The Magazine

The Bush Doctrine Lives

From the February 16, 2004 issue: The Kay findings point to its importance, not its demise.

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By MAX BOOT
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The Clinton administration launched another preventive war the following year by attacking Serbia in cooperation with its NATO allies. When the military operation started, the ethnic cleansing of Albanian Kosovars was only just beginning. The NATO action, as Gen. Wesley Clark later testified, "was designed to preempt Serb ethnic cleansing and regional destabilization" (italics added). We are today keeping thousands of soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo, not because there is a war going on but to avert another war from breaking out.

Yet many pundits argue with a straight face that the Bush administration invented preemption. What the Bushies did is simply bring out into the open and make explicit what had been implicit all along: "To forestall or prevent . . . hostile acts by our adversaries," in the words of the National Security Strategy, "the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." It may be argued that it was unwise to turn what had been de facto into de jure policy. There is no question that, with its bold declaration, the National Security Strategy has alarmed much of the world and some of the American public. It's given rise to nightmare scenarios in which the United States goes around, willy-nilly, invading countries on trumped-up charges and other countries, too, invade their neighbors under the banner of preemption.

The fact that neither has come to pass since the Iraq war last year is hardly proof that such fears are unfounded, but it does, at the very least, indicate they are overblown. India isn't about to nuke Pakistan, claiming a right of preemption. Nations take life-or-death decisions based on their own circumstances, not on what the United States does. The National Security Strategy has not shredded international law or age-old norms of international conduct. The exact conditions that applied in the war on Iraq--a decade-long history chockfull of instances where Saddam broke promises and violated international law--do not apply elsewhere, which helps explain why Bush targeted Iraq and not other rogue states like Iran or North Korea (or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia).

The alarm created by the Bush Doctrine is not entirely a bad thing. It's not only our friends who are worried. So are our enemies. This helps explain Muammar Qaddafi's sudden willingness to give up his WMD arsenal, lest he too wind up in a spider hole trying to evade Delta Force. This may also explain the Iranian mullahs' willingness to accept greater international scrutiny of their nuclear program.

How does this balance out? Do the deterrence benefits of preemption outweigh its public relations costs? Does the image of strength that America projects in the Middle East offset the image of lawlessness that America projects in Europe? At this point it's impossible to say. But whether or not American leaders continue to trumpet a policy of preemption (Bush did not mention it last month in his State of the Union address), it will remain in the presidential toolkit because there is no other plausible alternative for dealing with the mega-dangers we now face. To quote Robert Cooper again: "It would be irresponsible to do nothing while even one further country acquires nuclear capability. Nor is it good enough to wait until that country acquires the bomb. By then the costs of military action may be too high. Hence the doctrine of preventative action in the U.S. National Security Strategy."

But what about the costs of preventive action? Aren't they also too high, as numerous critics of the Iraq war assert? Again, it's impossible to say, because we don't know what would have happened had Saddam Hussein remained in power. It's possible that the policy of containment would have worked, but it seems unlikely. Remember that containment was failing before Bush came into office. Russia, France, and other countries that would sing the joys of sanctions as an alternative to military action in 2002-03 were strongly lobbying, before military action was on the table, to relax or lift sanctions altogether. And the United States and Britain likely would have gone along at some point, if only because the costs of containment were so high. Containment kept tens of thousands of troops surrounding Iraq and dozens of warplanes patrolling the no-fly zones. It also meant conniving in a policy under which the Iraqi people were starved of milk and medicine even while Saddam continued to build all the palaces his sick heart desired. The "oil-for-palaces" program, as one military wag dubbed it, was not a sustainable long-term policy, morally or politically. Something had to give.