According to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the US has no right to launch a "preventive" military strike in self-defense. This would violate international law and amount to "21st century American imperialism," asserts the Massachusetts Democrat. He is seconded by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia. "America fights wars," he says, "but America does not begin wars."
Legalities aside, Boston University's Andrew J. Bacevich warns that US first strikes will "lower the bar" for pre-emption and give other nations--India? China? Israel?--new excuses for aggression.
On the far left, pre-emption angst runs high. "What was once the frothing of right-wing ideologues is now on the verge of becoming national policy," sputters The Nation. Even a few Republicans express unease; Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel notes "a dangerous arrogance and a sort of 'Pax Americana' vision."
As can be seen, the subject of pre-emption lends itself to hyperbole. We're about as close to having a New Imperium or Pax Americana as we are to having a dictatorship of the proletariat, but anguished and angry warnings keep coming.
Stirring the controversy is President Bush's "National Security Strategy of the United States," a 31-page paper made public Sept. 20. It asserts a right to forcibly disarm a state whose nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons could threaten us or our allies, or wind up in the hands of terrorists. It states explicitly that the US is not bound to wait to be attacked, but may choose to hit first.
Obviously, Iraq is the first test. It won't be the last, so it's worth considering what Bush's new doctrine does and does not mean.
The Sept. 11 attacks changed US strategy, but not all at once. Homeland security rose in priority. The President declared the "Bush doctrine," threatening to use force not only against terrorists but also against their state sponsors. Pre-emption is the latest piece of the strategic puzzle to fall into place.
This step reflects three realities, say officials. First, stateless terrorists can't be deterred. Second, there is an ever-present danger that terrorists could acquire weapons of mass murder from rogue nations. Third, terrorists using those weapons could kill millions.
The paper states: "The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today's threats, and the magnitude of potential harm ... [mean] we cannot let our enemies strike first." In sports parlance, that means the best defense is a good offense.
This is a clear statement, but it wasn't long before it had become enveloped in a fog of claims and counterclaims.
Adoption of pre-emption as a declared option marks an evolutionary, not revolutionary, change in US strategy. Time-tested concepts of deterrence and containment--which themselves sparked fierce criticism--are still available to a President.
The embrace of military pre-emption brings risks, no question. Washington must make sure it strikes the right target, even though intelligence is imperfect. There is a near-absolute requirement to succeed, because there will be no second chance.
These, however, are practical questions. The key theoretical question has been asked--and answered--by defense official Kenneth L. Adelman: "Who among us would not have attacked Osama bin Laden on Sept. 10, 2001? Is there any argument for not doing that? I can't see it in my wildest dream."
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