The Bush Doctrine of Pre-Emption
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, USA
October 7, 2002
We face no more serious decision in our democracy than whether or not to go to war. The American people deserve to fully understand all of the implications of such a decision.
The question of whether our nation should attack Iraq is playing out in the context of a more fundamental debate that is only just beginning—an all-important debate about how, when and where in the years ahead our country will use its unsurpassed military might.
On September 20, the Administration unveiled its new National Security Strategy. This document addresses the new realities of our age, particularly the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist networks armed with the agendas of fanatics. The Strategy claims that these new threats are so novel and so dangerous that we should "not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively."
But in the discussion over the past few months about Iraq, the Administration often uses the terms "pre-emptive" and "preventive" interchangeably. In the realm of international relations, these two terms have long had very different meanings.
Traditionally, "pre-emptive" action refers to times when states react to an imminent threat of attack. For example, when Egyptian and Syrian forces mobilized on Israel's borders in 1967, the threat was obvious and immediate, and Israel felt justified in pre-emptively attacking those forces. The global community is generally tolerant of such actions, since no nation should have to suffer a certain first strike before it has the legitimacy to respond.
By contrast, "preventive" military action refers to strikes that target a country before it has developed a capability that could someday become threatening. Preventive attacks have generally been condemned. For example, the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was regarded as a preventive strike by Japan, because the Japanese were seeking to block a planned military buildup by the United States in the Pacific.
The coldly premeditated nature of preventive attacks and preventive wars makes them anathema to well-established international principles against aggression. Pearl Harbor has been rightfully recorded in history as an act of dishonorable treachery.
Historically, the United States has condemned the idea of preventive war, because it violates basic international rules against aggression. But at times in our history, preventive war has been seriously advocated as a policy option.
In the early days of the Cold War, some U.S. military and civilian experts advocated a preventive war against the Soviet Union. They proposed a devastating first strike to prevent the Soviet Union from developing a threatening nuclear capability. At the time, they said the uniquely destructive power of nuclear weapons required us to rethink traditional international rules.
The first round of that debate ended in 1950, when President Truman ruled out a preventive strike, stating that such actions were not consistent with our American tradition. He said, "You don't 'prevent' anything by war . . . except peace." Instead of a surprise first strike, the nation dedicated itself to the strategy of deterrence and containment, which successfully kept the peace during the long and frequently difficult years of the Cold War.
Arguments for preventive war resurfaced again when the Eisenhower Administration took power in 1953, but President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles soon decided firmly against it. President Eisenhower emphasized that even if we were to win such a war, we would face the vast burdens of occupation and reconstruction that would come with it.
The argument that the United States should take preventive military action, in the absence of an imminent attack, resurfaced in 1962, when we learned that the Soviet Union would soon have the ability to launch missiles from Cuba against our country. Many military officers urged President Kennedy to approve a preventive attack to destroy this capability before it became operational. Robert Kennedy, like Harry Truman, felt that this kind of first strike was not consistent with American values. He said that a proposed surprise first strike against Cuba would be a "Pearl Harbor in reverse. "For 175 years," he said, "we have not been that kind of country." That view prevailed. A middle ground was found and peace was preserved.
Yet another round of debate followed the Cuban Missile Crisis when American strategists and voices in and out of the Administration advocated preventive war against China to forestall its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Many arguments heard today about Iraq were made then about the Chinese communist government: that its leadership was irrational and that it was therefore undeterrable. And once again, those arguments were rejected.
As these earlier cases show, American strategic thinkers have long debated the relative merits of preventive and pre-emptive war. Although nobody would deny our right to pre-emptively block an imminent attack on our territory, there is disagreement about our right to preventively engage in war.
In each of these cases a way was found to deter other nations, without waging war.
Now, the Bush Administration says we must take pre-emptive action against Iraq. But what the Administration is really calling for is preventive war, which flies in the face of international rules of acceptable behavior. The Administration's new National Security Strategy states "As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."
The circumstances of today's world require us to rethink this concept. The world changed on September 11th, and all of us have learned that it can be a drastically more dangerous place. The Bush Administration's new National Security Strategy asserts that global realities now legitimize preventive war and make it a strategic necessity.
The document openly contemplates preventive attacks against groups or states, even absent the threat of imminent attack. It legitimizes this kind of first strike option, and it elevates it to the status of a core security doctrine. Disregarding norms of international behavior, the Bush Strategy asserts that the United States should be exempt from the rules we expect other nations to obey.
I strongly oppose any such extreme doctrine and I'm sure that many others do as well. Earlier generations of Americans rejected preventive war on the grounds of both morality and practicality, and our generation must do so as well. We can deal with Iraq without resorting to this extreme.
It is impossible to justify any such double standard under international law. Might does not make right. America cannot write its own rules for the modern world. To attempt to do so would be unilateralism run amok. It would antagonize our closest allies, whose support we need to fight terrorism, prevent global warming, and deal with many other dangers that affect all nations and require international cooperation. It would deprive America of the moral legitimacy necessary to promote our values abroad. And it would give other nations—from Russia to India to Pakistan—an excuse to violate fundamental principles of civilized international behavior.
The Administration's doctrine is a call for 21st century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept. It is the antithesis of all that America has worked so hard to achieve in international relations since the end of World War II.
This is not just an academic debate. There are important real world consequences. A shift in our policy toward preventive war would reinforce the perception of America as a "bully" in the Middle East, and would fuel anti-American sentiment throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
It would also send a signal to governments the world over that the rules of aggression have changed for them too, which could increase the risk of conflict between countries such as Russia and Georgia, India and Pakistan, and China and Taiwan.
Obviously, this debate is only just beginning on the Administration's new strategy for national security. But the debate is solidly grounded in American values and history.
It will also be a debate among vast numbers of well-meaning Americans who have honest differences of opinion about the best way to use U.S. military might. The debate will be contentious, but the stakes—in terms of both our national security and our allegiance to our core beliefs—are too high to ignore. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues in Congress to develop an effective and principled policy that will enable us to protect our national security and respect the basic principles that are essential for the world to be at peace.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy has represented the state of Massachusetts for 37 years. He is currently the Chairman of the
Labor and Human Resources Committee in the Senate, and also serves on the Judiciary Committee.
The above speech was delivered on the floor of the US Senate, October 7, 2002.
Reprinted on the website of Truthout. © : truthout 2002.