The Magazine

Rumsfeld's Just War

Generals meet theologians at the Pentagon.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By JOE LOCONTE
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The Pentagon briefing concluded with a discussion of the next phase in the war against terror: going after the bad guys in other states and striking those who give them safe haven. Two days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush promised that the United States would move against not only the al Qaeda network, but "those who fund them, hide them, and encourage them." Virtually every senior administration official has repeated the threat. Rumsfeld was asked if he believed preemptive strikes against rogue states such as Iraq were likely.

He immediately recalled Israel's 1981 bombing raid on Iraq's nuclear facility. Absent that setback for Saddam Hussein, he said, U.S. troops in the Gulf War would have faced a nuclear-armed Iraqi army. The lesson: When extremists are seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, what otherwise would look like an offensive strike is, strategically speaking, defensive.

"Self-defense means you must go after them. You don't have a choice. And that gets you to preemptive strikes," Rumsfeld said. "It's not a tough call for me." Neither does it appear to be for President Bush. He bluntly warns that terrorists are prepared "to turn their hatred into holocaust." And he challenges nations to pick sides: "Every nation now knows that we cannot accept--we will not accept--states that harbor, finance, train, or equip the agents of terror," he told military students at the Citadel on December 11. "Those nations that violate this principle will be regarded as hostile regimes . . . and they will be held to account."

If the Bush-Rumsfeld doctrine is correct, it would seem to pass the just war test of last resort--that military action is the only way to prevent great evil. Neither negotiations nor endless searches for the "root causes" of terrorism will do the job.

Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.