Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer
We now have President Bush’s stated philosophy of national security. Publishing such a statement is one of the responsibilities of the presidency, especially in times of national insecurity.
The President’s words echo language established in a June 1 speech by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asserting that the United States ‘should consider preemptive action against rogue states (such as Iraq) seeking to obtain weapons of mass destruction.’ Some of these phrases contain ironies that merit their own look.
Weapons of mass destruction: Today the United States is exploring the production of bunker-busting (and radiation-spewing) nuclear weapons. And if we’re to judge by the Bush administration’s recent “Nuclear Posture Review” and “Defense Planning Guidance,” America plans to lower the threshold for using them.
Rogue states: Consider that the United States opposes most of the world on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the treaty banning anti-personnel mines, parts of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the Small Arms Action Plan, the Kyoto environmental protocol, the International Criminal Court—and invading Iraq.
The real problem is the very notion of preemptive action. It threatens to undermine the principle of state sovereignty. And the more you use it, the harder it gets to distinguish preemption from raw aggression. Even more troubling is the high probability that some preemptive strikes would be based on faulty intelligence.
In fact, preemption begets more preemption. If you think someone will preempt you, you. start looking for evidence that means you should preempt them. Last hand on the bat handle! It’s crazily dangerous in a dangerous world.
Presumptions of preemption have imperiled the world once before. Recall 1983, year of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” and “Star Wars” speeches. The KGB continued its search (after Reagan’s inauguration) for evidence that the United States was intent on inflicting a preemptive nuclear strike on the USSR.
In November, the KGB mistakenly believed it had found such evidence. A U.S. preemptive nuclear strike might occur under the cover of the Able Archer military exercise that U.S.-NATO forces were conducting. Moscow’s KGB center issued a flash alert for all information indicating that the United States was preparing an imminent nuclear strike.
Consequently, according to Professor Beth Fischer (in her book The Reagan Reversal), Moscow upgraded “the alert status of twelve of its nuclear-capable fighter aircraft” and “in East Germany and Poland, Soviet forces began to prepare for a retaliatory nuclear strike.”
Although the crisis subsided, why the Soviet Union did not launch a preemptive strike of its own remains an open question. After all, as Fischer correctly notes, “prevailing nuclear doctrine at the time held that in the face of an impending nuclear attack, the Soviets should have sought to avoid disaster by launching a preemptive nuclear attack of their own.”
Voices of wisdom need to persuade the Bush administration that not everything is permitted in the war against terrorism. Not the use of nuclear weapons, not the erosion of civil liberties, and not an explicit policy of preemption. As Woodrow Wilson once observed, the United States “can afford to exercise the self-restraint of a truly great nation, which realizes its own strength and scorns to misuse it.”