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Presidents On Preemptive War

Here is what past US Presidents’ stated positions have been on preemptive war (now updated with Barack Obama):

Abraham Lincoln:

abraham-lincoln.jpgAllow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion… and you allow him to make war at pleasure… If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,–‘I see no probability of the British invading us’; but he will say to you, ‘Be silent: I see it, if you don’t.’

(Letter 1848, see Abraham Lincoln: a Documentary Portrait Through His Speeches and Writings. Don E. Farenbacher, editor. 1996. Stanford University Press, Stanford.)

eisenhower.jpgDwight D. Eisenhower:

Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. Frankly, I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.

(Presidential news conference, 11 August 1954)

In contrast to the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war:

  • “Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be … to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives. — West Point address 2002
  • And in 2006, Bush Reaffirms Strike-First Policy Says U.S. Can Launch ‘Pre-emptive’ War

Cheney’s ‘One Percent’ Doctrine:

  • “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response. ” (as reported by Ron Suskind in The One Percent Doctrine)

Addendum: Barack Obama

What does the US Constitution, one of the most important modern documents in the world and the supreme law of the United States, say about the declaration of war? Article I, Section 8 grants Congress, rather than the President, the power to authorise war, but no Congress has done so in 60 years. The expansion of executive power against the legislative branch is perhaps most starkly illustrated in the power assumed to declare war, tempered only somewhat after the war on Vietnam by the War Powers Resolution of 1973, intended to limit the power of the President to wage war without the approval of the Congress.

To but briefly sketch the historical and constitutional contours, World War II was the last war that the US Congress declared. Beginning with Korea, US Presidents have used their position as commander in chief to fight wars that are not declared by Congress. Both invasions of Iraq, the invasion and war on Afghanistan, the war in Kosovo and all major military action have since been taken at the behest of the President, not Congress. Instead of formal war declarations, the United States Congress has begun issuing authorizations of force.

Notwithstanding the romanticised mythology around the Constitutional Framers who were mostly propertied slave-owning white men of privilege, who excluded women, non-whites and the masses (with honorable exceptions such as abolitionists Thomas Paine, John and Abigail Adams, and Alexander Hamilton), the Framers intent to vest power to declare war in Congress is an important one.

“The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it,” James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson.

“It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature” (cited in Thomas E. Woods Presidential War Powers).

According to John Bassett Moore, an authority on international law,

“There can hardly be room for doubt that the framers of the Constitution, when they vested in Congress the power to declare war, never imagined that they were leaving it to the executive to use the military and naval forces of the United States all over the world for the purpose of actually coercing other nations, occupying their territory, and killing their soldiers and citizens, all according to his own notions of the fitness of things, as long as he refrained from calling his action war or persisted in calling it peace.” (ibid)

you-dont-support-troops.jpgWaging preemptive attacks on other nations violates the U.S. Constitution, the Nuremberg Principles, and international law. The ‘Preemptive War’ doctrine is also a prerequisite for the perpetual war the current crop of corrupt neocon plutocrats have openly declared, with the Bush and Cheney Doctrines of preemptive war further pushing along this movement away from accountability. And while Presidential war (and other) powers are at growing variance with the US Constitution, Vice-Presidential over-reach in setting the foreign policy agenda has arguably been an even more marked feature in gross federal government power over-reach.

This selected-not elected president openly flouts the law and has attempted to corrode the limited but nevertheless significant safeguard of the separation of powers and checks and balances of a tripartite branch system of government.

david-baldinger-fourth-branch.jpgAs the recent Bill Moyers roundtable discussion on impeachment discusses (see below), the largely supine legislative branch has abrogated its role in checking executive violations of the Constitution: aside from the war power, in allowing felons to continue to serve (Elliot Abrams), let alone merely letting them off the hook; in electronic surveillance and wiretaps on its citizens, in torture and extraordinary renditions; in lying about WMDs; in seeking to obstruct legitimate investigations by inappropriately asserting executive privilege; and more recently, in asserting latently dictatorial powers (read martial law) in emergency.



Aside from his well-known warning to guard against the dangers of the military-industrial (he originally also added ‘congressional’ before later leaving it out) complex, here are some other notable quotes from former President Dwight Eisenhower:

  • How far can you go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without?
  • War settles nothing.
  • May we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.
  • I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.
  • Well, it’s hard for a mere man to believe that woman doesn’t have equal rights.
  • Peace and Justice are two sides of the same coin.
  • A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both. (Inaugural Address, January 20, 1953)

6 comments on “Presidents On Preemptive War

  1. Dave Bath
    30 July, 2007

    I remember as a kid during the Vietnam war hearing a slogan that introduced me to a new word, and addresses this topic head on: “Fighting for peace is like f*****g for virginity”

  2. Ann El Khoury
    30 July, 2007

    Very apposite.

    Chris Floyd summarises the ideological madness of the Busheviks thus:

    Thus the reality-twisting assertions of Bush’s ideologues: The conquered will welcome their killers. The poor will be happy to slave for the rich. The earth can sustain any amount of damage without lasting harm. The loss of rights is essential to liberty. War without end is the only way to peace. Corruption and cronyism lead to universal prosperity. Dissent is evil; dissenters are “with the terrorists.” But God is with the Leader; whatever he does is righteous, even if in the eyes of unbelievers – the “reality-based community” – his acts are criminal: aggressive war that kills thousands of innocent people, widespread torture, secret assassinations, imprisonment without charges or trial, electoral subversion.

  3. Crimson East
    30 July, 2007

    Cheney’s ‘One Percent’ Doctrine:
    If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response. ” (as reported by Ron Suskind in The One Percent Doctrine)

    Oh really? :D

    *dramatic cut-throat gangster tone*

    Bring it on, Cheney. Bring it on.

  4. Ann El Khoury
    30 July, 2007

    :) Creepy Veep, as he sows, he shall reap.

  5. homeyra
    30 July, 2007

    Today’s trend seems : f******g for peace.

  6. Jane Bedinger
    14 September, 2008

    Here is the original source for the Eisenhower quote, a news conference on 8/11/54.

    THE PRESIDENT. All of us have heard this term “preventive war” since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that is about the first time I heard it. In this day and time, if we believe for one second that nuclear fission and fusion, that type of weapon, would be used in such a war–what is a preventive war?

    I would say a preventive war, if the words mean anything, is to wage some sort of quick police action in order that you might avoid a terrific cataclysm of destruction later.

    A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility today. How could you have one if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone? That isn’t preventive war; that is war.

    I don’t believe there is such a thing; and, frankly, I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.

    Thanks Jane.

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-- Aldous Huxley

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