In his recent speech at West Point, President Bush defended what has been called the “Bush Doctrine” - the policy known best because of the question ABC’s Charlie Gibson sandbagged Sarah Palin with. (By his awkward demeanor with the scripted question, Mr. Gibson clearly didn’t know the answer, either). Sad, because part of the doctrine - “preemption” - will continue to be U.S. policy, however it may be described by the Obama administration. Ironically perhaps, it’s the “democracy” part of the Bush Doctrine that has failed under the Bush administration, primarily because of fuzzy thinking and poor execution at the senior policy level.
The idea behind preemption is simple: Because our free (and soft-target) society is so vulnerable to Sept. 11-style sneak attacks from terrorists, we have adopted a policy to attack the attackers before they attack us. Surprising no one, Madeleine Albright didn’t like the policy and said of it in 2003 that “we can’t just go around attacking people.” That’s right of course, but that’s not what the policy does: We don’t just go around attacking people unless we determine that they represent a clear and present danger to us, and it’s this last part that allows partisan Democrats to distance themselves from the policy while still endorsing it’s basic elements.
Here’s what I mean: No American political administration, Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative - anything short of a pacifist one - would stand by and do nothing if it were convinced that an attack on America was about to take place. The key words here are “if it were convinced that,” because the criteria for that determination might vary: The Republicans might be convinced if there were “a preponderance of evidence” of an impending attack while the Democrats might insist on a “smoking gun” or “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” However, both administrations would take action to prevent an attack if they were persuaded it was going to happen.
“Clear and present danger,” “preponderance of the evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” are terms of art in the American legal system and one might wonder about their application here - in an attempt to make more specific a policy designed to protect America and Americans from terrorist threats. But I use the terms because they are helpful, and to illustrate that we have lots of lawyers - way too many lawyers - running the national security apparatus of our country, and because of it we are always going to have these terms flung around when addressing concepts of preemption.
Accordingly, and with some irony, perhaps the most significant short-term danger we face is the erroneous determination by some radical faction that the Obama administration will no longer follow the Bush Doctrine and therefore not attack preemptively. Rather than this faulty logic, the question for potential attackers should be: Do we really believe that we won’t be preempted if the Obama administration determines that we are about to attack? The bottom line: If terrorists - by their various actions and intelligence “signatures” - indicate that they are preparing to attack us, they will for sure be preempted, whether it’s called the Bush Doctrine or the Obama Doctrine.
But preemption is just one part of the Bush Doctrine - the other part is that we will spread the influence of democracy, this because freedom will counter the ideologies of hate. “Freedom” has a nice ring to it - no pun intended - but there is real irony associated with this part of the doctrine: First, it’s what one would expect to hear as a central foreign policy theme of a Democratic administration. In fact, “nation-building,” a traditional Democratic policy (which has been criticized by Republicans in the past) relies on many of the same assumptions, as does this part of the Bush Doctrine. The second irony is that - while its purposes may be noble - this is the part of the Bush Doctrine that demonstrates an almost unbelievable degree of naivete by Bush national security policy seniors.
For example, what about our “democracy” policy in Iraq? Come on, the various religious and tribal factions there don’t want anything to do with democracy because it requires compromise - and they can’t do that any more than anyone else in the region. These aren’t Republicans and Democrats; these are people (mostly poorly educated and highly indoctrinated men) who have long sworn to kill each other for various sins and atrocities of the past - and have taken turns doing it over the past few thousand years. Freedom and democracy are the last things that these local religious and tribal despots want to see in their part of the world - they want it about as much as they want to see civil rights and equality for women in their societies.
Yet another irony: If the Democratic mantra for “nation-building” can be tweaked to assure local leaders that we don’t mean - nor even want - to impose democracy on them, could it work in favor of our foreign policy? Sure, and hopefully the Obama administration will see that it will, and not abandon the nation-building policy because it doesn’t “do” freedom and democracy as we have done it here.
At the same time, however, President Obama needs to make it very clear that he will preempt an attack on our vital interests at home or abroad if he believes it’s about to happen - this however he describes the standard of proof he needs to make the decision. The first part of the equation - preemption - is simply the unpleasant reality of the dangers we face from terrorism; the second part - the level of confidence the president needs to preempt - is primarily a threshold for political justification. The bad guys need to keep these things separate, as should critics of the Bush Doctrine: The preemption part of it has worked just fine.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.
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