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Published on Friday, October 11, 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle
The Folly of Pre-emptive War
by Kevin Danaher, Ted Lewis and Jason Mark
In attempting to make the case for invading Iraq, President Bush's speech Monday night revealed the folly of the new doctrine of pre-emptive attack. More clearly than any other statement by the White House, the president laid bare the weakness of his administration's foreign policy.
According to the president, "we cannot wait for the final proof" that Saddam Hussein's government is planning an imminent attack against the United States. Even though President Bush acknowledged in his speech that Iraq does not currently threaten the United States, he said we must "assume the worst." Essentially, the White House is proposing that the United States invade a distant country without any evidence of impending aggression.
Bush also spoke of an "international coalition" that would disarm Hussein. Bush knows the American public is loathe to go it alone. What he failed to do was tell us who the members of his war coalition are. Why? Because there is no coalition. Quite the contrary, Bush's aggressive rhetoric, disregard for international law, and his lack of any vision other than war without end is causing traditional friends of the United States to join the majority of the world's nations in distancing themselves from Washington in a fashion not seen since the Vietnam War.
The flimsy justifications President Bush has provided for an urgent Iraq invasion have not convinced the world community. Iraq's neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, reject the notion of an imminent threat. The Muslim world -- whose support is vital to any real effort to end the causes of terrorism -- is adamantly opposed. In Europe, only England's Tony Blair and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi have voiced support for Bush. They both do so in the face of majority opposition from their fellow citizens and street demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people.
Many in the global community also distrust the Bush administration's expanding war aims. It is not easy for our friends around the world to stomach the imperial scent of our newly enunciated military doctrine that proposes pre- emption of any powerful rivals.
The president wants to launch a war based on assumptions, and therein lies a problem. One of the great advances of the modern era has been the spread of the rule of law. This is the now common idea that democratically decided laws - - not the capriciousness of individual rulers -- should govern human affairs.
During the last half of the 20th century, this principle was expanded internationally through the United Nations. The U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq represent a good example of how the rule of law has been used, and can be used again, to avert conflict.
Perhaps most repugnant to our allies is the transparent effort by the Bush Administration to eviscerate U.N. inspection and disarmament activities. They see a pattern of the Bush administration continuously upping the ante with Iraq, apparently to avoid a non-military outcome. They know that an American invasion will dramatically undermine the painstakingly constructed framework of international law built since World War II. The White House's belief that it can invade nations pre-emptively, without proof of an imminent attack, represents a major assault on that international rule of law.
The Bush Administration's doctrine of pre-emptive attack raises troubling questions. What burden of proof will be used to decide when a pre-emptive attack is called for? If only assumptions are needed to launch a war, how will we separate true threats from phantom menaces? If clear evidence of impending aggression is not required to invade another country, what standards will be employed to decide when, where, and who to attack?
By tossing out any reasonable standards of evidence as a prerequisite for military action, the White House puts us in a state of constant uncertainty and increased insecurity where almost anything could lead to war.
President Bush says he wants to avoid "a future of fear." It's an admirable goal, but one hardly served by this new doctrine. In fact, the idea of pre- emptive attack depends on fear. It presupposes insecurity and assumes we will always be threatened. Whereas the Cold War doctrine of deterrence and containment rested on strength, the new idea of pre-emption insists on U.S. vulnerability.
There is no security in a world where wars can be started on nothing more than assumptions. When the smallest suspicion or the least distrust can ignite conflict, no one is safe. In the long run, pre-emptive wars will break down the international rule of law and erode global stability, jeopardizing all nations' security.
President Bush's pre-emptive wars won't preserve the peace. Rather, the notion of pre-emptive war makes conflict all the more likely. It sets the United States on a course of permanent war.
Members of Congress who stood in opposition to Bush have shown courage and wisdom. They are reflecting a profound unease with this war across the United States. In poll after poll, majorities of Americans are on the record being opposed to war with Iraq if the United States acts alone. Our leaders should listen to the people. We know our true safety as a nation flows from cooperation, not unilateral war.
Jason Mark and Kevin Danaher promote international economic rights for the human rights organization Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org). Ted Lewis directs the organization's human rights program.
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