Trouble Brewing: The Doctrine of Pre-Emption is Beginning to Look Like a Doctrine of Provocation

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Common Dreams

Trouble Brewing: The Doctrine of Pre-Emption is Beginning to Look Like a Doctrine of Provocation

Remarks delivered on the floor of the Senate on Aug. 1, 2003

IN THIS STEAMY, stormy Washington summer, while the United States continues to focus its attention on the postwar turmoil in Iraq, I worry that other storms, capable of wreaking devastating damage to international stability, are brewing.

The forces in play are the escalating nuclear threat from North Korea, the possible emergence of Iran as a nuclear threat, the desperate and chaotic situation in Liberia, the near-forgotten war in Afghanistan, the violence-racked Middle East peace process and the unrelenting threat of international terrorism.

The president cannot afford merely to plot the course of the elements preparing to converge into a perfect storm. He must turn his attention to these far-flung countries and work with the international community to defuse the emerging crises. Half-hearted gestures will not suffice.

It is encouraging that North Korea -- surely the most serious threat to international stability on today's horizon -- will engage in multilateral negotiations over its nuclear program. But the presence of other countries at the table does not give the United States license to abdicate its leadership role at the talks.

Moreover, the president must understand that any nuclear policy agreement with North Korea is not something that can be sealed with a simple handshake. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has suggested that Congress could endorse some kind of written security assurances to North Korea without the process of ratifying a treaty. That's not good enough.

All of the ingredients that would be required for a comprehensive agreement with North Korea appear to meet the criteria traditionally used to determine whether an agreement rises to the level of a treaty requiring Senate approval.

Under the Constitution, the Senate has a unique role to play in helping to frame the contours and context of international agreements. Any nuclear pact with North Korea will be critical to the national security of the United States, and as such should be subject to the treaty "advice and consent" provision found in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution.

Beyond North Korea is the looming question of Iran's nuclear intentions. It is more than troubling that while the United States was focused on eliminating the apparently nonexistent nuclear threat from Iraq, both Iran and North Korea were secretly pursuing their own nuclear programs. I do not believe it is coincidental that North Korea and Iran accelerated their quests for nuclear weapons at precisely the moment that the president invoked his new doctrine of pre-emption to attack Iraq before that nation could develop nuclear capability.

The actions of North Korea and Iran expose the essential danger of the doctrine of pre-emption. Iraq could be attacked at will because it did not have nuclear capability -- despite administration hype to the contrary. The situation in North Korea called for restraint because that country did have (and continues to have) a nuclear weapons program. Iran was a question mark.

Predictably, both North Korea and Iran, seeing the writing on the wall, began to scramble to accelerate their efforts. In retrospect, the doctrine of pre-emption is beginning to look increasingly like a doctrine of provocation.

The situation in Liberia raises a different, but no less volatile, set of issues. The humanitarian crisis calls out for relief, but the danger of ensnaring U.S. troops in an intractable civil war is not to be underestimated -- particularly at a time when American forces are already stretched thin by open-ended commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the moment, the situation is still unstable in Liberia. The president is wise to exercise restraint before deploying large numbers of American military personnel into the country, but the United States cannot sit on the sidelines forever. The president needs to determine a course of action, in consultation with Congress and the United Nations, and he needs to explain his reasoning and his strategy to the American people.

Meanwhile, in this summer of great peril, the president is back at the ranch in Texas, meeting sporadically with his advisers and launching his re-election campaign. One wonders who's minding the White House.

A rare combination of volatile and dangerous international developments is gathering in the far corners of the world. In large part, it is a storm of this administration's own making, fueled by the fear, confusion and instability caused by the ill-advised and dangerous doctrine of pre-emption.

One may only hope that the president and his advisers can summon the skill, the wit and the leadership to engage and attempt to tame the elements of international turmoil before it is too late and we are swept into the vortexes of the brewing storms.

Robert C. Byrd

Robert Carlyle Byrd was a United States Senator from West Virginia. A member of the Democratic Party, Byrd served as a U.S. Representative from 1953 until 1959 and as a U.S. Senator from 1959 to 2010. Senator Byrd died on June 28, 2010.

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