WASHINGTON — Two years ago this week, in a speech at West Point, President Bush formally enunciated his doctrine of pre-emption. "The war on terror will not be won on the defensive," the president told a graduating class of cadets. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act."
Within 10 months, Bush made good on his promise, sending U.S. troops 7,000 miles from home to depose Saddam Hussein. Less than two months after the first bombs were dropped, Bush landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to declare "mission accomplished" before several thousand cheering sailors. Advocates of the new approach to foreign policy felt fully vindicated.
Today, the doctrine of preemption has fallen on hard times. Far from demonstrating the principle's effectiveness, the Iraq war and its aftermath have ultimately underscored its limits. When Bush addressed the faculty and students at the Army War College last week, he spoke of staying the course in Iraq. But the problems that have plagued the U.S. occupation over the last year make it highly unlikely that preemption is a tactic that he will employ elsewhere anytime soon.
Bush's preemption doctrine went well beyond anything previous presidents had contemplated. To be sure, the option of using force pre-emptively had existed for Bush's predecessors. Some had used it — as Bill Clinton did in 1998 when he ordered an attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, that U.S. intelligence suspected of producing nerve gas. But Bush's conception of pre-emption far exceeded responding to an imminent danger of attack. He instead advocated preventive wars of regime change. The United States claimed the right to use force to oust leaders it disliked long before they could threaten its security.
Bush's radical departure from past practice was based on two assumptions, both of which our experience in Iraq has shown to be flawed. The first was the belief that Washington would have access to reliable intelligence about the intentions and capabilities of potential adversaries. An enemy's society might be closed, but our modern spy technologies could pry it open. We could peer into secret weapons sites from on high and listen to conversations and other communications without being detected. Our intelligence would be good enough to warn us of impending danger.
That assumption looks dubious 14 months after the fall of Hussein. On the eve of the Iraq war, Bush told the nation that "intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." A week into the war, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld boasted that "we know where they are."
Yet more than a year later, American troops still have not found any weapon of mass destruction (unless a single artillery shell, produced in the 1980s, that possibly contained sarin nerve gas, counts). The prewar intelligence predictions were so far off the mark that the president no longer argues that the war was justified because Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs posed a grave threat to American security.
The second assumption that drove Bush's willingness to launch a preventive war was the belief that the technological edge held by the United States made the costs of war, if not cheap, then at least acceptable.
"We have witnessed the arrival of a new era," Bush declared on the flight deck of the Abraham Lincoln. In the past, "military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime." This belief, which seemed so convincing in the immediate afterglow of the U.S. military's rapid march to Baghdad, looks naive in the wake of the fighting in Fallouja and Najaf. Not only have the costs of war escalated significantly in the 13 months since the president prematurely declared an end to major combat operations, but the emphasis on breaking regimes ignored the far more difficult task of rebuilding nations once their evil leaders have been ousted. As we now know all too painfully, our success in ousting a tyrant provides no guarantee that we will succeed in creating a stable and acceptable successor government.
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 preemption suddenly looks far less attractive. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Washington Post that had he known then what he knows now about Iraq's weapons capabilities, it would have changed "the political calculus; it changes the answer you get" when asking whether to go to war or not.
Many Americans now agree. Polls show that a majority now believes that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. Persuading them, much less the rest of the world, to launch another preventive war elsewhere in the world would be a tough sell.
It may not matter whether the public can be persuaded. The Iraq occupation has badly strained the capabilities of the U.S. military. To maintain adequate troop levels in Iraq, the Pentagon recently decided to redeploy 3,600 soldiers from South Korea — the first reduction in U.S. force levels on the Korean peninsula since the early 1990s. Congress is considering legislation to increase the size of the Army, but the Pentagon has so far resisted the idea, and even if it passes, it will take several years to expand the force.
An overstretched U.S. military is still more than capable of preventive strikes against terrorist camps or presumed weapons factories. It is in no position, however, to wage a preventive war, let alone sort out the consequences.
Iran and North Korea — the two other charter members of Bush's "axis of evil" — present far more daunting military challenges than Iraq did. Iran has three times the population, far greater domestic political support and many more friends beyond its borders. North Korea probably has nuclear weapons and, by virtue of the fact that Seoul sits only a few dozen miles from the demilitarized zone, it effectively holds the South Korean capital hostage.
Not being a man given to analyzing his missteps, Bush will not publicly bury the pre-emption doctrine he unveiled only two years ago. But all doctrines must eventually be measured against experience. And for that reason, Bush's doctrine of pre-emption is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 30, 2004.