Failed doctrine given new life

March 24, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- If you were wondering what the White House has learned from three years of Iraq errors, recent days don't offer much comfort.

President Bush has been giving speeches assuring Americans that things are going well, with a few speed bumps. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says that "the terrorists ... are losing." But the most unsettling event was the unveiling of a new national security strategy that reaffirms the 2002 Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war.

Pre-emptive war is the concept that America will attack its enemies - whether state or terrorist group - before they attack us, especially if we think they may use weapons of mass destruction. "We do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur," the strategy reads, "even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack."

On the surface, there is nothing exceptional about the doctrine. For example, in 1967, Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt and Syria after Egypt had blocked one of Israel's main waterways and kicked out U.N. observers. One could imagine U.S. forces attacking terrorists who were sheltered by a weak state and were plotting to bomb a U.S. city.

But the Bush doctrine is a much more explosive strategy that has already gotten us into big trouble in Iraq; it goes way beyond the concept of getting them before they get you.

In Iraq, the pre-emption doctrine was used to overthrow a ruler based on speculation about what he might do in the future. The assumption was that Saddam Hussein would get nuclear weapons and hand them off to terrorists who would use them against us. This was preventive war against a highly unlikely threat for which good intelligence was lacking. If other countries tried preventive war, imagine what our reaction would be.

Most White House premises for the war were specious. Even in 2002, the administration knew that intelligence about Mr. Hussein's nuclear weapons program was thin. It was ludicrous to think he would give a bomb to radical Islamists who wanted to destroy him and whose bomb could be traced back to him.

The White House could have made a different case against Mr. Hussein: that he was an international pariah in flagrant violation of U.N. resolutions who would revive his nuclear program once sanctions were lifted and threaten the entire Mideast.

But the president chose to invoke a broad new doctrine that gave America carte blanche to overthrow any regime on the basis of evidence we chose. This doctrine unnerved even close allies. When we failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it shredded Mr. Bush's credibility abroad.

Yet the doctrine of pre-emption survives as the guts of Mr. Bush's security strategy. More to the point, in a 49-page document, the doctrine is spelled out just two pages before the U.S. case against Iran.

The strategy paper states that America faces "no greater challenge from a single country than Iran." Speculation is rife as to whether Iran is the next candidate for pre-emption. The paper says America's concerns with Tehran's nuclear program can be solved only if Iran opens its political system. This feeds the global buzz over whether America intends to bomb Iran's nuclear sites and topple the regime.

Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, insisted that the doctrine was not aimed specifically at Iran. He said pre-emption should not be seen "in the context of regime change," and he argued that America preferred to use diplomacy with Iran.

Even if Iraq has dulled the president's enthusiasm for regime change, making pre-emptive war the centerpiece of security doctrine is still a very bad idea - especially with Iran.

Such a doctrine no doubt has increased Tehran's appetite to build a nuclear weapons program swiftly. Presumably, Iran noticed that the doctrine doesn't threaten North Korea as harshly, perhaps because North Korea has several bombs. The doctrine has certainly increased Iran's incentive to make trouble for Americans inside Iraq.

A broad pre-emption doctrine will rile our allies, whom we need by our side to isolate Iran. It will make more problems for national security than it solves. Iraq would seem a case study of its failure.

However, there it stands, the centerpiece of our national security doctrine. Lessons not learned.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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