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Reaffirming A Policy of Preemption

By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, Friday 13 September 2002; Page A01

President Bush's speech yesterday challenging the United Nations to take action against Iraq or risk irrelevance marked the first direct application of the administration's emerging policy of combating threats even before they fully materialize, bringing the nation one step closer to war.

The president's catalogue of charges against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein contained no new revelations, and in fact included complaints—such as Hussein's gassing of Iranians—that are more than a decade old. But Bush demanded immediate action because of a potential threat, one he called our greatest fear—that Hussein would supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

This was exactly the kind of aggressive threat the United Nations was born to confront, Bush asserted, in effect paying homage to the idea of working in consort with other nations while bluntly telling the rest of the world to follow his lead.

Bush arrived at the United Nations one day after solemn ceremonies in New York, Washington and around the nation to mark the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks—and after months of criticism from other governments that the United States must work more closely with its allies before challenging Hussein through military force.

Yet the president left little doubt that the United States reserves the right to strike first against a potentially hostile government. Absent definitive steps by the U.N., he said, the United State will go it alone.

In doing so, he built on a theme he first articulated in the State of the Union address seven months ago and then expanded on at West Point in June: that the United States is willing to respond to even the hint of a threat, decisively and unilaterally.

The State of the Union speech is best remembered for Bush's identification of an axis of evil—Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- but Bush also signaled the approach he outlined so clearly yesterday.

Some governments will be timid in the face of terror, Bush said on Jan. 29. Make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.

Bush expanded on the idea in his commencement address at West Point. There, he introduced the concept of preemption, a new doctrine under which the United States reserves the right to strike out against threats before they are completely apparent—and before the United States itself is attacked.

The twin doctrines of containment and deterrence that guided U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, he said, are not adequate in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

Yesterday, at the United Nations, Bush identified Hussein as just that sort of tyrant. He offered no proof that Hussein has supplied terrorists with weapons of mass destruction, or even considered taking such a step. But, he contended, the possibility is enough to warrant an immediate response.

Saddam Hussein's regime is a grave and gathering danger, Bush said. To suggest otherwise is to hope against the evidence. To assume this regime's good faith is to bet the lives of millions and the peace of the world in a reckless gamble.

In recent interviews, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has contended that preemption is not a new notion, that it has always been among the options available to a president. But some experts said that Bush yesterday appeared to set a much lower threshold.

The big question on preemption is how clear and present is the danger, said Joseph S. Nye Jr., dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. A 'grave and gathering danger' is not the language classically used for preemption.

In many ways, Bush tried to use his speech to turn the tables on critics at home and abroad who say the administration too often has acted unilaterally on issues that affect many nations. It is Saddam Hussein who is unilaterally challenging the authority of the United Nations, a senior administration official said.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has pushed the concept of coercive inspections of Iraq's weapons development program backed by military forces, said Bush left the door ajar to accepting something less than military action. She said this was due in part to the negative reaction around the globe to an invasion of Iraq. The president clearly walked back into the fold of the United Nations with this speech, she said.

But Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a think tank that has long pushed for action against Iraq, said Bush's demand that Hussein comply with a long list of U.N. resolutions—not just ones dealing with weapons inspections -- leaves little room for ambiguity. When you look at the totality of U.N. resolutions, Saddam has to go, Schmitt said. Bush built himself and the U.N. a box that it will be hard to get out of.

It goes well beyond simply inspections, said Richard N. Perle, chairman of a Pentagon advisory committee and an advocate of confronting Hussein. I think it is significant that the bar has been set at what seems to be an appropriately high point.

The Bush administration is stocked with skeptics of international treaties and multilateral organizations, and yesterday's speech was striking for how little Bush paid tribute to the central role of the United Nations.

The president spoke after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made a strong pitch for working within the multilateral system. Bush announced that the United States would rejoin UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, and mentioned his commitment to finding peace in the Middle East, a key issue for many U.N. members. But while Bush took note of the high hopes in which the United Nations was founded, he did not say the U.N. had achieved its goals.

By contrast, 12 years earlier, when President George H.W. Bush appeared before the General Assembly to press the case against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, he heaped praise on the U.N. He offered a vision of a new partnership of nations . . . a partnership based on consultation, cooperation and collective action, especially through international and regional organizations, a partnership united by principle and the rule of law and supported by an equitable sharing of both cost and commitment.

Yesterday, his son promised, almost as an afterthought: We will work with the U.N. Security Council for the necessary resolutions. But he pointedly noted: The purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions will be enforced . . . or action will be unavoidable.