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Global vigilante. (Comment).

The Bush Administration grows scarier by the day. One of the latest bits of ghastliness is Bush's new military doctrine of preemption. On June 1 at West Point, Bush said, "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

In subsequent weeks, his aides fleshed out this idea, saying it would become a central doctrine of a new U.S. national security strategy, and it would justify attacking nations or groups that were engaging in terrorism or trying to acquire or export weapons of mass destruction or were "weak states" that harbored terrorists.

While such a doctrine might seem prudent in the wake of September 11, it flouts international law, is of dubious constitutionality, and will make the world a much more dangerous place. It contemplates the use of nuclear weapons as just another tool in the shed, with the Bush Administration talking publicly about the utility of such weapons in a way not heard since the early, crazy days of Ronald Reagan.

This is unilateralism run amok.

The doctrine is so broad that it would seem to allow Bush to attack dozens of countries right now, without the constitutional requirement of a declaration of war, as sketched out in Article 1, Section 8, and without any consultation whatsoever with Congress. Any nation that possesses weapons of mass destruction or tries to acquire them or traffics in them would be fair game. So, automatically the nuclear powers are on the list: Russia, China, France, England, Israel, Pakistan, India, and South Africa. Add to them those nations reputed to have chemical or biological weapons: Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, South Korea, Syria, and Taiwan. On top of those, Bush could get out his atlas and go to town by alleging that any one of dozens of countries was trying to obtain or export weapons of mass destruction, or was engaging in terrorism, or was a weak state that could host terrorists.

But according to international law, a nation is justified in using force only when it has been attacked or is about to be attacked. The acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, or the attempt to acquire them, does not come close to imminent attack. If the United States arrogates to itself the right to take out other nations' arsenals, it would simply be acting as a global vigilante. And it would be doing so out of no sense of universal standards, but on the basis of the law of the jungle: The United States has the power, so it will do what it wants. Logically, under this very same preemption doctrine, another country could attack Washington because of its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

"A global strategy based on the new Bush doctrine means the end of the system of international institutions, laws, and norms that the United States has worked for more than a century to build," William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs and a former Clinton Administration official, wrote in The Washington Post on June 16.

One risk this new doctrine creates is that of emboldening our allies to invoke it as a fig leaf for settling scores with their adversaries. Thus, India could attack Pakistan, or Israel could wage even more ruthless assaults on Palestinians all the while claiming the moral high ground. For months, Bush's crude rhetoric of "good versus evil," "with us or against us," "opposing terrorists or supporting terrorists" has inspired recklessness by both the Indians and the Israelis. The new doctrine only adds to the folly.

"Once we start talking about our right to preempt our perceived threats, everyone else is going to talk about their right to preempt their own perceived threats," says Michael Donovan, research analyst at the Center for Defense Information. "Already in Israel, the day after Bush's speech, Israeli government officials were using the word `preempt' like it was going out of style."

Another risk is that countries that do have arsenals of chemical or biological weapons and that see Washington as an enemy will have no incentive to restrain themselves, knowing that the United States is coming after them. This "use it or lose it" logic could goose someone like Saddam Hussein into thinking, "What the hell? We're going down anyway. Let `em have it!" And if Hussein were to do that, he very well might be hit with a nuclear weapon, as George Herbert Walker Bush warned him back in 1991. At that time, the warning worked (Hussein is brutal, not suicidal). But this time, George W. Bush is making it increasingly clear that he wants Hussein dead, so, as David Cortright points out in our cover story this month, what's to hold Hussein back?

But this isn't the only way the Bush Administration envisions using nuclear weapons. According to The Washington Post of June 10, "the tactical use of nuclear weapons is being studied." As a so-called preemptive measure, the Pentagon would contemplate using nuclear weapons "against biological weapons that can be best destroyed by sustained exposure to the high heat of a nuclear blast."

Now any use of nuclear weapons risks killing hundreds of thousands of people. And preemptively attacking another country's biological or chemical stocks risks sending the toxic agents into the atmosphere, which could kill thousands upon thousands more.

Advocates of this preemption doctrine say it's crucial in this day and age of Osama bin Laden. But had the Bush Administration known on September 1 or September 10 (as it should have, if the intelligence agencies weren't squabbling and snoring) that bin Laden and Mohammed Atta were about to attack, the President would have been justified under international law to thwart such action by use of force. A doctrine of preemption is not necessary to keep the United States safe.

One way to try to keep the United States safe is to curb the traffic in nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The Bush Administration has been dragging its feet in this regard. Another way is to use U.N. arms inspectors to seek out and destroy the stockpiles they find. This worked in Iraq after the Gulf War, and it can work again. And another thing the United States can do is adopt policies that don't immiserate people or thwart legitimate efforts at self-determination. Now this will not defuse every threat, and there still may be fanatical forces that despise the United States and have no compunction about using violence. But acting as the global bully will not make that kind of a threat go away; rather, it is more likely to exacerbate the danger.

While Bush's new doctrine is not crucial to defending the United States, it certainly would help the United States wage aggressive wars all over the world. Just as missile defense can morph easily into missile offense, so preemption can become domination. And the two go together.

For example, if the United States wanted to wage a war against China (and this possibility is contemplated in the Administration's Nuclear Posture Review), it could justify a first strike by citing Chinas arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Such a strike could wipe out most of Chinas nuclear missiles. Then the missile defense shield, even one that was not foolproof, could knock down all, or almost all, of Chinas few remaining missiles.

If you think such a scenario is wildly implausible, consider the latest plans by the Pentagon to merge the Space Command with the Strategic Command. "The Pentagon plans to create a new command that combines the military network that warns of missile attacks with its force that can fire nuclear or nonnuclear weapons at suspected nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons sites around the world," The New York Tmes reported on June 25.

When the Pentagon itself merges Star Wars with nuclear war-fighting, let's not be fooled by all this talk of preemption and defense.

Already, the President of the United States has way too much power to wage war unilaterally. The last thing we need is to give him more of it.
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Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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