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Archive for Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Preventive isn’t pre-emptive

March 21, 2006

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To paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his 1980 debate with President Carter: There they go again.

In this case I'm referring to the Bush administration's recently released update of its National Security Strategy statement. In it, the administration reaffirms its belief in war to stop a nation from acquiring nuclear weapons. The review gives almost no indication that the administration has learned anything from the debacle that has resulted from the invasion of Iraq. There is no recognition of the difficulties that come after the strike - the task of nation-building, which has been utterly bungled in Iraq. This is mind-bogglingly bad.

There is also an alarming sense of deja vu in this report when it comes to Iran. Combine the review's defense of preventive war - which it terms "pre-emptive war," although there is an important difference - with the recent warning statement from Vice President Dick Cheney that, "We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," and you can't help but feel that this administration is ready to go to war again, this time against Iran. It was that same combination of a bellicose National Security Review and saber rattling from Cheney that set the stage for the invasion of Iraq.

Back then, I was willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt. All the heavy rhetoric seemed to be part of an overall strategy to intimidate Saddam Hussein to give up his weapons of mass destruction. The threat of force was necessary to convince Saddam to allow the weapons inspectors back into Iraq, I thought.

It turned out the tough talk wasn't just a ploy, it was the real policy. The administration had decided to invade Iraq and depose Saddam no matter what he did.

I'll take the president and the vice president at their word this time around. They mean what they say. They are ready to use force to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, to use force preventively. Damn the consequences.

It's important to understand the difference between a preventive attack and a pre-emptive attack - although the Bush administration seems to want to confuse the two. A pre-emptive attack, recognized in international law, is when someone has his hand on a gun and is about to fire at you, and you beat him to the draw, firing first. That's understandable and justifiable. A preventive attack is when there's no imminent danger, but you want to keep the threat from even developing. That's what the Bush administration did in Iraq. That's what it is threatening to do with Iran now.

Of course, the world will be a more dangerous place if Iran does develop nuclear weapons. This is a very serious, worrisome problem. But it's a complex situation, much more complicated than Iraq was with the brutal dictatorship of Saddam. The heavy-handed Bush approach to Iraq has actually made security in the Persian Gulf worse, not better - and Iran more likely to want nuclear weapons, not less. And yet the Bush administration is defiantly reaffirming its policy. At the very least, it would be better left unsaid.

As we can all appreciate now, one of the major problems with the preventive war doctrine is that it doesn't work very well unless you have accurate, credible intelligence. That turned out not to be the case in Iraq. In the new national security document, the administration brushes off that problem, saying, "There will always be some uncertainty about the status of hidden programs."

It reminds me of the wonderful last line of the movie "Some Like It Hot," when Jack Lemmon reveals to Joe E. Brown he's not really a woman. Brown replies, "Nobody's perfect."

But this is no laughing matter.

James M. Klurfeld is Newsday's editorial page editor.

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