Bush Tempers Argument for Pre-emptive Strikes
By James Sterngold
The San Francisco Chronicle
Saturday 02 October 2004
Experts say Iraq war precludes similar future engagements.
George Bush has insisted repeatedly on the campaign trail that his presidency has been characterized by unwavering policies based on core convictions. But a key component of his security and military strategy - a willingness to wage war "pre-emptively" against perceived enemies - lies largely in tatters, say experts and policy-makers.
These experts, from both sides of the political spectrum, say the brutal experience in Iraq has eroded many elements of what has come to be called the "Bush doctrine," leaving the United States with less flexibility in the war on terror.
President Bush himself appeared to dial back on the doctrine during Thursday night's debate when asked whether he would launch future pre-emptive strikes in the wake of the Iraq war. Bush replied, somewhat unenthusiastically, that "a president must always be willing to use troops," but only "as a last resort."
That is a far cry from the bold policy the president articulated in 2002, which rejected the traditional focus on containing threats or responding only after an enemy had staged a clear act of aggression.
In fact, say policy experts, the violent insurgency in Iraq, which has tied down 140,000 U.S. troops, has all but removed Americans' stomach for a similar pre-emptive engagement against an enemy who has not actually launched or prepared an imminent attack on the United States.
Iraq "will leave a long and damaging legacy," said Fred Ikle, a senior government arms control expert for decades who has argued that the United States must be more willing to use military might to achieve its goals. "It will inhibit us more than is good for our future. We fumbled."
Ikle was one of the founders of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative group that has long pressed for a more muscular American military posture, and includes Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz - key architects of the Iraq war - among its members.
Ikle's views are echoed by other prominent neoconservative thinkers.
"The appetite for this kind of action in the country is pretty low at the moment," said Max Boot, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Boot, an early supporter of the Iraq war, said that the United States is likely to launch small-scale pre-emptive strikes as needed in the future, much as Israel does against its enemies, but not the kind of large-scale attacks that were at the center of the Bush doctrine's aim of pressuring enemies to change or risk being destroyed.
"If, by some miracle, Iraq looks better in a few years, maybe there will be greater interest in the idea," said Boot.
The Bush administration continues to insist that the doctrine remains U.S. policy. It has a number of elements, including an insistence that any state that supports terrorists will be considered an enemy, that the United States has the right to attack such countries pre-emptively - even, as in the case of Iraq, before an enemy has mounted a challenge or the president feels there is an imminent threat of an attack.
Under the doctrine, the United States would also act to prevent any country from even attempting to match American military might.
Most of these elements were outlined in speeches in 2002 and then codified in September 2002, in a 33-page document called "The National Security Strategy of the United States." It stated that terrorism presented a new kind of danger and needed a new kind of response.
"As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed," the document said.
Bush went further and targeted three countries in his famous "axis of evil" State of the Union speech in 2002, hinting that Iran and North Korea, as well as Iraq, might be attacked pre-emptively if they were perceived as threatening the United States.
But many experts say that the first broad pre-emptive invasion might be the last, at least for now, because of the expense of Iraq, the apparently poor planning for the occupation, the violent backlash and the lack of resources or troops for another such venture.
Rather than be cowed by President Bush's earlier hints, or by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, both Iran and North Korea have defied international demands, and both appear to be developing nuclear weapons, without any indication that the president might seek to resort to a pre-emptive attack. In the presidential debate Thursday night, President Bush emphasized multilateral talks, involving China, to resolve the North Korea crisis, and Bush has looked primarily to European negotiators to deal with Iran.
"Pre-emption is valid only if you have a situation where you are about to be attacked," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a critic of Bush's policies. "In my view, it is not useful in the war on terror."
The administration said that its aim in invading Iraq was, in part, to send a message to other hostile governments, as well as removing Saddam Hussein from power. Officials suggested that it was intended to let countries like Syria, Iran and even North Korea know that the United States had the capability and the will to launch rapid pre-emptive attacks to eliminate any challenges. It was also said to be an effort to spread democratic reforms throughout the Middle East, creating a kind of bandwagon effect, beginning with the democratization of Iraq.
John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and the author of "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics," said the persuasive power behind Bush's policy depended on great U.S. military flexibility, which has since been lost.
"The problem is that if you get bogged down in Iraq, you can't reload the shotgun quickly and put Iran or Syria in the crosshairs," said Mearsheimer. "So you can't influence their behavior the way you wanted to. The policy failed."
He added that the administration has undermined its credibility with Americans by arguing that Iraq was an imminent threat and that it was armed with weapons of mass destruction. That has not been borne out, eliminating at least some of the potential for popular support of future pre-emptive strikes.
"It's a failed doctrine now because it has failed militarily on the ground and because it caused the administration to be deceitful to the American people," said Mearsheimer.
Historians point out that pre-emptive attacks have been tools of American policy from the nation's earliest years, and many presidents have launched or contemplated such strikes, from the early 19th century to the present.
For instance, President John F. Kennedy threatened a pre-emptive attack during the Cuban missile crisis, and President Bill Clinton launched pre- emptive bombing strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets in Sudan.
What is new is that, in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration articulated a strategy in which the United States, anticipating possible future terrorist attacks, would strike long before they could be mounted. The era of containment and quiet diplomacy was over, the new strategy suggested.
Vice President Dick Cheney was one of the first to call this the "Bush doctrine" and to repeat his support for its many elements in a number of speeches.
Many experts say that they still support the idea of some kinds of pre- emptive strikes, but only if the threat is unequivocally clear and imminent.
"The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre- emptive strike," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in the televised debate with President Bush on Thursday night.
"It remains an important option," added Ashton Carter, a Defense Department official in the Clinton administration and now a senior Kerry campaign adviser. "It has to be an option."
Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and national security adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said pre-emption should be seen as one possible tool, not part of an overarching "doctrine."
"When an administration reacts to something, it's always case-specific, not based on a doctrine," said Cordesman, now a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Cordesman blamed the problems in Iraq on poor planning, not the basic concept of a pre-emptive strike. "What was wrong was all of our assumptions used to go in," he said.