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Preemptive Strike Out

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 16, 2006; 1:03 PM

This morning's news that President Bush is reasserting his doctrine of preemptive war is a bit of a surprise because, well, I think most people thought the Bush Doctrine was dead.

How can Bush still argue for attacking another country based on his suspicions about their intentions -- when the first time he tried it, his public case turned out to be so utterly specious?

The idea that the American public or the international community would tolerate such behavior once again seems highly unlikely at this point in time. The American people, for one, won't be keen on putting troops in harm's way again on spec anytime soon.

Winning support for the application of a doctrine of preemption requires enormous credibility. It requires public trust in intelligence and motives. And that trust isn't there.

The rearranging of the intelligence community's deck-chairs has not resulted in any great surge of confidence in the nation's intelligence gathering or, more importantly, any assurance that policymakers will not abuse that intelligence.

In fact, the more we know about the run-up to war in Iraq, the more evidence there is that the doctrine of preemption (and the cherry-picking and manipulation of intelligence used to make the case for it) was just a pretext for an invasion that Bush and his top aides had already decided on for other reasons.

See, for instance, the recent Foreign Affairs article by Paul R. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year.

He wrote: "It has become clear that official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized."

At a recent talk to the Council on Foreign Relations , Pillar said, "I really believe this: that the main motivation for Operation Iraqi Freedom was to stir up the politics and economics of the Middle East and use regime change in Iraq as a stimulus for regime change and other kinds of changes elsewhere in the region, leading to more open political and economic structures."

Others, of course, suggest that Bush's primary motivation was revenge against Saddam for the indignities suffered by his father, or simply a desire to kick someone's butt after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

But in either case, few people in Washington now believe that pre-emption of Saddam's alleged WMD threat was anything more than a post-decision rationalization for the invasion.

And then there's the fact that close watchers of Bush's ever-evolving foreign policy have seen no recent indication that the doctrine of preemption or, in fact, any of the other elements of what has become known as the Bush Doctrine, were still operative.

Gideon Rose , the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in the New York Times in August that "the Bush doctrine has collapsed, and the administration has consequently embraced realism, American foreign policy's perennial hangover cure."

Rose illustrated just how "all three pillars of the supposedly revolutionary Bush doctrine - pre-emption, regime change, and a clear division between those 'with us' and 'against us'- came crashing down."

Nevertheless, here is the White House's hot-off-the-presses National Security Strategy .

From the section on preemption : "There are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD.

"To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense. The United States will not resort to force in all cases to preempt emerging threats. Our preference is that nonmilitary actions succeed. And no country should ever use preemption as a pretext for aggression. . . .

"Our strong preference and common practice is to address proliferation concerns through international diplomacy, in concert with key allies and regional partners. If necessary, however, under long-standing principles of self defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize. This is the principle and logic of preemption. The place of preemption in our national security strategy remains the same. We will always proceed deliberately, weighing the consequences of our actions. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just."

So who's next? Could it be, perhaps, Iran? See Tuesday's column : Looking for a Villain.

Today's Coverage

Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post this morning: "President Bush issued a new national security strategy today reaffirming his doctrine of preemptive war against terrorists and hostile states with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, despite the troubled U.S. experience in Iraq. . . .

"The strategy expands on the original security framework developed by the Bush administration in September 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. That strategy shifted U.S. foreign policy away from decades of deterrence and containment toward a more aggressive stance of attacking enemies before they attack the United States. . . .

"The preemption doctrine generated fierce debate at the time, and many critics believe the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has fatally undermined an essential assumption of the strategy -- that intelligence about an enemy's capabilities and intentions can be sufficiently reliable to justify preventive war.

"In his revised version, Bush offers no second thoughts about the preemption policy, saying it 'remains the same' and defending it as necessary for a country in the 'early years of a long struggle' akin to the Cold War."

Preemption, of course, isn't the only thing in the new strategy document.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that the document "identifies Iran as the country likely to present the single greatest future challenge to the United States."

And, he writes: "While the new document hews to many of the administration's familiar themes, it contains changes that seem born of bitter experience. Throughout the document there is talk of the need for 'effective democracies,' a code phrase, some of its drafters said, for countries that do not just hold free elections but also build democratic institutions and spread their benefits to their populations. 'I don't think there was as much of an appreciation of the need for that in 2002,' one senior official said."

