Bush's Pre-emptive Strategy Meets Some Untidy Reality

By DAVID E. SANGER

The New York Times

July 12, 2004

Even as President Bush turns his doctrine of pre-emptive action against powers threatening the United States into a campaign theme, Washington is using a far more subdued, take-it-slow approach to the dangers of unconventional weapons in Iran and North Korea.

There are many reasons for the yawning gap between Mr. Bush's campaign language and the reality. One of the most important is woven throughout the searing, 511-page critique of the intelligence that led America to war last year, released Friday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report details, in one painful anecdote after another, misjudgments that the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies made as they put together what the committee called an "assumption train" about Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. That same train powered Mr. Bush's own justification for a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein, down to his now-discredited argument that the Iraqi leader was developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable dropping biological weapons on American troops in the Mideast, or perhaps even the United States itself.

The sweeping nature of that report is already fueling a new debate over pre-emption, on the campaign trail and among the nations the United States must convince as it builds its case against North Korea and Iran. On Sunday, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the urgency of those problems meant there was not much time to fix the intelligence community.

"Let's do it very quickly," he said, "because in a dangerous world, if you're going to have a policy of pre-emption, whether it be North Korea or whether it be whatever threat we face," including a possible terror attack on the United States before the election, "we have to get it right."

Mr. Bush's aides say other countries are citing Iraq to make the argument that America can never again be sure it is getting it right and thus must back away from the pre-emption doctrine enshrined in Mr. Bush's 2002 "National Security Strategy of the United States."

China has been the most outspoken proponent of this view, suggesting publicly that the administration cannot be trusted when it asserts that North Korea has secretly started up a second nuclear weapons program one based on enriching uranium. Administration officials say the Chinese are exploiting the Iraq findings for political convenience, because finding a solution to the North Korean problem will be far simpler if the evidence of a uranium program can be ignored.

"It hurts us, there is no question," a senior aide to Mr. Bush conceded on Friday, as the Senate report was published. "We already have the Chinese saying to us, `If you missed this much in Iraq, how are we supposed to believe that the North Koreans are producing nuclear weapons?' It just increases the pressure on us to prove that we are right."

Iran is making a parallel argument. It admits even boasts about its efforts to enrich uranium, which it hid for 17 years from international inspectors until the evidence became overwhelming last year, forcing the country into a reluctant confession. Now the Iranians argue that the United States is riding another "assumption train," this time racing to the conclusion Iran's real goal is making a weapon, rather than seeking an alternative way to produce electricity.

In the cases of North Korea and Iran, the basis for the American charges is far stronger than it was in Iraq: Inspectors have seen and measured fissile material in both nations, and visited facilities capable of making more.

Yet so far, the International Atomic Energy Agency which in retrospect largely got it right in Iraq has declined to back the United States. "We all think the American assessment is probably right because there is no other good explanation for the Iranian activities," one senior international diplomat involved in the search for evidence in Iran said the other day. "But we still don't have the smoking gun." He said that after the Iraq experience, "We need smoking guns more than ever."

In public, Mr. Bush's language about responding to threats is as black and white as it was before his administration's case about the threat posed by Mr. Hussein began to crumble.

"September the 11th, 2001, taught a lesson I will never forget," Mr. Bush said recently while campaigning in Cincinnati. Using a line that often turns up in his stump speech, he continued: "America must confront threats before they fully materialize. In Iraq, my administration looked at the intelligence and we saw a threat."

But, in noncampaign contexts, Mr. Bush says there are many ways to disarm a country, and on Monday he is going to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a center of nuclear weapons technology, to speak about his counterterrorism strategy. Oak Ridge is the repository of the centrifuges, raw uranium and other nuclear equipment that the United States shipped out of Libya this year, in the most conspicuous success story yet of how to disarm a country without attacking it.

Mr. Bush is urging Iran and North Korea to follow the same path. So far, neither has indicated it would. And so far, the president's aides say, Mr. Bush has purposefully avoided making the kinds of threats that he made to Iraq. One reason is a military reality: Iran could strike back against Israel or American forces in the region, and North Korea could inflict huge damage on Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

But Mr. Bush's position on Iran and North Korea may also have something to do with election-year politics. His challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, has made clear that he will make a major issue of both the intelligence failures and what he termed in a recent interview the administration's "foolhardy rush" to embrace a pre-emptive attack against Iraq.

The Democratic Party platform is expected to include a sentence declaring that the "doctrine of unilateral pre-emption has driven away our allies," and Mr. Kerry argued in the interview that while he would reserve the right to act pre-emptively, he would never make it a core doctrine of American foreign policy.

Mr. Bush and his aides argue that would be a huge mistake. In the old understanding of pre-emption, they argue, a country could see an army massing and then decide whether to strike in advance. In the age of terror, there would probably be no such obvious warning. Mr. Bush sees that as a reason for broad presidential latitude. But it is more unclear than ever before how any president can make that judgment with an intelligence system that is widely viewed as badly broken.