Preventive War: A Failed Doctrine

Editorial

New York Times

September 12, 2004

If facts mattered in American politics, the Bush-Cheney ticket would not be basing its re-election campaign on the fear-mongering contention that the surest defense against future terrorist attacks lies in the badly discredited doctrine of preventive war. Vice President Dick Cheney took this argument to a disgraceful low last week when he implied that electing John Kerry and returning to traditional American foreign policy values would invite a devastating new strike.

So far, the preventive war doctrine has had one real test: the invasion of Iraq. Mr. Bush terrified millions of Americans into believing that forcibly changing the regime in Baghdad was the only way to keep Iraq's supposed stockpiles of unconventional weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda. Then it turned out that there were no stockpiles and no operational links between Saddam Hussein's regime and Al Qaeda's anti-American terrorism. Meanwhile, America's longstanding defensive alliances were weakened and the bulk of America's ground combat troops tied down in Iraq for what now appears to be many years to come. If that is making this country safer, it is hard to see how. The real lesson is that America dangerously erodes its military and diplomatic defenses when it charges off unwisely after hypothetical enemies.

Before the Iraq fiasco, American leaders rightly viewed war as a last resort, appropriate only when the nation's vital interests were actively threatened and reasonable diplomatic efforts had been exhausted. That view always left room for pre-emptive attacks; America is under no obligation to sit and wait, if it is clear that some enemy is actually preparing to strike first. But it correctly drew the line at preventive wars against potential foes who might, or might not, be thinking about doing something dangerous. As the administration's disastrous experience in Iraq amply demonstrates, that is still the wisest course and the one that keeps America most secure in an increasingly dangerous era.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, plainly ushered in a new era of catastrophic threats to the American homeland. If these are to be met effectively, major changes in national security policy will be required. But a shift toward preventive wars is not one of them. As the 9/11 commission report clearly established, international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are highly mobile, self-financing and largely independent of traditional states. Governments that grant them sanctuary and facilities, like Afghanistan under the Taliban or Sudan, must face strong international pressure, including American military attack. Any attempt by the president and his surrogates to lump the invasion of Afghanistan into the category of preventive wars is plain wrong. In fact, the war in Iraq has undermined the important work that American forces are doing in Afghanistan by diverting soldiers, supplies and money.

Al Qaeda has already declared war on the United States, and America needs to fight back relentlessly - in Afghanistan and through international efforts to capture terrorist leaders who function with forged passports and visas, safe houses and sleeper cells. That is why Mr. Cheney is also wrong to disparage law-enforcement cooperation with allies as an important weapon in this war.

Instead, he promises more preventive, offensive wars against hypothetical dangers like Iraq. Besides estranging America from its main European and Asian allies, and leaving Washington looking like an aggressor to much of the Arab and Muslim world, these policies kill American soldiers and civilians in the countries attacked, and they threaten to tie down the Army and Marine divisions America needs to have available for responding to real threats in the dangerous decades ahead.