The release of a new National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran doesn't have an active nuclear weapons program is good news on its own terms. And just as important, it signals that the hawks inside the Bush administration have lost. No U.S. airstrikes will be forthcoming.
The Democratic presidential candidates, naturally enough, took the opportunity to bash each other. Barack Obama released a statement calling it "an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: Members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the president any justification to use military force." The reference is to a classified version of the NIE on Iraq that contained crucial caveats about Saddam Hussein's WMD programs -- and that Hillary Clinton, like the overwhelming majority of members of Congress, didn't bother to read.
Perhaps if she'd read it, she wouldn't have helped authorize the use of force in Iraq. Be that as it may, Clinton herself has observed that "if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote, and I certainly wouldn't have voted that way."
All this raises the question of what the candidates would be saying if the new intelligence had gone the other way -- if the intelligence agencies had found evidence of an ongoing nuclear weapons program in Iran. That would have put the focus on the Bush administration's post-9/11 invention, the "preemption" doctrine, which asserts a U.S. right to use military force unilaterally against countries that have neither attacked another state nor have any clear plan to do so -- merely because, say, we feel nervous about its weapons programs.
The preemption doctrine flies in the face of international law, but President Bush and his team felt that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, traditional practice was obsolete. Do the Democrats agree? John Edwards doesn't. He gave a Nov. 5 speech calling Bush's preventive war doctrine "wrong on the merits, wrong on the morals and wrong for America."
What about the front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Obama's opposition to the Iraq war would seem to suggest that he opposes the doctrine. However, although his campaign has harped obsessively on Clinton's misguided 2002 vote for war, he's never broadened his argument and objected to the doctrine. Instead, his famous antiwar speech focused on practical problems, such as the need for a "U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost." On Iran, Obama has emphasized his eagerness to conduct direct diplomacy, but he has also always underscored that all options should be on the table.
For her part, Clinton voted to authorize Bush's proposed unilateral preemptive strike on Iraq, but she also explained that "my vote is not, however, a vote for any new doctrine of preemption or for unilateralism." However, Lee Feinstein, a former deputy director of the policy planning staff at the State Department and now Clinton's top national security staffer, wrote in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs that "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough."
Unfortunately, this sort of muddle on the part of the front-runners has been typical of the Democratic performance on national security ever since 9/11. One sees, repeatedly, little inclination to face the issues squarely. But to succeed politically, Democrats need to criticize not only the now-unpopular people running the government, but the bad ideas whose failure has made them unpopular. Voters deserve to understand what our potential future leaders stand for. As important, to get the chance to govern, let alone to govern effectively, Democrats need better ideas than Bush's, not just better personnel.
Vague calls for more reliance on diplomacy, similarly, are an argument about tactics rather than strategy. The problem with the Bush preemption doctrine isn't merely that it's been applied when the intelligence was lacking but that the underlying idea is unsound. By casting America as the threatening aggressor, it encourages countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction to defend themselves, as it undermines the sort of international cooperation that's necessary to halt the spread of those weapons. On some level, Democrats seem to recognize this, but if they're politically too timid to rule out the failed policy of preemption, they can't offer a coherent rationale for an alternative approach. Instead, they sometimes seem to be offering more of the same, only a bit less so.
Thanks to the latest intelligence, preemption is moot for the short run. But this week's findings could be revised, the Iranians might change their minds, or a new crisis might arise elsewhere. Regardless, voters are owed clear thinking and straight answers from Democrats on preemption.
There's a big difference between getting new principles in 2009 and simply getting different people to implement the old ones.
Matthew Yglesias is an associate editor of the Atlantic Monthly. His book "Heads in the Sand," about the Democratic Party's inability to construct a coherent alternative to the Bush foreign policy, will be published in April.