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Striking First: President Bush’s Preemptive Strike Policy

July 1, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: President Bush told graduates at West Point last month that America’s long- standing defense strategy was no longer equal to the task.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: For much of the last century, America’s defense relied on the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply, but new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence, the promise of massive retaliation against nations, means nothing, against shadowy, terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorists’ allies.

SPOKESMAN: Two, one, zero.

MARGARET WARNER: The President was describing what’s been official U.S. policy in the nuclear age, a defense posture that relied on deterring enemies from attacking the U.S. by the threat of massive retaliation if they do. But Mr. Bush says this new era demands a new strategy: To strike some adversaries first before they attack the U.S.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. And our security will require all Americans to be forward- looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: Some Democratic lawmakers responded cautiously to the new strike-first doctrine. California Senator Diane Feinstein told CNN she assumed the President had Iraq in mind, and said: “I think a preemptory attack without full debate in Congress would be a terrible mistake.”

White House officials point to President Kennedy’s blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Missile Crisis as an example of preemptions that did not include a massive military strike. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told The New York Times there’s a whole range of possible ways to take early action. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden said it will be hard to decide which countries pose a sufficient threat to become targets under the new policy.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: The hard question is going to be whether or not one has the capacity, does that necessarily mean they have intent? For example, the Chinese have a capacity. Does the President have the right to preemptively go strike the Chinese, a Communist regime? The answer is no. So but with Saddam, there is… it’s much more tenuous because he has used weapons of mass destruction before. He has made assertions about intentions to use these weapons, and therefore it gives more credence to the President’s capacity to be able to go act preemptively.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. policy has sparked some concern in Europe. One Financial Times columnist wrote: “that preemption could too easily become an instrument of unbridled U.S. power.” A Guardian columnist criticized Washington’s chilling u-turn, noting that the U.S. condemned Israel’s 1981 preemptive strike against an Iraqi nuclear reactor. “It is carte blanche for a war on the world,” the columnist wrote. President Bush is expected to formally spell out the new policy later this year.

And for more on the President’s first-strike policy, we turn to Richard Perle, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. He’s a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and head of the defense policy board, which advises Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. The views he expresses this evening are his own. And Phyllis Bennis: She’s a Fellow at the Institute for Policy studies. She covered the United Nations for Pacifica Radio and is finishing a book on American foreign policy. Welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Perle, let’s examine the President’s… first his premise. Is he right when he says that the policy of deterrence has outlived its usefulness?

RICHARD PERLE: Yes, I think he is right. He’s referring, of course, to the policy that we adopted during the Cold War in which we threatened a massive nuclear response if we were attacked massively with nuclear weapons. Some us didn’t much like that policy then because it implied that we would kill large numbers of civilians as a way of punishing or avenging an attack that might take place on us. But now after the Cold War, when the threat we face can emanate not only from governments, but from individuals, from the Osama bin Ladens of the world, or from governments run by brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein, the policy of massive retaliation, punishing the innocent, no longer makes sense.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Absolutely not. I think if we look at President Bush’s speech, he spoke very clearly about the question of the necessity of the rule of law, and I think that the United States, despite it being the most powerful country that has ever existed in the world, should not be exempt from international law. We can’t have one kind of law for the rest of the world that we impose on the rest of the world and an imperial law, if you will, a law of empire, that applies only to the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, do you think that the policies of containment and deterrence can still work in this world?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that we live in a very different world than the world of the Cold War. One of the biggest differences is that the United States is the sole power, the sole superpower that is calling the shots, if you will, in foreign affairs across the board. I think that we have to set an example of a rule by law. That meant by abiding by international law, abiding by treaties that we sign, not walking away from treaties when we decide that we don’t like them, but holding ourselves accountable to the same standards of international law, human rights, and accountability that we demand of the rest of the world.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Perle, if the U.S. were to strike… issue a first strike essentially without being directly attacked, does that, a, violate international law – well, does it violate international law?

RICHARD PERLE: No, I don’t believe it does violate international law. We certainly have the right, not conferred, but acknowledged in the United Nations Charter, Article 51, to defend ourselves. If a threat is imminent, are we compelled to wait until we’ve been struck? The notions of law that arise in domestic law within our societies always envision the possibility that if an injury has been done, compensation can follow, but there can be no practical compensation in a case where we have been struck possibly with weapons of mass destruction.

We would be foolish to wait until the damage was done and then try to respond. That’s especially true when the only plausible response is a highly punitive one. How do you make massive retaliation credible unless you threaten to destroy millions of people? I find it ironic that international law is being invoked as a way of defending a policy that destroys innocents in retaliation.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think we’re talking very clearly about the destruction of innocents now. Article 51 is not a carte blanche. It says very clearly that a nation that has been attacked has the right of self-defense of military unilateral self-defense until– that’s the key word in that article– “until” such time as the Security Council can meet and decide what to do. Now in the case of what happened on 9/11, I happen to view it as a crime against humanity, not as a war. I think it should have been responded to that way. The Security Council did meet within 24 hours of the attack. It passed with great emotional fervor, with every diplomat standing to cast their vote, not just raising their hand, exactly what the United States wanted to pass.

