NOTE: To commemorate Commentary magazine's 60th anniversary, and in an effort to advance discussion of the present American position in the world, the editors asked a number of thinkers to consider a statement and four questions.
In response to a radically changed world situation since the Islamist attacks of 9/11, the United States under George W. Bush has adopted a broad new approach to national security. The Bush Doctrine, as this policy has come to be known, emphasizes the need for preemption in order to "confront the worst threats before they emerge." It also stresses the need to transform the cultures that breed hatred and fanaticism by—in a historically stunning move—actively promoting democracy and liberty in the Middle East and beyond. In the President's words, "We live in a time when the defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom."
This sweeping redirection of policy has provoked intense controversy, especially but not only over its practicality, and especially but not only over its application to Iraq. At issue as well are the precise nature of the threats faced by the United States and the West, the specific tactics adopted by the Bush administration in meeting them, American capabilities and staying power, relations with traditional allies, the larger intentions and moral bona fides of U.S. foreign policy, and much else besides. Opinion on these matters is divided not only between the Left and the Right in political and intellectual life but, quite sharply, among American conservatives themselves.
1. Where have you stood, and where do you now stand, in relation to the Bush Doctrine? Do you agree with the President's diagnosis of the threat we face and his prescription for dealing with it?
2. How would you rate the progress of the Bush Doctrine so far in making the U.S. more secure and in working toward a safer world environment? What about the policy's longer-range prospects?
3. Are there particular aspects of American policy, or of the administration's handling or explanation of it, that you would change immediately?
4. Apart from your view of the way the Bush Doctrine has been defined or implemented, do you agree with its expansive vision of America's world role and the moral responsibilities of American power?
As the editors note, the Bush Doctrine consists of two parts, preemption and democracy, both of them far-reaching in their implications. Yet their scope is different. Preemption specifically concerns the most aggressive tyrannies and radical groups. Democracy primarily concerns one region, the Middle East. The two require separate consideration.
The United States and other democratic governments have historically relied not on preemption but on deterrence to stave off enemies. Deterrence signals, "Don't harm us, or you will pay dearly." It has many successes to its credit, notably in the cold war. But deterrence also has significant drawbacks; it is slow, passive, and expensive. Worst, if it fails, war follows. That happens when a tyrant is not intimidated (Hitler) or when the deterrent threat is not clearly enough articulated (Kim Il Sung, Saddam Hussein).
Several recent changes render deterrence less adequate than in the past. For one thing, the demise of the Soviet Union means that no preeminent enemy power exists to restrain the hotheads, for example in North Korea. For another, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction raises the stakes; a U.S. President cannot afford to wait for American cities to be destroyed. And for a third, the spread of Islamist terror networks renders deterrence ineffectual, there being no way to retaliate against al Qaeda.
Responding to these changes, President Bush in June 2002 added a second policy option, that of preemption. Americans, he announced, are not prepared to wait for deterrence to fail and war to start. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge." U.S. security, Bush said, requires Americans "to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."
Preemption is to be deployed in unusual cases, against enemies of a particularly vicious and ephemeral sort. According to a draft Pentagon document, "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations," the military is preparing guidelines for commanders to receive presidential approval to use nuclear weapons to preempt a WMD attack or to destroy enemy stockpiles of WMD.
To date, preemption has been used only once: in the March 2003 war against Saddam Hussein. It most likely would be brought into service a second time against Iran or North Korea.
I have endorsed preemption, both in the abstract and as applied to the Iraqi dictator. But in doing so, I am aware of its special difficulties: error is likely, and uncertainty is inescapable. That three Arab states tightened a noose around Israel in 1967 did not prove they intended to attack it. That Saddam Hussein had a WMD infrastructure still left his plans ambiguous.
These difficulties place special responsibility on a government that preempts. It must act in as transparent a manner as possible, without guile. It must first establish the validity of its actions to its own citizenry. Second, because Americans heed so much what others think, the opinion of the targeted country's population also matters, as does the opinion of other key countries.
In this regard, the Bush administration has fared poorly, convincing only half of Americans and far fewer among most other peoples, including Iraqis and Britons. Should preemption be invoked against Iran or North Korea, public diplomacy would need to be a far higher priority.
When it comes to spreading democracy, the Bush administration breaks no conceptual ground. Since its own war of independence, the United States has inspired others by its example, and its government has consciously promoted democracy since World War I. What is novel today is the interventionist quality of this policy and its application to the Middle East.
Concerning the latter, it is notable that in November 2003, the President referred to what had been an enduring, consensual, bipartisan policy as "sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East." In fact, that emphasis on stability resulted from a recognition of Middle East exceptionalism—that, unlike elsewhere in the world, popular attitudes in this region were deeply anti-American, and distinctly more so than the attitudes of the region's emirs, kings, and presidents. Such a situation naturally led Washington to conclude it had best work with dictators, lest democracy bring radicalized governments to power.
This fear was entirely reasonable, as the 1978 revolution in Iran established and as the Algerian elections of 1991 confirmed. But, setting aside such apprehensions, Bush now insisted that Middle Easterners would, no less than other peoples, benefit from democracy and mature through it. He drew direct comparisons with American success in sponsoring democracy in Europe and Asia.
I cheered this change in direction when it was announced, and still do. But here, too, I find the implementation flawed. The administration is trying to build democracy much too quickly. A mere 22 months, for example, passed between the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and elections for the prime minister of Iraq; in my view, the interval should have been closer to 22 years.
Haste ignores the historical record. Democracy has everywhere taken time, and especially so when it builds on a foundation of totalitarian tyranny, as in Iraq. As I wrote in April 2003:
Democracy is a learned habit, not instinct. The infrastructure of a civil society—such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, the rule of law, minority rights, and an independent judiciary—needs to be established before holding elections. Deep attitudinal changes must take place as well: a culture of restraint, a commonality of values, a respect for differences of view and a sense of civic responsibility.
As for the editors' final question, although Americans have no moral obligation to sponsor freedom and prosperity in the rest of the world, it does make for an excellent foreign-policy goal. The more the world enjoys democracy, the safer are Americans; as other free peoples prosper, so do we. The bold aim of showing the way, however, requires a cautious, slow, and tempered policy. The Bush administration has a visionary boldness but not the requisite operational caution.