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U.S.: 'Bush Doctrine' Seen As Dramatically Redefining Foreign Policy

  • Charles Recknagel

In the wake of the September attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush has said Washington reserves the right to pre-emptively strike states that might provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. Many political observers view his statements as the announcement of a new "Bush doctrine," which redefines when Washington might attack another nation in self-defense. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at this change in American foreign policy, what motivates it, and how it is being received by other nations.

Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Traditionally, America has been quick to criticize nations that launch attacks on other states first, even when they claim to be striking to prevent future threats from weapons of mass destruction.

That was the case, for example, when the United States joined the rest of the UN Security Council members in unanimously condemning Israel for bombing Iraq's unfinished Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

But since the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush has strongly argued that America must reserve the right to strike first against both terrorist organizations and hostile states that might supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

Many observers are calling the U.S. president's statements the articulation of a new "Bush doctrine" that is seeking to redefine America's security and foreign policies in light of Washington's war on terrorism. The "Bush doctrine" phrase has passed into the vernacular, and one of its implications -- that Washington may now be planning to pre-emptively strike Iraq -- has become the focus of worldwide debate.

To define the Bush doctrine more clearly, RFE/RL spoke recently with Antony Blinken, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Blinken has closely followed changes in U.S. security and foreign policy from both outside and inside the government, including service on the National Security Council staff of the White House from 1994 to 2001. Part of that time he served as former President Bill Clinton's senior European affairs adviser.

RFE/RL asked Blinken to explain the thinking behind the Bush doctrine.

"The mindset, I think, is this. Before 11 September, the thinking was predominantly that a country like Iraq, for example, even if it managed to rebuild weapons of mass destruction, would probably not use them against the United States or against American troops because of the deterrent power that we had. [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein knew if he used weapons, he would be -- to put it bluntly -- wiped off the face of the Earth," Blinken says.

Blinken continues: "After 11 September, people began to think that Saddam could have his cake and eat it, too. He could sell or transfer such weapons to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, which show no hesitation about committing suicide in the course of undertaking their attack. And if they used such weapons against us, they might not be traced back to someone like Saddam. So, the fear that people had after [11 September] was that the persuasive power of our own very powerful arsenal might not work anymore and that we had to look at whether acting pre-emptively was something to be considered."

Blinken says the Bush doctrine is a departure from America's traditional foreign policy of using its forces only when attacked first, including in cases of terrorism. Former U.S. President Clinton responded to terrorism with retaliatory strikes in the hopes of dissuading the perpetrators from undertaking further operations.

Those strikes included U.S. forces firing cruise missiles at targets in Afghanistan and Sudan following the 1998 twin bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They also included the firing of cruise missiles at the Iraqi intelligence service headquarters in Baghdad in 1993 over Iraq's alleged plot to assassinate former President George Bush earlier that year.

Blinken says many in Washington now recognize that America is moving into uncharted territory by adopting a pre-emptive strike policy. But he says there is widespread feeling that new approaches need to be explored following 11 September.

"It certainly has not been American foreign policy to act pre-emptively. For the last 50 years, that has not been our first recourse," Blinken says. "That said, I think people do have to think hard about the new world that we are in and at least ask themselves the question whether talking about pre-emptive strikes isn't at least something worth debating, because things move so much faster and so much more lethally in a world where borders matter much less than they ever did before."

Yet Blinken says there is a danger that many countries, including U.S. allies, will view Washington's threat to carry out pre-emptive strikes on other states also as a threat to international order.

The international community generally backed the U.S. military campaign to root out Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan because many countries were convinced by the 11 September attacks that the organization posed a clear and present threat to America. But Blinken says that U.S. officials may be mistaken if they assume that means there will be similarly widespread support for other pre-emptive operations.

"The lesson that I think some [U.S. policy makers] have taken from Afghanistan is maybe the wrong lesson, in that the lesson that some people have taken is that unilateral might makes right. If the United States acts strongly and succeeds, others will follow [its lead].... That's true in an exceptional situation like Afghanistan, where other countries recognize that the existential interests of the United States are really at stake. But nine times out of 10, day in and day out, things don't rise to the level of an Afghanistan."

He continues: "The problems that we confront are problems for other countries as well. They have their interests at stake. We have ours. And they are not going to follow if we throw our weight around in too bullying a fashion. So that's a danger that I would see in this very sort of tough, chest-thumping policy. It does work in an exceptional situation like Afghanistan, [but] I would question whether it works day in, day out as a principal priority for your foreign policy."

Still, it's too early to know whether the Bush administration intends its new doctrine to serve primarily as a warning to other states or to psychologically set the stage for further military action.

Blinken says Bush's "axis of evil" speech on 29 January may not only have sought to warn Iraq, Iran, and North Korea to stop developing weapons of mass destruction. It may also have been a call to America's allies and even rivals to help prevent those states from acquiring weapons technology so that the U.S. does not have to carry out pre-emptive operations.

"If, for example, our friends and allies got tougher [along] with us in trying to prevent some of these countries from developing or acquiring weapons of mass destruction, maybe that would prevent the need to use force pre-emptively. But if weapons technology is flowing in and out of places like North Korea and Iran because, for example, Russians and Chinese are not doing a vigilant job in cracking down on [technology] transfers, well, they are helping to create a problem that we may have to solve by means that they don't like later on," Blinken says.

Washington is following up Bush's labeling of Iraq as an "axis of evil" with a trip by Vice President Dick Cheney to the Middle East in mid-March. It is not yet clear whether Cheney is making the trip to convince regional leaders of the need to tighten controls over Iraq or to discuss the need for military action against Baghdad.

American media have widely quoted anonymous U.S. officials as saying that Washington is planning to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein. But Bush and other top members of his government are not confirming the reports.

The U.S. president told reporters on 13 February only that, "I will reserve whatever options I have. I'll keep them close to my vest."