During the Cold War, the United States had a clear, coherent, widely supported national security strategy that focused on containing and deterring Soviet communist expansion. In waging the war on terror, President Bush has embraced a strategy that calls for leveraging American military dominance with preventive military action.
In an increasingly dangerous world, with al-Qaida reconstituting itself in South Asia and homegrown terrorists carrying out attacks in Europe and North Africa, it is appropriate for our presidential candidates to discuss the impact of this strategy on the security of the United States. Whether this Bush policy rises to the level of a doctrine is beside the point.
ABC News anchor Charlie Gibson recently jump-started the discussion of Mr. Bush's security legacy. Unfortunately, his formulation of the president's strategy only muddled this necessary discussion. In an interview last week with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mr. Gibson claimed that Mr. Bush's policy innovation was to declare that the United States has the right of anticipatory self-defense. However, he failed to touch on the revolutionary aspect of this strategy: that imminence is no longer a necessary precondition for military action.
The policy Mr. Gibson referenced was most clearly laid out in President Bush's 2002 National Security Strategy document, in which he claimed that the U.S. had the right and duty to strike first in order to pre-empt terrorist attacks. In reality, pre-emption is used to combat an imminent threat, while prevention is undertaken against a less-urgent potential threat. The true substance of Mr. Bush's approach - that preventive war was now an option on the table - was most clearly evident in the invasion of Iraq.
Leading up to the war, Mr. Bush called Saddam Hussein a grave threat and a gathering danger but never called him an imminent threat.
This is the foundation of the Bush strategy, which many refer to as a doctrine: that a country, without identifying a truly immediate danger and without attaining international consensus for action, may launch an invasion and occupation on claims of self-defense. In a dangerous world, it is a terribly risky strategy, and U.S. policymakers, presidential candidates and the public should have a frank discussion about its implications.
Not only did Mr. Bush's policy lead the U.S. into a morass in Iraq, a war that has cost more than 4,000 American lives and drawn our attention and resources away from more lethal dangers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it has created an opportunity for other countries to follow where we've led.
In July, the administration proposed giving Pakistan more than $200 million to upgrade its fleet of F-16s, aircraft more useful in a potential war with India than in counterinsurgency operations. After revelations in August that Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence aided militants in an attack on the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, the prospect of India launching a preventive war has increased. More frightening than recent developments though, is the prospect that the American example and Mr. Bush's preventive war strategy could provide the justification for launching such a war.
Not only has Mr. Bush's decision to legitimize preventive war created a dangerous precedent that can be used by other countries, but the administration's obfuscation over its rationale for going to war has hindered a public discussion of the policy and its implications for the next administration. Presidential and vice presidential candidates of both parties have a responsibility to take up this issue, and let the American people know how they will deal with Mr. Bush's policy and its potential consequences. This is a much more fundamental and consequential question than how they will get out of Iraq.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called for "a new model of deterrence" for a new generation of threats. The face of global conflict has changed substantially over the past 50 years, but the next president shouldn't forget that deterrence proved a reliable and ultimately successful policy for keeping the peace. He may find himself in need of this lesson of history if the legacy of the Bush Doctrine is a higher global tolerance for preventive war.
Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His e-mail is email@example.com. Laura Conley is a special assistant at the center.