Thursday, July 29, 2004

One of the central foreign-policy issues of the presidential campaign is sure to be the issue of pre-emption. Specifically, under what circumstances it is appropriate for the United States to use force against a foe that has yet to attack this country directly. The contrast between John Kerry and President Bush on this question could hardly be more stark.

Mr. Bush’s position is clear. On Sept. 20, 2002, the president issued the National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSS), a document that broadened the acceptable uses of pre-emption to stop a future military threat to this country.

U.S. military doctrine has long provided for the right to use pre-emptive force to stop an imminent attack. Mr. Bush — faced with the possibility that future first strikes on the United States could involve terrorists or state sponsors of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could kill or maim millions of people — argues persuasively that pre-emptive military action should play a much greater role in U.S. doctrine. The Bush NSS states that “as a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed.” Moreover, the Bush policy expands the pre-emptive doctrine to include military action “even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.”

Mr. Kerry, by contrast, has been all over the map on pre-emption over the past two years. In his Oct. 9, 2002, Senate floor speech endorsing the use of force against Saddam Hussein, Mr. Kerry made a powerful implicit case for pre-emption. “In the wake of September 11, who among us can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater — a nuclear weapon — then reinvade Kuwait, push the Kurds out, attack Israel, any number of scenarios? … [C]an we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or other in a region where weapons are the currency of trade? How do we leave that to chance?” Yet, minutes later, Mr. Kerry blithely asserted that the resolution he was about to vote for did not represent an endorsement of the Bush pre-emption doctrine.

By 2003, Mr. Kerry managed to transform himself into a harsh critic of pre-emption. In a Dec. 3 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, Mr. Kerry attacked the Bush administration for being “enthralled by the idea of preemption.” In a speech at Georgetown University, he said the Bush administration relies “unwisely on the threat of military pre-emption against terrorist organizations.” Then, on July 16, Mr. Kerry appeared to re-endorse pre-emption: “Am I prepared as president to go get them before they get us if we locate them and have the sufficient intelligence? You bet I am.” Notice the use of the pronoun “I”— Mr. Kerry now seems to be saying he alone will act. (No need to consult with Jacques Chirac or Kofi Annan here.) But apparently, Mr. Kerry’s latest position does not appear to have been conveyed to the writers of the 2004 Democratic platform. That document denounces Mr. Bush for pursuing a policy of “unilateral pre-emption.”

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