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Whatever Happened to Preemption?

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
January 8, 2009
Foreign Policy


After 9/11, many wondered why the United States had not taken military action in Afghanistan earlier to avert the deaths of more than 3,000 innocents. It was the same question many asked after 9/1--that would be Sept. 1, 1939, the date when Germany invaded Poland. The evil intentions of the Nazis, like those of al Qaeda, had been clear far in advance. Why had the civilized world not intervened before tragedy struck? Why had those in a position to act not listened to the anguished, urgent warnings coming from the likes of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in the case of the Nazis, or from Richard Clarke, Reuel Gerecht, and others in the case of the Islamists?

The answer is almost impossible to fathom in retrospect once we are aware of the consequences of inaction. Indeed, so convinced was U.S. President George W. Bush of the need to avoid making the same mistake in the future that he promulgated a doctrine of preemption that roiled traditional foreign-policy circles. Citing threats such as a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, the president's 2002 National Security Strategy vowed, "To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by [its] adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively" in exercising its inherent right of self-defense. As recently as Dec. 9, speaking at West Point, Bush reiterated that after 9/11, "We resolved that we would not wait to be attacked again. ... We understood, as I said here at West Point in 2002, 'if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long'--so we made clear that hostile regimes sponsoring terror or pursuing weapons of mass destruction would be held to account."


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