Pre-emption is dead

By Philip Stephens

Financial Times

Published: July 15 2004 21:01 | Last Updated: July 15 2004 21:01

Listening to George W. Bush this week you could have been forgiven for thinking that the intelligence agencies had been spot on about Iraq. America must confront the threats to its security before they materialise, he declared in an unflinching restatement of the doctrine of pre-emptive military strikes. Forget about those missing chemical shells and biological toxins. The choice on Iraq had been simple: take the word of a madman or defend America. As far as the president was concerned, this was no choice at all. He would do the same again.

It was perhaps too much to expect Mr Bush to be chastened by the damning indictment of the Central Intelligence Agency's pre-war intelligence on Iraq. The Senate Intelligence Committee might have exposed catastrophic human and systemic failures in the assessment of Saddam Hussein's arsenal. Republicans may have begun to realise that Richard Cheney, the vice-president, inhabits a strange parallel universe in which everyone with a foreign name is an ally of al-Qaeda. Mr Bush, though, is fighting November's election as a warrior president. This is no time to acknowledge that the war might have been a mistake.

In truth, the Senate report and this week's publication of th e separate investigation into British intelligence failures by a committee headed by Lord Butler did not settle the big argument about the removal of Mr Hussein. People made up their mind on the rights or wrongs of the conflict a long time ago - and few did so on the basis of whether Mr Hussein could unleash chemical and biological weapons at precisely 45 minutes' notice.

Oddly enough, what most struck me about the response to the two reports were the howls of anguish punctuating the we-told-you-so satisfaction of implacable opponents of the war. Sure, they could now claim official confirmation that the intelligence agencies had got it wrong about Iraq's weapons stockpiles. But both reports denied them what they had really craved - unambiguous verdicts of guilty on the politicians.

The Senate committee has delayed until after the election its judgment on whether the US administration abused all that mistaken intelligence. The Butler report has declared that, for all the misjudgments made in Downin g Street, Tony Blair acted honestly. That was too much for those who had already made up their minds that the British prime minister was a liar.

For my part, even with the benefit of hindsight I find it impossible to share the certainties of the anti-war camp. Partly this is because it is hard to imagine that Iraq and the world would be better places were the old regime still in place; and partly because inaction would have been as much an admission of the west's failure as war.

Mr Bush had clearly decided to remove Mr Hussein in each and every circumstance. But, as former president Bill Clinton remarked in his interview with the Financial Times this week, France and Germany had decided there were no circumstances in which they would use military means to enforce the will of the United Nations. In those circumstances, Mr Hussein would never have fully co-operated with UN inspectors. Mr Blair was left in what Mr Clinton called a "terrible fix".

This takes us back to Mr Bush's speech this week at the Oak Ridge national security complex in Tennessee. For all the president's refusal to acknowledge that anything had changed, his reassertion of America's right to pre-emptive action "before threats fully materialise" had a hollow as well as a hubristic ring. However loudly Mr Bush insists that other "madmen" can expect the same treatment as Mr Hussein, the White House national security strategy unveiled in the wake of September 11, 2001 survives only in name.

As a practical reality, this is already obvious in the administration's approach to North Korea. During the past few years, the Pyongyang government has done precisely what Mr Bush said it would never be allowed to do - it has significantly advanced its nuclear weapons programme. Equally, the US administration's response has been to reverse itself. Back in 2001 Colin Powell, the secretary of state, was admonished by the president for suggesting engagement with North Korea. And what does the White House do three years on? Negotiate.

Muc h the same can be said about Iran, the third designated member of Mr Bush's infamous axis of evil. Washington voices growing frustration at the efforts of Britain, France and Germany to negotiate a nuclear standstill with Tehran. Amid evidence that Iran is still flouting its obligations to the International Atomic Energy Authority, Mr Bush has pressed for tougher international action. But the president is asking for UN sanctions, not missile strikes. My guess is that Mr Bush has not actually changed his mind about the righteousness of American power. But he has been obliged to understand its limitations.

Pre-emption, of course, is not a new concept. Look back through history and the US has long reserved the right to make its own judgments about what constitutes an imminent threat. But as a guiding strategy for safeguarding America's security, Mr Bush's version of the doctrine - unilateral military action based on necessarily incomplete and imprecise threat assessments - cannot survive the Iraq war.

< p>We now know - and most importantly the American people know - that the intelligence is quite simply not good enough (a senior CIA operative recently told a European policymaker that the agency's assessments of Iran may not be much better than those on Iraq). We also know that even the sole superpower cannot afford to ignore its allies. The first lesson of Iraq is that vanquishing an enemy is one thing; making such a country safe for America is something else entirely.

At this point, though, those who have delighted in the humbling of American power in Iraq face a question. If the US is unable or unwilling to confront the threats of unconventional weapons proliferation and rogue states - and US isolationism would be as dangerous for the rest of the world as US unilateralism - who will? The glib answer is that we can leave it to the UN. But the second lesson of Iraq is that the international community is only as strong as the will of its members to enforce its decisions - which means not very strong at all. The result is to leave us stranded in a no-man's land between unbridled US power and effective multilateralism. It is not a safe place to be.

philip.stephens@ft.com