WHEN CHINA ACQUIRED deliverable nuclear weapons, William F. Buckley Jr. advocated a pre-emptive attack to destroy them. That was a dangerous move, but, Buckley argued, it would prevent the development of far greater dangers. We know, in retrospect, that such a "remedy" for international trouble would have delayed (if not prevented) the disengagement of China from its senior Communist ally -- a disengagement that sped along the ending of the Cold War.
Buckley could see only one twig in the thicket of activities, visible and invisible, all around him. Break off that twig, he argued, and you need not fear the sturdy branch it might grow into.
But breaking the twig could affect far more significant growths, reaching down to the very roots of the thicket. Buckley did not know or appreciate the extent of disaffection between Soviet and Chinese leaders. He could not foresee the new developments that would be encouraged by President Nixon, in moves Buckley also criticized.
The argument Buckley made over China is the one Israel acted on when it bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor. President Bush is adopting the same approach as he jockeys toward an attack on Iraq's current nuclear potential. We cannot know what future developments might be prevented along with production of Iraq's missiles. This kind of argument looks to nothing but one development's indefinite future extension along its present curve.
Buckley weighed whatever lives might be lost in a pre-emptive strike against the greater number of lives to be lost if his hypothesis were accurate -- which, as we know, it was not. That is always the problem when one weighs imminent and actual bloodshed against hypothetical blood that might be shed somewhere off in the future. One risks trading real lives for imagined ones.