Some people seem to have enjoyed my response on a Whistle Stopper thread to Victor Davis Hanson’s Words that Don’t Matter so I figured it might be worth repeating here for a different audience.

the veteran Theban general Pagondas explained why his Boeotians should hit the Athenians at the border near Delium, even though they were already retreating

This is a poor example, since the Boeotians and Athenians were already at war. Preemption as a strategy of war is not the same as preemption to start one.

On a more immediate level, preemption was how many of us stayed alive in a rather tough grade school: Confront the bully first, openly, and in daylight â?? our Texan principal warned us â?? before he could jump you as planned in the dark on the way home.

Also a useless example. Besides being merely anecdotal, perhaps even hypothetical, what’s to stop the bully from claiming their actions were preemption?

The thing to keep in mind is that the real aggressor, by his past acts, has already invited war and will do so again â?? should he be allowed to choose his own time and place of assault.

VDH seems to have trouble with the difference between expecting war and being at war. He also excludes the prospect of overwhelming retaliation – including that from allies or a more nebulous international community – as an alternative to preemption. If someone knows that the consequences of starting something would be that they get stomped, that’s an effective deterrent.

In general, VDH treats the prospect of an invasion by Iraq as inevitable, even though the facts indicate otherwise. Iraq was not a great military power. Sure, they had numbers, but we had already shown what a paper tiger they were. There was no evidence at the time of deployable weapons of mass destruction – a fact that doesn’t change even if some people theorized about their existence and/or some show up subsequently. The best information available at the time was that Iraq had been thoroughly defanged and was not a significant threat to their neighbors. Even supporters of the war know this; that’s why most of them have tried to shift the emphasis to (also unproven) ties with al Qaeda or some vague and new-to-them idea of liberating the Iraqi people. Anything but admit they were wrong.

Serbia posed no “imminent” threat to the United States in 1998; but President Clinton â?? with no U.N. sanction, no U.S. Congress resolution â?? finally decided to act and end that cancer before it spread beyond the Balkans.

Another bad example of a belligerent nation already at war – perhaps not against us, but at war nonetheless.

Nor is preemption always even a sign of strength. Italy regretted its 1940 surprise invasion of Greece. Argentina tried it in the Falklands and a paid a high price; so did Syria in 1973, and al Qaeda and the Taliban on September 11.

Good reasons not to adopt such a policy, if looked at from a sane point of view.