The Costs of Preemption

Media Matters‘ MJ Rosenberg has written an excellent piece which calls attention to the large number of Israeli lives which will be lost if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities.

MJ writes:

Imagine if an American politician declared that it was necessary for the security of the United States that we take an action that would result in missile onslaughts against our cities.  Imagine the South Korean government — which has a truly crazed neighbor next door — proposing a solution to its security problems that would leave thousands of people in Seoul dead or dying.  Imagine the Republic of Georgia deciding that the best way to defend against Russia is by bombing Moscow and then seeing what happens next.

Of course, these scenarios are unimaginable.  People who advocate policies that would lead to missile onslaughts against civilians in their own country tend to be dismissed as lunatics — unless their country is already under attack.  (Londoners bravely withstood the blitz that took 50,000 British lives, but they were defending themselves against Hitler, who attacked their island.)

But, in the case of Israel, those who claim to love it most would tolerate mass carnage to preempt a threat that is completely hypothetical.

He also responds to the argument that Israel must preemptively attack Iran because the Islamic Republic’s leaders are suicidal and will behave irrationally if they acquire nuclear weapons.

Well, welcome to the atomic age.  Since 1945, every nation on the planet — and particularly those, like the United States, with nuclear-armed enemies — have had to live with the possibility that one of their enemies would do something insane.  Americans, to put it rather inelegantly, freaked out when they learned that Stalin, a monster who had killed millions of his own countrymen, had the bomb.  But only the crazies proposed preemptively bombing the Soviet Union — or Maoist China, when it got the bomb a decade later.

And why? Mostly because they knew that Americans would not tolerate the mass destruction at home that attacking our enemies would produce, destruction which the advocates of attacking Iran are willing to accept for Israel.

MJ concludes:

Those who support an Israeli attack on Iran are indistinguishable from Israel’s worst enemies.  The only difference is that their plans can actually be realized.

The full piece, “Pro-Attack On Iran? Anti-Israel!” can be read here.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Some of the history in Rosenberg’s piece is not accuarate. There were sane, reasonable people who advocated a preemptive strike against the USSR in the mid- to late forties. Their feeling, in the wake of the devastation caused by WWII, was that communism could not be stopped from sweeping over all Eurasia. America’s strategic position would then be perilous in the extreme. The prospect of a nuclear Russia in control of the world outside the Western Hemisphere could plausibly be said to constitute a threat so great that a preemptive strike would not only be justified, but necessary. As it turned out (fortunately), cooler heads prevailed. But even in the late nineteen-seventies, when Russia appeared to be on the march and the West in decline, rational people wondered out loud whether an opportunity had been missed in the late forties.

    JFK seriously contemplated taking out China’s nuclear program before they exploded a bomb, and had he lived it’s possible that he and the Russians might have gotten together on this. The Russians themselves proposed in 1969 that the U.S. stand aside while they destroyed China’s nuclear capability. Nixon refused, but only because he already saw China as a counterweight to growing Soviet power.

    So it’s simply untrue that only “crazies” advocated or contemplated preemptive strikes against Soviet and Chinese nuclear capabilities. That said, it would be insane for Israel to bomb Iran, for the reasons stated in this piece. Personally, my concern is what effect such an attack would have on America and its citizens. How many Israelis might die is, frankly, a matter of little concern to me. As they sow, so shall they reap.

  2. It is also untrue that Pearl Harbor was a preemptive attack. 7 of the 9 Jurists at the Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg Tribunals found Japan justified in attacking us at Pearl Harbor.

  3. Rosenberg’s charge that Iran would respond to an Israeli air strike with Shaabab missiles that “could” be tipped with chem or bio-warheads does not hold water unless Tehran has a death wish.

    Any scenario along those lines where missiles hit Israeli targets, civilian or otherwise, could easily lead to a nuclear response…if a rocket with a non-conventional warhead hit Haifa for example, Netanyahu would reach for the Sampson Option without batting an eyelash.

    The author would have you believe either the Iranians don’t know this, much less care, or presume Obama would restrain Israel from pulling the nuclear trigger after a ballistic missile sprayed Anthrax over Tel Aviv.

  4. Chad, a bit of historical context on chemical weapons. In WW1 the number of people killed for every ton of Chemical gas released was 1. One death per ton of payload. A one ton conventional bomb would do more damage than Chemical weapons. This doesn’t fit the fearful narrative, but that has never been grounded in fact.

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