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Campaign 2004: Both Candidates Embrace Preemptive Policy - 2004-07-15

With the threat of international terrorism looming large, foreign policy and national security issues will play a crucial role in the US presidential election. A key issue is that of preemptive military strikes against countries that demonstrate an imminent threat. VOA's Brent Hurd contrasts the views of President Bush and presumptive Democratic rival John Kerry on America's right to preemptive war.

A basic question facing a US president is how and when to go to war. That becomes more urgent today with the threat of terrorist strikes that can occur suddenly with no formal declaration of war. The basic terrorist strategy is surprise.

Facing that, President George Bush enunciates his own strategy of preemptive war when necessary. Even though a recent report by the US Congress severely criticizes some of the assumptions leading to war with Iraq, the president clearly defends his action: “Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq. We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them.”

President Bush's remarks re-enforce his administration's stance that preemptive wars are necessary in a post-September 11th world. “To overcome the dangers of our time, America is also taking a new approach in the world. We're determined to challenge new threats, not ignore them or simply wait for future tragedy.”

Some analysts say the approach offered by Democratic rival John Kerry is not so different. His party has made it clear it also reserves the right to carry out preemptive war. James Rubin, a former Assistant Secretary of State under President Clinton, is a foreign policy advisor to John Kerry. “If America's national security is threatened, John Kerry will act without regard to the opposition of countries like France or the United Nations perhaps. But when we can, we should be using all our diplomatic energies, all the leadership the president can bring to getting support from our allies. “

Michael Nacht, Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California in Berkeley, says the difference between the Bush and Kerry approach to preemptive war is more a matter of emphasis and style, not content.

Mr. Nacht characterizes President Bush's posture to be assertive at times, even belligerent. He says this approach gives the impression the United States will not be swayed by what other nations say. “Now it is very hard for President Bush to re-claim international support because he has alienated a number of key and national governments. I do think Kerry would probably have a lot more innate support and benefit from other governments just because they feel they would have a more receptive ear in the White House than they had before.”

But the Bush administration points out that even though it did not have the backing of the United Nations, the preemptive war with Iraq was not a unilateral action. More than 30 countries joined the so-called coalition of the willing that helped oust Saddam Hussein. In recent developments, the Bush administration says it has worked with the international community to transfer sovereignty to Iraq and set up a structure that gives Iraqi leaders a vital say over military operations.

Yet John Kerry contends that the Bush administration's rush to war left America with disillusioned allies. James Rubin of the John Kerry campaign says in order to defeat al-Qaeda and the forces that support it, the United States must work closely with allies and international institutions. “But we are not going to do it if we disdain the views of our friends and disdain the use of international institutions. We need to win friends, not alienate them. We need to persuade, not antagonize.”

In today's terrorist world, there is not always time for thorough communication, says Clifford May, former communications director for the Republican National Committee and now president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institute focusing on terrorism. He says preemption is a vital policy ingredient. “I think in the 21th century, we are fighting a different kind of war post-September 11th. Terrorists had been attacking us in various ways for the last 25 years. We tried to ignore that or pretend to ourselves that the terrorists attacks were not a real national security threat -- it turns out they were, and they built because we did not respond to them.”

As events unfold, the two presidential candidates may make some changes in their polices to reflect a shifting threat. But both are expected to continue to emphasize the need for preemptive war, even if they differ on the circumstances that require it.