As Vice President Dick Cheney said in a recent campaign speech in East Lansing, Michigan, “We will engage the enemy, facing him today with our military in Afghanistan and Iraq, so we do not have to face him with armies of firefighters, police, and medical personnel on the streets of our own cities.”
Critics of the war, however, say the rationale for such action has been shattered by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the conclusion reached by the 9/11 commission that there was no “collaborative relationship” between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.
Some say the pre-emptive doctrine met an early death in Iraq, while others say the US is safer with Saddam no longer in power, courtesy of the Bush administration’s decision to take him out.
The only consensus in Washington appears to be the belief held by most foreign-policy scholars that the US is unlikely to launch another full-scale pre-emptive attack anytime soon.
Euphoria has given way to doubts
In a May op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations, the authors argued that the Bush doctrine of pre-emption had been effectively debunked by the outcome of the war in Iraq.
“Today, the doctrine of pre-emption has fallen on hard times. Far from demonstrating the principle’s effectiveness, the Iraq war and its aftermath have ultimately underscored its limits,” Daalder and Lindsay wrote.
“With the Iraqi threat having turned out to be far less than advertised and the cost of occupying Iraq far higher, it is hardly surprising that pre-emption suddenly looks far less attractive,” they said.
Peter Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees that events on the ground in Iraq have tempered the willingness of many who supported the invasion to advocate similar military measures against countries not deemed to be immediate threats.
“Nobody is making
“Nobody is making those kinds of bold neocon predictions they were making in the spring of 2002,” Singer said.
“Since then they have clearly backed away from that because reality slapped them in the face.”
Not everyone agrees. Raymond Tanter, an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says when looking at the overall developments, the Bush administration and many conservative advocates of the war feel vindicated by the outcome.
“What I hear is that because of the election, not much is going to be done in the Middle East if it can be avoided,” Tanter said.
“But I don’t think the administration has been deterred because I don’t think the administration feels that things are going badly in Iraq in terms of the broad picture.”
Many analysts say the real debate centres around the distinction between pre-emptive war and preventive war.
Whereas pre-emptive war involves the use of definitive, real-time intelligence to confront an immediate security threat, preventive war is the use of more speculative intelligence to go after an enemy that may constitute an imminent danger somewhere down the road, several experts said.
Stiff resistance to the occupation
“Pre-emptive is different than preventive war,” said Laurence Korb, a former defence department official in the Reagan administration and now a senior fellow at the Center for American progress, a Democratic thinktank in Washington.
“A lot of people use the terms interchangeably and that’s a problem.”
Even those who criticised the use of preventive war against Iraq said pre-emptive war remained a viable tool if solid, real-time intelligence indicated an immediate threat to the country.
“There’s a consensus between the two parties as to the use of force, not as to the timing necessarily, but to do whatever is necessary to protect national security,” Tanter said.
With Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry still running neck and neck in the polls, much depends on who controls the White House next year. Singer said, however, that no competent commander-in-chief could ever discount the possibility of using pre-emptive force if a legitimate threat materialised.
The decision to invade Iraq may
“No president would ever say that and call themselves a leader,” he said. “They could not say, ‘I see a clear and present danger, but I’m afraid to do something about it’.”
Nevertheless, the political bar for any sort of pre-emptive military strike has been set much higher by the challenges faced in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, says Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, a bi-monthly journal published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The whole notion of going after country x, people will laugh at that as reckless,” Rose said. “There aren’t going to be any great adventures in the near future without extreme provocation and iron-clad intelligence.”