April 16, 2003 | Scripps Howard News Service

Preemptive medicine

Among the many ways America is exceptional is this: Average citizens living in the heartland often carry more wisdom in their guts than the elites living in the intellectual capitals hold in their heads.

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll demonstrates this truth yet again. Asked, “Do you agree with the new military policy of initiating preemptive strikes,” fully 63 percent agreed. Only 25 percent disagreed, with 12 percent unsure.

That's a landslide. But more interestingly, it is a result that would never be expected by anyone talking (or listening) to “experts” in Washington or on the vast majority of America's campuses. In such places, the idea of preemption conjures up distasteful visions of Rambo bursting from the jungle, machine guns blazing.

In part, this represents a divide between interests and values.

If I were to say to you: “Give me $100 and I can save the life of a child in Bolivia,” you might give me the money – based on your humanitarian values.

But if I were to say to you: “Give me $100 and I can save your child's life,” you'll do it – based on your own self-interest.

Average Americans, having absorbed the hard lessons of 9/11, are no longer content to sit back and wait passively as terrorists draw up plans to burn and bury as many innocent men, women and children as possible. Average Americans understand that their interests are ill-served by a government policy of only punishing terrorists after atrocities have been committed. Their interests are better served by preventing future attacks. Realistically, that can't be accomplished unless the war is taken to the terrorists and their sponsors – in other words, it can't be accomplished without preemption.

By contrast, intellectual elites are often adept at putting aside their interests in favor of their values. Those values include adherence to long-established principles of international relations, among them this: Recourse to war can only be justified as resistance to acts of aggression or to imminent attack.

How strict has the definition of “imminent” been? In 1967, with Egyptian tanks massed on Israel's borders and Gamal Abdel-Nasser calling for Arab states to join together to destroy Israel once and for all, President Lyndon Johnson advised Israel's leaders not to strike “preemptively” but to absorb the first blow and retaliate afterward.

But what the unwashed masses today see more clearly than do the well-groomed elites is the fact that the world is not what it used to be. A taboo against preemption made sense when conventional leaders were deploying conventional military forces and using conventional weapons. Such a taboo encouraged restraint and provided time for diplomacy to work.

But when the enemy is terrorists who defend no territory, wear no uniforms, target civilians and may have access to weapons of mass destruction, diplomacy's uses are limited. Where suicide terrorists are concerned, deterrence is not an option.

In such a world – the world of the 21st century – the elites' opposition to pre-emption has to be seen as reactionary – a commitment to a principle from a bygone era, a failure to recognize that, in a dramatically changed international environment, rules, too, must change.

No one is arguing that the United States should adopt a policy of going to war at the drop of a hat, of initiating hostilities against those who merely oppose us or disagree with us – a list that would include France, Germany and Russia, among many others.

What proponents of a policy of preemption do say, however, is that we can no longer ignore the threat posed by violently anti-American terrorist groups and the regimes that support them. Preemption should always be a last resort. But groups and individuals that plan terrorist acts must be made to comprehend that their actions will have serious consequences.

In war, soldiers do not wait until the enemy fires on them. And this is a war we're engaged in, a war that began before 9/11 and didn't end with the destruction of the Taliban or the fall of Baghdad. Most Americans get that. It's only the intellectuals who are too smart to understand.