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "The opening sentence of the 2006 National Security Strategy document is as stark as a crime novel. 'America is at war. This is a wartime national security strategy required by the grave challenge we face . . . terrorism fuelled by an aggressive ideology of hatred and murder.'

"The foreign policy prescription that follows, put in the same simple language, is an homage to transformational democracy. 'The advance of freedom and human dignity is the long-term solution to the transnational terrorism of today,' a draft of the document states."

In One Word: Incompetent

A new Pew poll finds: "In the aftermath of the Dubai ports deal, President Bush's approval rating has hit a new low and his image for honesty and effectiveness has been damaged. . . .

"Bush's overall approval measure stands at 33%, the lowest rating of his presidency. . . .

"Bush's personal image also has weakened noticeably, which is reflected in people's one-word descriptions of the president. . . .

"Until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was 'honest,' but this comes up far less often today than in the past. Other positive traits such as 'integrity' are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as 'excellent' or 'great' terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys. . . .

"The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is 'incompetent,' and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: 'idiot' and 'liar.' All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago."

In fact, the terms "ass", "jerk", "selfish" and "untrustworthy" are all new additions to Pew's list of top responses, though for some reason "sucks" has actually fallen off the list.

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush and fellow Republicans approach the fall midterm elections facing one political problem above all others: responding to rising public anxiety about Iraq.

"The new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll charts the toll that Iraq has taken on the Bush presidency. The survey shows the president's approval rating falling to 37%, a low for Mr. Bush, with disapproval highest for his handling of the war."

Here are the complete results .

Mark Murray writes for MSNBC: "A strong majority believes Bush is experiencing a long-term setback from which he's unlikely to recover. 'He's losing his grip on governance,' says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican Bill McInturff."

Senior Moments

How threatening to Bush's bubble could a few hundred senior citizens be? The White House advance team may have seriously underestimated the antipathy and skepticism that awaited Bush yesterday when he came to visit a Silver Spring, Md., retirement home -- and took questions.

Here's the transcript .

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "A woman asked President Bush if he thought humans should be implanted with a computer chip containing their medical records -- just like her dog. Bush got a laugh when he naively suggested car buyers know from the outset what they will pay. One man gave Bush unsolicited advice about greenhouse gases and another held his feet to the fire on nuclear proliferation. . . .

Bush "got a bit tripped up when making the comparison to vehicle shopping -- something he has not done for years.

" 'When you go buy a car, you know exactly what they're going to charge you,' he said, drawing laughs -- and then adjusting his remarks.

" 'Well, sometimes you don't know,' he said. 'Well, you negotiate with them. Well, they put something on the window that says price.' "

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Two weeks after signing a controversial nuclear cooperation agreement with India, President Bush had a surprise encounter Wednesday with one of the original negotiators of the very anti-nuclear treaty that critics say is threatened by the deal. . . .

"The India challenge came from Lawrence Weiler, 85. . . .

" 'Mr. President, there are some -- and I guess I would include myself -- who have different views about the Indian agreement, because they're concerned about the effect that the agreement will have on the capacity of India to stimulate its own production of nuclear weapons,' he said. . . .

"Weiler, who worked for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, went on to ask Bush to consider adopting a 'no first use' policy on nuclear weapons as an additional enticement to keep the treaty intact. . . .

"Bush nodded but made no promises. 'I'll take your words to heart, and think about it,' he told Weiler. 'Thank you. No commitment standing right here, of course.' "


And oh yes, Bush talked about Medicare, too.

Cameron W. Barr writes in The Washington Post: "Faced with a persistent questioner who asked him what could be done to help her elderly mother understand Medicare's new prescription drug plan, President Bush offered a suggestion that at first elicited shocked gasps, and then supportive applause, from an audience of retirees in Silver Spring yesterday.

" 'Look, I'm not going to tell you your business, but I think it's your responsibility to help your mom,' Bush told Wendy Meyeroff."

In his pitch for the program, Bush was misleading about its success so far.

"Since the program got going, 26 million seniors have signed up. That's a lot. Pretty quick period of time -- 26 million people take a look and signed up for the program," he said.

