Law Limits Forceful Self-Defense

Article excerpt

Byline: EDWARD FADELEY For The Register-Guard

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL LAW concerning a pre-emptive attack? What does international law say about a nation's policy of "Hitting them before they hit us?"

This question is currently phrased in terms of self-defense against a "threat." The law justifying the use of violent force in self-defense has been well developed over centuries of human experience.

National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice says the current "threat" from Iraq is like the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s. In that crisis, missile bases were built in a country 90 miles from our shores. Atomic missiles were headed to that country on ships that were only a few hours away from Cuba.

The response was to blockade and board the cargo ships carrying the missiles. The United States did not bomb Havana or demand a regime change. The United Nations was used as a forum where the United States could and did inform the world of the nature of the threat, with actual pictures of the missile launch sites. In short, the Cuban missile crisis demonstrated a measured, limited response designed to prevent a real threat from growing or becoming capable of harming the United States.

The precedent of the Cuban missile crisis does not establish a law justifying a pre-emptive attack. Besides, the objective of disarming the threat is already supported by U.N. resolutions relating to Iraq.

Nor is the argument for a pre-emptive attack supported by any law or by our policy toward other nations, such as in disputes between nuclear powers who actually voice threats against their neighbors.

An example is the dispute between Pakistan and India, where no pre-emptive attack was supported. Both threatened to harm the international community by their use of nuclear weapons against each other. Instead of regime changes or pre-emptive strikes, we urged both nations to cool it.

Another argument used to support a pre-emptive attack is that the United States should get rid of a dictator and replace him as a means of bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq. That argument would equally apply to our ally, Pakistan, and its current dictatorial government, but we don't apply it there. To qualify as a "law," and to qualify as a law justifying a pre-emptive strike, uniform coverage and impartial application would be needed. …