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Preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death. ~ Otto von Bismarck

The Iraq war in 2003 was a preventive war. The main propaganda line claimed our enemies in Iraq have nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons they can use against us in the future. The 9/11 attacks prove that we cannot wait for our enemies to act, for by then, we cannot effectively prevent their attack. We have to hit our enemies over there, before they hit us here. Is that a fair exposition of the reasoning that led us to war? Is Iraq, then, a fair example of preventive war?

Baghdad at night.

Shock and awe: second night of the bombing campaign in Baghdad.

Who thinks the result of this war is anything but slow suicide? Large empires don’t die with one gunshot. At the moment, death by a thousand cuts for Iraq may be the more compelliing image, but listen: the Iraq war inflicted a large gash on us, and it is still bleeding. Machiavelli emphasized that great powers, and powerful individuals, have to be concerned with perceptions of their power. Our misadventure-cum-fiasco in Iraq cost us a lot of prestige and persuasive power – even more than Vietnam. We are immeasurably weaker, and our opponents immeasurably stronger by comparison, as a result of that war.

China is standing by to reconcile its accounts. Everyone is watching to see which power maintains superior strength. International comparisons of strength are not measured in numbers of ships, tanks, or planes deployed. They are measured in expectations about who can carry the day in future disputes. When those expectations are muddy, confused and inconclusive, the chance for war increases a lot. We unsettled the world from Pakistan to Tunisia, a huge swath of troubled real estate that no political force can manage or lead.

Suicide may be painless for an impotent army dentist in a M*A*S*H field hospital in Korea, but it is not painless for great powers who engage in preventive war. We launched a preventive war ten years ago. We have lost a lot of blood. Significantly, we committed this act of self-destruction for fear of death.

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