How Bush’s Doctrine of Pre-emption was Ambushed by Reality

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

March 26, 2004

Election politics will inevitably highlight the differences between George Bush and John Kerry in their approaches to the burning issue of how best to promote the security of American citizens in the midst of the war on terror.

Yet behind the election hyping of differences between the two US presidential candidates there is, in fact, a growing convergence between the Republican and Democratic approaches to the post-September 11 world.

The most notable change can be observed in what has happened to George Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption.

Iraq, North Korea and Iran were portrayed as posing unacceptable dangers to the US because, as sponsors and acquirers of weapons of mass destruction, they could provide those weapons to terrorists.

Bush argued this represented a clear and present danger that justified pre-emptive action to remove these kinds of regimes.

Several things have happened since the President unveiled that doctrine. First, the nature of that particular threat was seen to be highly exaggerated. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. There was, in fact, no indication that Saddam Hussein would have given weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaeda even if he had them.

Second, responsibility for the spread of nuclear technology turned out to be not from the axis of evil, but from the chief nuclear scientist of Pakistan—a country that has just been designated as a major non-NATO ally of the US.

Third, the doctrine of pre-emption turned out to be a general strategy generated to justify a particular war against a particularly heinous regime—the war to remove Saddam. It hasn’t been applied anywhere else and there is no indication that it will be.

If ever there was a place where the doctrine should have been applied it was surely Iran. After all, Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism, and its nuclear program is a lot more advanced than we thought Iraq’s was, let alone what it actually turned out to be.

But within six months of Bush’s declaration of Iran as a full-fledged member of the axis of evil, it was dropped from that list altogether.

That was partly out of recognition that the US needed Iran’s co-operation in Iraq and Afghanistan and partly because invading Iran was simply impossible to contemplate.

A similar problem arose in the case of applying the doctrine to North Korea. It has a 500,000-strong army on the border with South Korea and is believed to have a handful of nuclear weapons and therefore it, too, could not serve as an early candidate for pre-emptive attack.

Instead, the Bush Administration took up the very option that it had so criticised the Clinton administration for pursuing—painstaking negotiations designed to provide various carrots and compensations for North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear program.

In the Libyan case the Bush Administration, far from applying the doctrine of pre-emption, picked up on the Clinton administration’s diplomatic approach and took it through to its logical conclusion – Libya’s disarmament.

As assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, I had the dubious honour of starting the negotiations with the Libyans in May 1999. Five years of diplomacy, concluded by Bush, produced that Libyan disarmament. But in May 1999, the Libyans offered to give up their weapons of mass destruction in the very first meeting we held with them.

So the notion that the US and its allies had to go to war in Iraq pre-emptively in order to get the Libyans to give up their weapons of mass destruction does not happen to fit the facts. Libyan disarmament was the product of negotiations and sanctions, not the war in Iraq.

If the doctrine of pre-emption is being observed in the breach by the Bush Administration, what is it being replaced by? A return to a milder form of multilateralism.

In Iraq, the Bush Administration is now beseeching the UN to come in and take over the job of state-building. After disparaging the UN in the run-up to the Iraq war, the US has become dependent on the UN to legitimise the American plan for handing over sovereignty to a provisional government while postponing the elections until 2005.

And in seeking Iran’s disarmament the Bush Administration is turning to the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct enhanced inspections, the very inspections it disparaged in Iraq.

This kind of convergence is true of the US Democratic Party as well. The Democrats could have used the Bush Administration’s troubles in Iraq as a hook to argue for withdrawal. But not one serious Democratic candidate has argued for that position. Indeed, John Kerry has committed forcefully to staying the course there, arguing that he would be better at doing so because he would be more able to bring in international support and provide greater legitimacy for the American operation.

In short, the era of aggressive unilateralism that so marked the Bush Administration’s approach to the world in the first two years after September 11 is over. The strategy of pre-emption, enunciated in September 2002 and implemented in the toppling of Saddam, has now been pulled back from a doctrine to an option—which is where it should have been all along.