The latest Bush administration strategy states that "any country that poses a threat" can be preemptively attacked by the U.S. military. Even though this is considered by many as a shift in U.S. foreign policy, the concept has been around for more than a decade.
In March 1992, a classified U.S. document proposing a new approach to American foreign policy was leaked to The New York Times newspaper. The Defense Planning Guidance, a proposed strategy for the nation’s role in the world in the 21 century, sparked intense debate. It called for the United States to use military force if necessary to maintain its position as the only remaining superpower. Furthermore, when collective action was not possible, it said the United States would act independently and preemptively against states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.
One of the doctrine’s authors was Paul Wolfowitz, who is now the U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary. His boss at that time, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, is now the Vice President.
Stephen Walt, Dean of International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, explained the strategy. “The central theme of the Defense Guidance Policy drafted by Wolfowitz back in the first Bush Administration was a policy of long term American primacy and that the United States should have as its core objective the prevention of a pure competitor anywhere in the world." he said. "It also took a fairly hard-line view of how the United States should maintain military forces that were not merely stronger, but so much stronger that no one would want to get in the game against us.”
Ronald Asmus worked for the Clinton administration and helped forge NATO expansion in Eastern Europe and is now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. He said the 1992 defense planning document should be viewed in the context of when it was written. “You have to realize the Defense Planning Guidance was written just after the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed," he said. "This was the first attempt of the Bush administration then to start to sketch out elements of America’s role in a post-Cold War environment.”
The classified 1992 document had been circulated among top Pentagon officials, but was not intended for public release. The draft leaked to the media alarmed U.S. allies and members of Congress.
Senator Joseph Biden, a senior member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the document’s emphasis on unilateral military action and called it a blueprint for a “Pax Americana” that would not work.
The Bush administration tried to assure allies that the United States was not throwing out multilateralism in favor of a "go-it-alone" posture. A new draft toned down the military thrust of the document and said investment in a strong defense would be leveled out with economic and security cooperation with other countries. But the new draft was cast away after George Bush lost the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton.
With the presidential victory of George W. Bush in 2000, some observers say the spirit of the 1992 document has re-emerged.
In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last June, President Bush declared “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
But Mr. Asmus is skeptical of a direct connection between the original Defense Policy Guidance and the current Bush administration’s policy. He argued that the terrorist attacks of September 11th caused a fundamental shift in policy. “I think the story here is not how a few individuals came up with a policy 10 years ago and now have the chance to fulfill it. I think the story here is how on both sides of the political fence and across the strategic community in America, there is one of the far-reaching and fundamental rethinks on U-S policy taking place that goes well beyond those individuals. I am far more interested in the fact that after September 11, Americans have looked in the mirror and have concluded that past policies have failed.”
One of those policies was containment. Mr. Asmus points out that President Clinton made “regime change” in Iraq official U.S. policy. But it was the September 11 terrorist attacks that provided the political will to implement the new strategy. Mr. Asmus argues that the democratic transformation of the Middle East should be the next big Trans-Atlantic project after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the formation of a united Europe. He says members of both major U.S. political parties support reshaping authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. “I think what is interesting is that on the issue of democratization, transformation, you can find the leading Republican conservative and liberal Democratic thinkers finding common ground. They are all talking about the need to address the problems of the Middle East, and democracy is part of the answer.”
Ronald Asmus also says the idea that preemptive military strikes will be carried out by the United States around the world is exaggerated. He is referring to what is now called the Bush Doctrine, a strategy that lays out the possibility of preventive war against states deemed dangerous. Under the Clinton administration, Mr. Asmus points out, preemption was also policy.
Many observers agree that preemption is not a new policy. But a distinction must be made, says retired U.S. Army General William Odom, Director of National Security Studies at the Hudson Institute. He notes the new standard says preventive war can be carried out even if there is uncertainty as to the enemy's intentions or targets.
Furthermore, General Odom argues that a superior military force in and of itself negates the need for preemptive military strikes. “Today, it seems to me, because the United States has so much power, and there is no country capable of doing any kind of substantial damage to us, that the argument for preemptive strikes is very weak," he said.
In the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance document, Paul Wolfowitz wrote about hypothetical war scenarios, including one with Iraq after Saddam Hussein rebounded from his defeat in the Persian Gulf War. Today, Mr. Wolfowitz contends that a “liberated Iraq” would be the first step in the U.S. effort to foster the fall of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
However, Professor Walt of Harvard University argues that waging war with Iraq will do little to guarantee the growth of democracy. He claims the sense of urgency to strike Iraq has been created by those he calls “neo-conservatives” in the Bush administration. Professor Walt says they have wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein long before September 11.
Mr. Asmuth disagrees. He says the terrorist attacks against the United States have shown the Middle East poses one of the greatest threats to U.S. security and the next step to reduce that threat is to disarm Saddam Hussein.