By James Harkin (THE GUARDIAN, 08/04/06):

Maybe it is because the British watch so many old war films that they care so much about the Geneva convention. This week the defence secretary, John Reid, briefly suggested a rewrite and was promptly rewarded with a volley of journalistic brickbats. But the idea that it needs to be looked at afresh is hardly surprising, given that it has become a little toothless. Its revision to deal with “non-state actors” has been whispered in policymaking circles for years, and Reid’s speech was no more than one extra murmur: much more significant was his suggestion that we should tinker with international law to accommodate pre-emptive military strikes.

The military doctrine of pre-emption was thought to be a barely mourned casualty of our adventure in Iraq, but slowly, however, it is making a comeback. Next week sees the UK publication of a book by the controversial Harvard professor Allan Dershowitz called Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways. Already notorious for suggesting America should be less queasy about using torture to extract information from al-Qaida members, Dershowitz is now arguing that western intellectuals need to take the logic of preemption more seriously.

During the cold war, he says, military strategists were quite right to assume that America’s military power could on its own deter attack, but that assumption no longer holds. “The democratic world”, Dershowitz argues, “is experiencing a fundamental shift in its approach to controlling harmful conduct. We are moving away from our traditional reliance on deterrent and reactive approaches and toward more preventive and proactive approaches.” Events are moving ahead of the law, he suggests, and it is up to us to write new theories and new laws to meet the challenge.

His main concern, however, is the unfolding crisis with Iran, and with defending the right of both Israel and America to take a pre-emptive pop at Iran’s theocratic regime. Pre-emption is justified, he offers, “when a threat is catastrophic and relatively certain, though non-imminent, and when the window for effective prevention is quickly closing”. Likewise, Reid called for a debate on the “concept of imminence”. The point of both arguments is that threats should not need to be immediate in order to warrant intervention – only catastrophic should they occur.

If a fog continues to surround the idea of pre-emption, that is hardly surprising. In spite of his promise to develop a coherent philosophy, all Dershowitz can produce are criteria hedged with caveats. Amorphous logic like this can bring international disputes to the boil with alarming ease. Armed with the same jittery logic, the Iranians would, it could be argued, be perfectly justified in taking us out first.