President Bush's emerging doctrine advocating pre-emptive military strikes against America's adversaries or terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction could lead to unintended, and in some cases disastrous, consequences, defense analysts warn.
Since Bush outlined his new security doctrine earlier this month at West Point, N.Y., Iraq has been identified as the first potential target of a preventative U.S. war, in this case to pre-empt the possibility of dictator Saddam Hussein attacking the U.S. with biological, chemical or nuclear weapons.
Some military experts fear, however, that the implementation of such a policy
could have the opposite effect. By signaling that the objective is to kill Hussein
or topple his regime, through the use of CIA operations or a U.S. military invasion
of Iraq, some predict the Bush administration could actually provoke a response
using weapons of mass destruction from a cornered Hussein.
Striking first against adversaries has other risks as well, critics of the emerging policy warn. In the absence of clear evidence that these nations intend to attack the U.S. or its citizens, Washington would be setting an example for other nations that it's acceptable to skirt international norms and act unilaterally.
While Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have been quick to endorse possible action against Iraq, policy analysts warn that an attack might alienate allies and even encourage other states to engage in the kind of rogue behavior the Bush administration wants to pre-empt.
Since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Hussein has been deterred from using weapons of mass destruction against his neighbors by the threat of U.S. retaliation, they argue, but he has used chemical weapons against his own people and might use them against American troops if he were surrounded and threatened.
Analysts say that is just one of the risks of the developing Bush doctrine that is expected to be more clearly defined by autumn.
Iraq debate rages
But a policy debate is waging within the administration about how and when to apply the doctrine to Iraq.
"I don't think the American military has much of an appetite for invading Iraq," said political science professor John Mearsheimer, co-director of the University of Chicago's Program on International Security Policy. "I don't think they consider it that great a threat to the U.S. Most people in the American military believe Iraq can be deterred even if it has nuclear weapons, and I think they are correct."
The Bush doctrine is not novel. In 1962, President John Kennedy chose to quarantine Cuba with a naval blockade rather than permit the Soviet Union to finish installing nuclear missiles there, but Kennedy opted not to directly attack the missile installations.
President Ronald Reagan launched a 1986 air strike against Libya in retaliation for a terrorist bombing, but Reagan made sure to argue the U.S. attack was necessary for self-defense, in accordance with United Nations mandates. President Bill Clinton said he was prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea in 1994 to prevent Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear arms.
Others have struck first
Other states have acted accordingly. When Israel was threatened with war by Egypt, Jordan and Syria in 1967, it launched a surprise attack first and won the Six-Day War. When Israel feared Iraq would threaten it with nuclear weapons, it dispatched F-16s to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor under construction at Osiraq in 1981.
Still, the emerging doctrine potentially would be the biggest transformation of U.S. military strategy in a half-century, because it would move America beyond the Cold War objectives of deterrence and containment. When the enemy was the Soviet Union, the U.S. relied on the threat of mutual annihilation to deter the other superpower from attacking first. A strong U.S. defense also was aimed at preventing Moscow from territorial expansion.
But in a post-Sept. 11 world, where the new fear is that terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear warhead or a "dirty bomb" to spread radiation in a U.S. city--as was suspected in the recent arrest of accused Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla--Bush is loath to wait for terrorists or hostile states to strike first.
"In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act," Bush told the 2002 graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1.
Anthony Cordesman, a senior military strategist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington agreed that there are risks in taking pre-emptive actions against an adversary, but he warned that doing nothing is also dangerous.
"If you see an enemy deployment building up or they're on the edge of getting a nuclear weapon or converting to biological weapons, then nothing you do in terms of pre-emption is without risk," he said.
"The question is the balance of risk. The question is: if you have to take limited response now, and it would cost a limited number of forces, it still becomes far more desirable than waiting for an enemy attack with a highly lethal force," he added. "Pre-emption is always a matter of judgment and not cost free. It's always a balance."
That is the core of Bush's argument, which he raised in his State of the Union address earlier this year, declaring. "I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Bush underscored that message in his speech last month to the German Bundestag, identifying the dangers of appeasement in Berlin, where they had resonance in the birthplace of genocidal, totalitarian threats of the last century against freedom, democracy and world peace. Bush refined it further at West Point.
Speak softly, author urges
"There's no question that great powers like the United State launch preventative wars or pre-emptive strikes whenever they conclude it's in their interests. I'm a realist and I believe that's the way the world works," observed Mearsheimer, author of "The Tragedy of Great Power Politics."
"The $64,000 question is whether or not it makes sense to stand on the rooftops and announce loudly to the world that this is your doctrine. I think it would be better not to do that. I favor the Teddy Roosevelt approach to foreign policy: Speak softly and carry a big stick. The Bush people like to speak loudly and carry a medium-sized stick. It has not always worked out well."
Assailing Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil," as Bush has done, can put those nations on the defensive and provoke counterproductive responses, Mearsheimer argues. If the U.S. actually succeeds in killing Hussein or toppling his regime, that "will generate huge amounts of animosity in the Arab and Islamic world."
What's more, in the absence of hard evidence linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attack, or even a clear Iraqi intent to attack U.S. citizens or interests, America by striking Iraq could risk its leadership in the world, put other U.S. interests at risk and alienate its own allies, many of whom oppose such a move.
Cordesman pointed out that Pentagon commanders see the value of building a coalition of allies in order to "shape this battlefield politically, but they don't refuse to accept risks."
"There's a lot of division within the military about when and how," Cordesman
said. "But they, more than anyone else, can see that in five years proliferation
in the Persian Gulf can create a nightmare in a part of the world with two-thirds
of the world's oil reserves."
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