UNITED NATIONS — As he implored the world on Thursday to disarm Saddam Hussein's Iraq before it unleashes a nuclear, chemical or biological whirlwind, President Bush made a blunt argument that boiled down to this: In dealing with rogue nations and suicidal terrorists, an ounce of pre-emption is worth a pound of deterrence.
"With every step the Iraqi regime takes toward gaining and deploying the most terrible weapons," Mr. Bush told the United Nations General Assembly, "our own options to confront that regime will narrow."
degree, our emphasis on going in is not only an incentive but almost an imperative
for him to do something. It is actually the reverse of deterrence; we are goading
him to do more.
Sick, a former National Security Council staffer in the Ford, Carter and Reagan
Pre-emption, or prevention, as a tool of diplomacy and military policy is hardly new. The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II was a complex web of economic assistance backed up by military muscle — aimed at pre-empting Communist hegemony on a continent twice consumed by war in the 20th century.
But Mr. Bush's current prescriptions go well beyond the geopolitical equivalent of an apple a day. More clearly than ever, he signaled that the United States is prepared to strike Iraq militarily, and all but alone if necessary, to topple Mr. Hussein and thwart his continued efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
For many in Mr. Bush's wary audience of nearly 200 nations, and other foreign policy experts, merely the notion raises sobering questions about traditional concepts of deterrence that have kept any number of mortal enemies, from India and Pakistan to North and South Korea, from trying to blow the other up first.
The administration may argue persuasively that a pre-emptive move is necessary, because the mere presence of American military might may not deter a despot like Mr. Hussein from slipping chemical weapons, whose source might never be traced, to a shadowy terrorist group. But if Mr. Hussein believes that Washington might strike first, could that be an extra incentive for him to make common cause with forces hostile to American power — or to strike first himself? By elevating pre-emption so prominently in the hierarchy of options, and defining it so explicitly and provocatively in military terms, the administration may be treading on a delicate and potentially dangerous path.
In the Clinton administration, aggressive diplomacy helped freeze North Korea's nuclear program and secure nuclear materials in what had been the former Soviet Union's arsenal.
"We saw pre-emption as an important and legitimate arrow in the quiver," said Ashton B. Carter, a former assistant secretary of defense and the co-author with former Defense Secretary William J. Perry of "Preventive Defense." "But when one talks about doctrines and so on, it implies that it's a preferred course."
And that's the very implication that gives Dr. Carter pause. "When you're dealing with weapons of mass destruction, you don't have the luxury that armies and nations had in times past, when you mobilized the nation and its industries to respond to an attack," added Dr. Carter, now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's an appropriate question to ask whether the world now admits of that. At the same time, it's a big enough change, and a sensitive enough issue, that we need to not enunciate it as a general principle, if in fact it's not a very good generalized policy."
Last week, Mr. Bush made a public demonstration of willingness to honor the traditional rules of the game. He not only appealed to the General Assembly for action, but he dispatched Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to help draft a new Security Council resolution that would make the point that Iraq has already "unilaterally subverted" the United Nations.
A senior administration official acknowledged that it was not in the interests of the United States to apply pre-emptive action except in "a fairly narrow range of cases."
"First of all, it isn't new," the official said of the approach. "All that happened here is that it was more explicitly stated. You would want to exhaust a lot of other possibilities first, including in this case."
The president's aides have taken to invoking the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as a moment when President John F. Kennedy was prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike to take out Soviet missiles in Cuba before they were fully operational. In the end, though, Kennedy chose a naval blockade, which he was careful to call a "quarantine," because a blockade is an act of war.
"A pre-emptive strike was one that he considered," said Theodore C. Sorenson, a White House aide at the time, "but he also considered the innocent lives that would be lost, the international laws that would be broken and the allies and friends around the world who would be disaffected — as any thoughtful president would."
But Philip D. Zelikow, a historian at the University of Virginia who is an expert on the crisis and served on the National Security Council staff in the first Bush administration, said the missile crisis was "the most relevant analogy."
"Kennedy chose a diplomatic route, but he delivered an ultimatum, backed by the threat of military force," Mr. Zelikow said. "He insisted that those missiles be removed, and if they were not removed, he threatened to remove them with military action."
Of course, President Bush, like his father before him a decade ago, may yet hope to avoid a military campaign in Iraq. "War is never inevitable," Secretary Powell insisted on Friday.
But on the same day, Mr. Bush said that it was "highly doubtful" that Mr. Hussein would comply with weapons inspections. Last week, Mr. Bush emphasized Mr. Hussein's decade-long defiance of the United Nations resolutions, not the United States's demand, first formulated under President Bill Clinton, for regime change in Baghdad. But he clearly believes that the one goal depends on the other.
"The president's strong card on this is weapons of mass destruction," said Gary Sick, a former National Security Council staffer in the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations who now leads the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. "On the terrorism side, I think he has a very hard case to make." In the first days after the hijackings, Mr. Sick acknowledged that he was among those who assumed that Al Qaeda had state assistance, and that Iraq was a logical suspect. But, Mr. Sick said, he changed his mind: "I think we underestimated Al Qaeda and the degree of organization it had."
His concern now, he said, was that "if Saddam sees us coming, and if we really push the idea that pre-emption is acceptable, what's to say that Saddam won't think he can hit us first?"
"The evidence that he is going after us is limited," he said. "The evidence that we are going after him is abundant. If I were him, I would certainly be thinking about how I can pre-position myself to strike back."
"To some degree, our emphasis on going in is not only an incentive but almost an imperative for him to do something," Mr. Sick said. "It is actually the reverse of deterrence; we are goading him to do more."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company