case of preventive war out of the approximate 85 interstate wars since 1816."


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