The United States made a decision not to ask for a United Nations endorsement of any particular policy, particularly a military strike, which it probably ironically enough would have gotten because, in my view, the Bush Administration was following on its long-standing principle that it did not want to share power with the rest of the world. It was insisting, as we had seen even before 9/11, this wasn’t a brand-new reality. It was just gone to a much higher level. We were seeing the possibility of a new kind of law of empire where we would stand above the rest of the world, and the bottom line when we look at the question of attacking civilians, what happens when we’re wrong? Like we were today in Afghanistan, where civilians died because of bad intelligence?

RICHARD PERLE: Phyllis, no one is talking about attacking civilians.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: No one is talking about it, but we are attacking them.

RICHARD PERLE: I am talking about taking preventive action. If your neighbor tells you that he hates you and wishes to destroy you and you see him coming home every evening with a box of explosives, you don’t have to wait until he blows up your house before you take action to protect yourself. The U.N…

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Your action cannot include killing him first.

RICHARD PERLE: It depends on how big a risk you want to take.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: When you’re the biggest and strongest military power in the world, with economic and cultural and military and strategic reach beyond the reach of any empire that has ever existed in the history of humanity, you don’t have the right to take them out first.

RICHARD PERLE: I’m sorry. The President has an obligation to defend the citizens of this country. You would wait, and after the destruction is done, after we’ve been hit, what would you do then? Go to the United Nations?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I would do many things. I would start by changing the policies that make it so easy for people to attack us because they have support, widespread support, because of so many people that are antagonizing…

RICHARD PERLE: I’m sorry. Osama bin Laden….

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I’m not talking about Osama bin Laden. I’m talking about people…

RICHARD PERLE: Saddam Hussein.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: No, I’m talking about the people…

RICHARD PERLE: Who are we talking about?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: The people who cheered, who thought it wasn’t such a bad idea.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me jump in here. Give me a scenario, Richard Perle, that is like your neighbor scenario, but would apply, say, to Iraq or any other country. In other words, at what point… how would … sort of Joe Biden’s question, how would the President decide who the target is, how imminent the attack is, and how effective can a preemptive strike really be if it, say, doesn’t have international support?

RICHARD PERLE: Those, of course, are the issues: How one applies this policy, and no one is suggesting that it should be applied extensively or in an irresponsible manner. But if you have a Saddam Hussein who has killed people with poison gas, if he is pledged to do damage to the United States, as he has and he repeats it on every occasion, if he is building nuclear weapons, as he is attempting to do, do we have to wait until he has a nuclear weapon? I don’t believe we do.

I think we have every right and prudence dictates that we not permit a Saddam Hussein to put himself in the position of delivering a weapon of mass destruction against the United States. And if I have to choose between some abstract concept of the international community and protecting the citizens of this country, there’s no question what comes first.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And let me ask you, turn the same question around and ask you the same one, which is if the intelligence were that good, if it was clear that Saddam Hussein was planning a chemical or biological or nuclear attack, what would you have the President do at that point?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: First of all, it isn’t. We don’t have that clarity. We don’t have any indication that there is…

MARGARET WARNER: I know, but I asked him to answer a theoretical.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I’ll answer the same theoretical question. I think we would have a better shot at having credibility in looking at those questions if we had not been responsible for arming Saddam Hussein for so many years in the 1980s, including with the biological weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: But, still, what would you do confronted with this situation?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: What I would do is move regionally. I would act with all the other countries in the region, say we are cutting off all arms to the entire region, including of course Iraq should remain unable to obtain weapons of mass destruction. But I would broaden it as is called for in the resolution that was passed at the end of the Gulf War, Resolution 687, that talks in Article 14 about the need for regional disarmament. That’s where I would start. I would engage in a collaborative way, not in an imposed way where we say we are going to attack Iraq and we expect all of the Arab governments, despite massive popular opposition, to support us.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Mr. Perle, is – was the reason for the President saying this now, and what is the likely impact of essentially announcing this?

RICHARD PERLE: I think the President recognized that the concepts that served us during the Cold War are no longer applicable, just as he has recognized that many of approaches to military power that worked during the Cold War will no longer work. I think he’s putting people on notice that if they are plotting to destroy Americans, if they are putting themselves in a position to take action against us, we’re not going to give them the luxury of choosing the time and place at which they attack us. And I think it is just hopelessly naive to respond to a Saddam Hussein by talking about U.N. Resolutions. He’s in violation of 50 U.N. Resolutions.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, just going back to the original part of your answer, that in a way by announcing this, the President intends it as a sort of new kind of deterrence?

RICHARD PERLE: Well, certainly he is hoping to discourage the plots against the United States by people who coolly and deliberately assemble the weaponry, organize the operations, and then carry them out. So he’s saying, while you’re planning, while you’re plotting, beware because we may well act first to defend ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you think is the impact of announcing it this way?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that it on the one hand makes clear to the rest of the world that the United States is not prepared to hold ourselves accountable to the kinds of international law that we are prepared to go to war for against a government that has violated it, those laws and those resolutions. Clearly the Iraqi government has violated international law and U.N. Resolutions. The Israeli government has done it for far longer. Many other countries have violated those resolutions.

I think the impact of announcing it now goes directly to the question of putting the world on notice that we now are asserting a kind of imperial law that affects only the United States, that we are not going to be held accountable to the same criteria, to the same standards that we are demanding others be held to.

RICHARD PERLE: Could I just say that I think any other country properly held responsible for the protection of its citizens would do, if they were in a position to do so, exactly what the President suggests we ought to be prepared to do.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both. We have to leave it there. Thanks.