All prudent consumers are supposed to be guided by the warning embodied in the ancient Latin expression Caveat emptor (“Let the buyer beware”). A contemporary geopolitical modification of that expression should be borne in mind by Americans as the United States more vigorously embraces the legitimacy of preemptive military attacks against adversaries who may attack the United States—namely, Caveat preemptor.
U.S. national security strategy has always embodied a blend of defensive and offensive capabilities, following the wisdom that “the best defense is a good offense.” In this context, the decision of the Bush administration after September 11 to engage in some preemptive attacks is in keeping with that tradition.
An emphasis on preemption is akin to periodic reminders by administration officials that the United States may exercise the option of using nuclear weapons. Most recently, this approach has been evident in hints that the United States might use all available weapons against adversaries who might be tempted to use their “weapons of mass destruction” against the United States. The risk inherent in this approach is that—like nuclear escalation during the Cold War—use of a preemptive option could get out of control if terrorists or rogue states decide to call our bluff.
The concept of preemption affirmed...