But, as Barr writes, "that figure includes 21 million who were already receiving prescription drug coverage."

Jeffrey Krasner first called attention to the administration's repeated overstatement of the sign-up rate in the Boston Globe last month.

Best of Both Worlds blogger P O'Neill pores over the Bush transcript.

From the transcript, Bush: "Some of the people who have not insured are younger Americans who choose not to be insured. It's like, I kind of remember that period of time. I thought I was never going to get sick. And so I thought I'd save some money."

Writes O'Neill: "In other words, George Bush is making the specific assertion that earlier in his life, he chose to forgo health insurance on grounds of a health-cost tradeoff. Assuming this is true, one has to ask whether this personal experience -- surely driven by the safety net of being from a wealthy family -- is informing his current views about the necessity of health insurance reform."

From the transcript, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt: "Last night I was in a hotel, and on the back of the hotel door, there was a price: $449 a night. Now, you'll be pleased to know, Mr. President, that I didn't pay that -- (laughter) -- and we didn't pay that because the government had created a government rate. It was only $130 a night, and they slid the bill under the door."

Writes O'Neill: "[T]he Health Secretary offered an anecdote about how the government can get lower prices for hotel rooms than individuals. But this is exactly the buying power that the government refuses to use for medicine under the Medicare law. And it's exactly the problem that underlies Bush's preference for 'consumer-driven healthcare'; individuals buying alone will not be able to get as low a price as group purchasers."

Censure Watch

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Republicans, worried that their conservative base lacks motivation to turn out for the fall elections, have found a new rallying cry in the dreams of liberals about censuring or impeaching President Bush."

Meanwhile, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin casts his lot with Sen. Russell Feingold: "We have an out-of-control President whose arrogant and, now, illegal behavior is running our country into the ditch. It's time to rein him in. And a fine place to start is by passing this resolution of censure. I hope that Senator Feingold's measure will be brought to the floor. And when it is, I will proudly vote yes."

Shakeup Watch

CBS reports: "Former Senate majority leader Howard Baker phoned the White House Tuesday and sent a direct message to chief of staff Andrew Card, reports CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger.

"Baker's mission: to get Card to hire former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, now an actor who appears on the TV series 'Law And Order,' as a top adviser as a way to inject some 'new blood' to the mix. Baker, also a former Tennessee senator, tells CBS, 'I did not recommend firing anyone, just adding a new face.' "

Anderson Cooper asked Dana Bash about the rumors.

"COOPER: Dana, does anyone really think the president's political challenges are something that one or two grizzled veterans can fix?

"BASH: No, they don't.

"They think, the people pushing this thing, it would be good for a first step. . . . But the bottom line here is, the person who matters most in this equation, namely the president, simply, it appears, doesn't want this to happen."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush's spokesman on Wednesday dismissed calls for a White House shake-up as 'inside Washington babble' after a series of controversies that have pushed Bush's approval ratings to new lows. . . .

"Asked about speculation that the White House team was tired, [Scott] McClellan joked in his morning briefing that he was 'tired of some of the questions.' "

Here's the transcript of the briefing.

Claude Allen Watch

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate that "the more we hear about what Allen is accused of, the less it sounds like kleptomania and the more it sounds like an application of Bush economic policy."

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman writes in his blog: "The Claude Allen affair has thrown a fresh spotlight on the personnel decisions of the administration, particularly the documented ways that it frequently tries to insert its people into critical jobs for which they are not qualified."

Scooter Libby Watch

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "Lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr., a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who faces charges of obstruction of justice, served subpoenas on Tuesday on The New York Times Company and a former reporter for The Times, Judith Miller."


Steve Gorman writes for Reuters: "Concerned about politicizing her favorite charity, singer-actress Jessica Simpson on Wednesday turned down a invitation to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush, a snub that left Republicans dismayed. . . .

"People close to Simpson said she declined a request to appear that same evening at the gala fund-raiser of the National Republican Congressional Committee -- even after she was offered some private face time with Bush -- because Operation Smile is a non-partisan group. . . .

"NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said he was surprised at Simpson's position.

" 'It's never been a problem for Bono,' he said."

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