Shep Smith to State Dep't spokesman: You guys have basically adopted Dick Cheney's theory of preventive war now, huh?

Via Mediaite, indeed they have — and this isn’t the first time that point has been made by a reporter to a State Department mouthpiece. Shep is correct in the precision of his terms, too. Although lazy people like me refer to the Bush/Cheney approach as “preemptive” war, preemption really describes a case where you have reason to believe your enemy’s about to land a punch on you. You’re preempting the blow by hitting him first; the imminence of his attack is key. The Bush/Cheney approach vis-a-vis Saddam was really one of preventive war. It wasn’t a matter of Saddam preparing to hand off nukes to terrorists for use inside the U.S. imminently. It was a matter of believing that Saddam would do that eventually once he had the means, in which case better take him out first. The degrees of imminence that define preemption and prevention, respectively, are hard to pinpoint — see Noah’s thoughtful post yesterday about whether an attack from the Khorasan Group was “imminent” — but no one seems to think that ISIS has something big in the works for the U.S. anytime soon. Hitting them now is a matter of prevention, not preemption, blowing up a jihadi petri dish because it’s a fait accompli that some nasty terrorist bacteria will begin growing there … eventually. That’s Cheneyism. But then, it’s also basic counterterrorism, no? That’s one more reason why the White House is so slippery on the war/counterterrorism distinction. Americans get nervous at the thought of preventive war, with thousands of soldiers marching off to die in the name of defeating an enemy who’s not a threat yet, but droning a group of suspected Al Qaeda operatives who are meeting to talk about God knows what? Shoot, they’ll pull that trigger all day long. Better safe than sorry. Right, Dick Cheney?

So much for that. The other bit to pay attention to here is when Psaki starts rambling about legal justifications for the war and Iraq’s right of self-defense. What’s she talking about? Well, this:

International law generally prohibits using force on the sovereign territory of another country without its permission or authorization from the United Nations, except as a matter of self-defense. American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Islamic State poses no immediate threat to the United States, though they say that another militant group targeted in the strikes, Khorasan, does pose a threat.

Yet the letter asserted that Iraq had a valid right of self-defense against the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — because the militant group was attacking Iraq from its havens in Syria, and the Syrian government had failed to suppress that threat. Because Iraq asked the United States for assistance in defending itself, the letter asserted, the strikes were legal

The argument seems to have persuaded Mr. Ban to issue an implicit nod to the airstrikes. He told reporters earlier Tuesday that the strikes had been carried out “in areas no longer under the effective control of that government.”

That argument, to be made to the UN, makes more sense than the White House’s domestic argument for intervening, that the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda and the 2002 AUMF against Saddam somehow magically combine to grant Obama the authority to fight ISIS. If a country’s under attack, which Iraq is from ISIS, it has the right to defend itself — and if it has the right to defend itself, then it also has the right to ask its allies for help. That’s a neat way to avoid having to get Security Council approval for U.S. intervention. But it’s also a risky diplomatic move to make in an age of proxy wars, no? For instance, can’t Iran use this same concept to justify its presence in Syria? The Syrian regime is under attack; it’s in the process of defending itself and it’s asked its ally in Tehran to assist. Case closed. Had Yanukovych, a Putin ally, hung on a bit longer in Kiev, presumably Putin could have exploited this idea to justify sending Russian troops into Ukraine to help the government defend itself from “insurrectionists” or whatever. No UN approval needed. I understand why Obama made the move he made — Czar Vladimir would have vetoed any UN resolution calling for U.S. action in Iraq, knowing that it could threaten his pal Assad eventually — but it’s passing strange to see a Democratic president, who leads a party that’s pro-UN and loves to whine about right-wing warmongers trying to bypass international diplomacy, now justifying his own Iraq bombing campaign by basically shrugging and saying, “Hey, self-defense.” Dick Cheney would be proud.