There’s been a lot discussion of the extent to which various states could use the Bush doctrine of unilateral pre-emption to justify attacks on their neighbours. For the moment, I will take the Bush doctrine to be that a state can legitimately act to destroy the weaponry of a hostile state that is preparing to attack it, and that no international authority is required for such a pre-emptive strike.
Rather less attention has been paid to historical precedent, although the Israeli strike on a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 has been mentioned.
Going back a little further, most of the Arab-Israeli wars began with pre-emptive strikes and, given that both sides were on a were footing at all times, either side could have invoked the Bush doctrine.
But the biggest anticipation of the Bush doctrine was surely the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The US was clearly hostile to Japan’s expansion in the Pacific, having embargoed oil and other strategic supplies, and was supplying Britain, with which Japan was at war, with arms. Although the Japanese don’t seem (as far as I can tell) to have published a formal justification, their aim was clearly to knock the US armed forces out of the Pacific theatre for long enough to secure their “South-East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” against attack. And of course, the US did in the end attack Japan with weapons of mass destruction. (The atomic bomb could not have been foreseen at the time. But the really crucial weapon of mass destruction in World War II was the fire-bombing of cities using ‘conventional’ incendiary bombs, started by Hitler and followed by allied retaliation. The Japanese could certainly have foreseen the destruction of Tokyo, which their actions brought on).
No doubt some distinctions can be drawn between proposed US attacks on ‘rogue states’ and the examples given above, but I doubt that they would stand up to the crucial test, which is that of a government acting as judge and jury in its own case, deciding to launch a pre-emptive attack.
The only coherent version of the Bush doctrine that rules out a retrospective endorsement of Pearl Harbor is one that reserves the right of unilateral pre-emptive action solely to the United States. As Robert Manne observes, this’ amounts to an almost formal claim to US world hegemony’
Supporters of aggressive unilateralism in the US would do well to read the words of Franklin Roosevelt, starting with his description of Pearl Harbor as ‘a day that will life in infamy’.
Update:Jerome Fahrer in the comments thread and, in email, Peter Lawrence point out that Britain did not declare war on Japan until immediately after Pearl Harbor. I should have written that Britain was at war with Japan’s ally, Germany. Peter Lawrence points out also that the US was supplying arms to China, with which Japan was at war. I had some doubts about this point, but trusted to memory as I was away from my usual Internet connection. I will be sure to do a proper fact check next time.