In June, President George W. Bush unveiled his doctrine of pre-emption, arguing that the United States would strike first at terrorists and tyrants rather than wait to be attacked. Critics and supporters immediately described the new doctrine as ending America's reliance on the time-tested policies of deterrence and containment.
But the Bush administration's restrained reaction to the news of North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program makes clear that the talk about pre-emption was mostly that.
American presidents have long had the option of moving pre-emptively against security threats. But Sept. 11 gave this option a sudden relevance. Previously remote scenarios in which foreign tyrants transferred chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to terrorists suddenly became thinkable. Tens of thousands of Americans could die in such a surprise attack. The conclusion the White House drew from this prospect was unsurprising. "The United States of America," Bush warned in his famous "Axis of Evil" speech in January, "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
Why not just rely on the threat of catastrophic retaliation to deter potential attackers? Administration officials argue that the leaders of rogue states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea are fundamentally different from the men who led the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While Communist leaders were bitter ideological and military rivals, they were also rational and risk averse. They were not going to take actions that jeopardized their hold on power.
Today's threat is different. As the administration's recently released National Security Strategy argues, rogue state leaders "see weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice," not weapons of last resort. They are more prone to take risks with weapons they view as "tools of intimidation and military aggression against their neighbors."
It follows, or so administration officials from the president on down have incessantly warned, that the containment and deterrence doctrines that guided U.S. foreign policy for a half century are inadequate to defeat the new security threats. "Old doctrines of security no longer apply," Vice President Dick Cheney told an audience of Korean War veterans in August. "Containment is not possible when dictators obtain weapons of mass destruction and are prepared to share them with terrorists who intend to inflict catastrophic losses on the United States."
That leaves pre-emption as the only viable choice to deal with what President Bush has called the "grave and gathering danger." Doing nothing is tantamount to courting a second, and perhaps more deadly, Sept. 11.
The Bush administration spent much of the summer making the case for pre-emption by pointing to the immediacy of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. What no one knew at the time was that top administration officials were just then getting information about an even more immediate threat - North Korea's secret effort to enrich uranium and make nuclear weapons.
Not only did the administration keep news about Pyongyang's nuclear efforts secret; there is no evidence it did anything to try to stop the program. Indeed, in August, U.S. officials attended a ceremony marking the pouring of concrete for a new nuclear reactor in North Korea. And the United States continued to ship heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang, as required by a 1994 bilateral agreement intended to freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons activities, even though Pyongyang's actions clearly violated the terms of that agreement.
Now Pyongyang has confirmed it has been developing nuclear weapons. But no one at the White House is talking about pre-emption. Quite the contrary. Administration officials now stress the importance of multilateral diplomacy and consulting with Washington's friends and allies in Northeast Asia.
There are sound reasons why the administration wants to find a peaceful resolution to the current crisis. North Korea essentially holds Seoul, South Korea— a city of 10 million that sits within range of North Korean artillery and missiles— hostage against any American attack. With so much on the line, Washington is right to make military force the last option and not the first.
But, in deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, the Bush administration has provided the best argument against its own rhetoric about striking first. Pre-emption is an appealing idea. Who wouldn't want to stop an atrocity before it can be committed? But pre-emption is always far easier to urge than to do.
Failing to recognize this truth has costs. While the White House has discovered that pre-emption might not fit with U.S. values and interests in most circumstances, other countries might not be so squeamish. They could use the administration's pre-emption arguments as cover for settling their own national-security scores. Then the Bush White House could find its words used to justify ends it opposes.