December 06, 2004
Posner & Becker on Preventive War
Posted by Gordon Smith

The conclusions are easily stated:

Posner: "A rational decision to go to war should be based on a comparison of the costs and benefits (in the largest sense of these terms) to the nation."

Becker: "Democratic governments have to recognize that they no longer have the luxury of waiting to respond until they are attacked."

The reasoning behind these conclusions requires some unpacking ...

Posner rejects out of hand a prohibition on preventative war, and argues in favor of the possibility of preventive war by reference to self-defense: "the essence of self-defense is striking the first blow against your assailant." The difficulty of self-defense is the problem of proof. How do we know whether it was justified, especially when (as Posner suggests) "the danger of attack is remote rather than imminent"? In my view, the major weakness is Posner's case for preventive war is the heavy burden on information. To accurately assess the relative costs and benefits of preventive war, nations much possess high-quality information. Whether such information exists when the danger of attack is remote is highly doubtful. See Exhibit A: Iraq. And the costs of error are tremendously high, including not only the damage inflicted on the host country, but also the damage to U.S. legitimacy, both domestically and internationally.

Becker blithely compares terrorist organizations and rogue nations to common criminals and suggests that the usual deterrance framework is applicable in this context. Of course, even in the criminal context, deterrence does not allow the police to arrest someone before the crime is committed. Deterrance depends on fear of reprisal (capture and punishment). According to Becker, we cannot adequately deter terrorism through reprisal:

Retaliation may be slow and difficult if terrorists are widely dispersed so that it is hard to generate sufficiently severe reprisals to discourage their attacks. Rogue governments also are more capable of using these weapons surreptitiously, so that it might be many obstacles to determining who was responsible if they chose not to admit their responsibility. It is already difficult to know which groups are responsible for terrorist acts except when they brag about them.

Riddle me this: if we cannot adequately retaliate against terrorism, what leads us to believe that we can act to prevent it? Won't the terrorists still be widely dispersed? And won't rogue governments still be difficult to pin down?

Preventative war may make sense, but Posner and Becker do not offer an adequate justification for the practice.

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