The Case for Pre-Emptive War, From Goliath to the Dardanelles
Some lessons for Israel as it contemplates an attack on Iran’s nuclear program.
by Andrew Roberts
The right, indeed the duty, of nations to proactively defend themselves from foes who seek their destruction with new and terrifying weaponry far pre-dates President George W. Bush and Iraq. It goes back earlier than Israel’s successful pre-emptive attacks on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 (not to mention other pre-emptive Israeli attacks like the one on the Syrian nuclear program in 2007). It even predates Israel’s 1967 pre-emption of massed Arab armies, a move that saved the Jewish state. History is replete with examples when pre-emption was successful, as well as occasions when, because pre-emption wasn’t employed, catastrophe struck.
When it became clear that the Emperor Napoleon was about to commandeer the large and formidable Danish navy stationed at Copenhagen in 1807, the British Royal Navy attacked without a declaration of war and either sank, disabled or captured almost the entire fleet. No one screamed about “international law” in those days, of course, any more than statesmen would have cared if they had. Neither did Winston Churchill give any warning to the Ottoman Empire, a German ally, when he ordered the bombardment of the Dardanelles Outer Forts in November 1914, also without a war declaration.
Similarly—though there were plenty of warnings given—Britain was formally at peace with her former ally France in July 1940 when Churchill ordered the sinking of the French fleet harbored near Oran in French Algeria, for which he was rightly cheered to the echo in the House of Commons. The sheer danger of a large naval force falling into Hitler’s hands when Britain was fighting for its survival during the Battle of Britain justified the action, and the exigencies of international law could rightly go hang.
Looking further back, and thinking counterfactually, as historians are occasionally permitted to do, there have been several wars in which devastating new weaponry spelled disaster for the victims of the power developing them, and the victims would have been much better off using pre-emption.
In the Middle Eastern context, Goliath ought to have charged down David long before he was able to employ his slingshot and river pebbles to such devastating effect. The Egyptians should have attacked the Hittites as soon as the Egyptians suspected they were developing the chariot as a weapon of war. Had the Mayans and Incas assaulted the conquistadores as soon as they stepped ashore—and thus before the Spaniards could deploy their muskets, horses, metal armor, hand-held firearms and smallpox to crush them—they might not have seen their civilizations wiped out.
The Mamelukes and Janisseries shouldn’t have waited to be slaughtered by Napoleon’s cannon at the battle of the Pyramids; the Khalifa needed to hit Kitchener on his way to Omdurman in the River War of the late 19th century, not once he’d set up his machine guns on the banks of the Nile; and so on.