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U.S.: Academics Debate Preventive-War Doctrine

  • Don Hill

U.S. intellectuals in recent months have renewed an ancient debate: What is a just war? What is preemptive war? They also are asking: Does the U.S. threat to attack Iraq correspond with international law and custom? Some of those involved in the debate told RFE/RL that the events of 11 September 2001 changed the definitions of the terms.

Prague, 17 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has introduced a new phrase into the lexicon of modern war. It is "anticipatory self-defense."

Bush declared in an introduction to the annual "National Security Strategy of the United States," published last September, that the United States will act against "emerging threats before they are fully formed."

The document notes that international law does recognize the right of a nation to preempt an imminent attack. But it goes on to say that the concept of "imminent" threat has a new meaning in the face of modern-day terrorism.

Andrew Bacevich heads the department of international relations at Boston University. He told RFE/RL that the Bush administration is reluctant to admit that it is advocating preventive war with regard to Iraq. "Well, I think 'anticipatory self-defense' was just a term of art created by the Bush administration early on in the process of unveiling this new strategy. I mean they don't wish to say straight out that the U.S. has embraced this doctrine of preventive war," Bacevich said.

Bacevich went on to say the term "preventive war" suggests attacking another country because of a supposition that the other country intends harm sometime in the future. That's different from "preemptive war," he said. "When I have certain knowledge that my adversary is planning to attack me and, indeed, is on the verge of attacking me, then a preemptive attack out of self-defense is considered to be legitimate and legal," Bacevich said.

Bacevich is one of a large group of U.S. historians, political scientists, and other academics and intellectuals who have entered a lively public debate since the September strategy statement over the morality and justice of the Bush strategic doctrine. Most are critical, but not all.

John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale University professor of military and naval history, wrote in a recent issue of "Foreign Policy" magazine that the Bush national security strategy may be "the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half-a-century."

Gaddis wrote that Bush and his advisors put forward an entirely new theory when they boldly equated terrorists with tyrants as sources of danger. He says in this way, the administration recognizes -- in the wake of 11 September -- that terrorists can inflict levels of destruction that once only national military forces could.

For a country to publish the details of its strategic thinking is itself a historically recent innovation. It has its roots in an article that diplomat and historian George Kennan published anonymously in 1947 in "Foreign Affairs" that laid out the rationale for the U.S. Cold War "containment" policy.

In 1986, Congress passed the "Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act." One of the act's provisions requires the White House to publish regular reports on national security policy.

Most of the reports since have been bland restatements of the obvious and have attracted little attention. But President Bush's first "National Security Strategy of the United States" has generated controversy from the outset.

University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cumings wrote in a recent issue of "The Nation" that some of the logic in the document -- produced by the staff of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- "would flunk even a freshman class." As an example, he cites the report's assertion that the United States could strike first at a country that it feared might be planning an attack on the United States, but that other countries should not do likewise.

Cumings said the concept of "anticipatory self-defense" pleases ultraconservative elements in Bush's Republican Party who want to deflect public attention from the collapsing U.S. economy and from scandals involving Bush's big-business friends.

Cumings does not dispute that nations have a right to strike back when attacked, as in the case of 11 September. But he said such a strike must be directed at the attackers themselves -- something that has become more difficult in the age of modern terrorism. "Self-defense against [the 9/11 attacks] certainly is well within international law, in terms of the right to self-defense of any country. The trouble is that the people who made that attack don't have a return address. And therefore we have had great difficulty in striking back." Cumings told RFE/RL.

Cumings said that Bush rhetoric like his "axis of evil" speech -- lumping Iraq, Iran, and North Korea -- combined with the president's shifting Korean policy has overheated U.S.-Korean relations as well. "So, when you put that existing situation [with Pyongyang] that has been there for decades along with this new doctrine, it's no wonder that we have a very difficult crisis developing in Korea," he said.

In an article published last November in "The American Conservative" magazine, Bacevich of Boston University wrote that the Bush administration "no longer views force as the last resort," suggesting that U.S. policymakers look at the country's unchallenged military superiority as its primary strength in addressing global problems -- be it Iraq or North Korea. "That is my judgment. And I think that we see that almost on a daily basis expressed by the administration as we move toward war with Iraq -- that they've come to believe that if you've got a big problem, the most effective, the most reliable, way to solve that problem is by using our dominant military power," Bacevich said.

A voice from the past also has entered the debate on Korea. George Kennan, author of the 1947 exegesis on "containment" said in a recent interview with "The Hill," a weekly newspaper covering the U.S. Congress, that the opposition Democratic Party has behaved with what he called "shabby" timidity in not challenging President Bush on his war plans. Kennan, who is now 98, said the Democrats should have asked the president: "Are you talking about one or two wars? And if it's two wars, have we really faced up to the competing demands of the two?"