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The Politics of Preemption

By Sam Parry
October 8, 2002

George W. Bush’s doctrine of "preemptive war" – the elimination of foreign governments he deems a threat to U.S. security interests – is quickly developing a domestic corollary. Any politician who questions Bush’s strategy can expect to be confronted by a rapid-deployment force of pro-Bush operatives who counterattack using weapons of ridicule and distortion.

In a kind of test run, this army swung onto the offensive immediately after former Vice President Al Gore on Sept. 23 delivered a comprehensive critique of Bush’s radical departure from decades of American support for international law. Rather than welcome a vigorous debate on the merits and shortcomings of the so-called "Bush Doctrine," conservative commentators treated Gore and others raising questions as dishonest, unpatriotic and even unhinged.

Bush himself has joined in this politics of preemption with comments such as one at a campaign speech in New Jersey when he declared the Democratic-controlled Senate "is not interested in the security of the American people." The goal appears to be the silencing of domestic debate about Bush’s unparalleled assertion of executive authority to conduct an open-ended series of wars.

Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 and would have won the White House if all legally cast votes were counted in Florida, was slapped around by Beltway political analysts. He was hit from all angles, variously portrayed as seeking cheap political gain and committing political suicide.

Helped by the fact that Gore’s speech received spotty television coverage – MSNBC carried excerpts live and C-SPAN replayed the speech later that night – pro-Bush commentators were free to distort Gore’s words and then dismiss his arguments as "lies" largely because few Americans actually heard what he said. [Gore’s speech is described in detail below. To watch the speech in its entirety on C-SPAN's website, click here.]

Some epithets came directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore a "political hack." An administration source told the Washington Post that Gore was simply "irrelevant," a theme that would be repeated often in the days after Gore’s speech. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]

Other slurs were fired off by battalions of conservative opinion-makers from their strategic high ground on the editorial pages of major newspapers, on talk radio and on television chat shows.

"Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered," wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. "It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible." [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]

"A pudding with no theme but much poison," declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. "It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence." [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002] At, Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore’s "The Opportunist" and characterized Gore as "bitter."

While some depicted Gore’s motivation as "opportunism," columnist William Bennett mocked Gore for the opposite, sealing his political doom and banishing himself "from the mainstream of public opinion." In an Op-Ed piece for the Wall Street Journal, entitled "Al Gore’s Political Suicide," Bennett said Gore had "made himself irrelevant by his inconsistency" and had engaged in "an act of self-immolation" by daring to criticize Bush’s policy.

"Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the White House, and never will be," Bennett wrote. [WSJ, Sept. 26, 2002]

Lyin' Al

When the conservative pundits addressed Gore’s actual speech, his words were bizarrely parsed or selectively edited to allow reprising of the news media’s favorite "Lyin’ Al" canard from the presidential campaign.

Kelly, for instance, resumed his editorial harangue with the argument that Gore was lying when the former vice president said "the vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans are still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized."

To Kelly, this comment was "reprehensible" and "a lie." Kelly continued, "The men who ‘implemented’ the ‘cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans’ are dead; they died in the act of murder on Sept. 11. Gore can look this up." Kelly added that most of the rest are in prison or on the run.

Yet, Kelly’s remarks were obtuse even by his standards. Gore clearly was talking about the likes of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, who indeed have not been located. Plus, the Bush administration itself has expressed frustration at the failure of Afghan and Pakistani forces to cut off escape routes for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders during last winter’s U.S. military offensive.

The administration also has cited the resurgence of the al-Qaeda terrorist threat, fearing that its operatives are preparing new rounds of terrorist attacks from bases scattered through dozens of countries. In September, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge recognized this problem by raising the terrorist threat warning in the U.S. from yellow to orange.

But when Gore makes similar points, he is dismissed as a liar. That then opened the door for smirking TV pundits to reprise other bogus examples of Gore’s "lies," including the news media’s invented quote about Gore supposedly saying he "invented the Internet." [For details about how the national press corps exaggerated Gore’s alleged exaggerations during the campaign, see's "Al Gore vs. the Media."]

Limbaugh & Hume

As Bob Somerby, editor of The Daily Howler, has pointed out, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News’ Brit Hume led the way on another front, accusing Gore of lying about his position on the Persian Gulf War in 1991. That claim was advanced by snipping off a portion of Gore’s Sept. 23 remarks to create a phony contradiction with a statement he made in 1991.

On Fox News’ "Special Report" on Sept. 24, Hume played a clip of Gore’s Sept. 23 speech in which Gore, who had voted in the U.S. Senate to support President George H.W. Bush’s intervention to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, said "I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration’s hasty departure from the battlefield."

Then, Hume played a comment by Gore on April 18, 1991, in which Gore defended the first President Bush’s decision not to march to Baghdad and added, "It was universally accepted that our objective was to push Iraq out of Kuwait, and it was further understood that when this was accomplished, combat should stop."

Juxtaposed, these two statements were made to appear as contradictions, another Gore "lie." Hume’s panel of pundits jumped at the opportunity to draw that conclusion.

Hume asked, "How do we explain that, as against what he said yesterday?"

"It’s inexplicable," said Bill Sammon of the Washington Times. "It’s puzzling why he would flip-flop on something so easily checkable."

"He invented the Internet," smirked pundit Morton Kondracke. "He’s got a bad memory."

But as Somerby pointed out at The Daily Howler, Hume had created Gore’s "contradiction" by omitting a key phrase from Gore’s Sept. 23 speech, relating to which battlefield Gore was referring. The fuller Gore quote read, "I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration’s hasty departure from the battlefield, even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds of the North and the Shiites of the South – groups we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam."

Gore made similar points in April 1991, when he criticized the elder Bush for leaving the anti-Hussein forces in the lurch. Gore said Bush’s handling of the post-war insurrections "revives the most bitter memories of humankind’s worst moments." [NYT, April 13, 1991, as cited by Somerby in his column on Sept. 26, 2002] It is clear to any honest, careful reader that Gore’s two comments were about different parts of the Iraqi conflict.

So, the national news media was at it again, twisting Gore’s words to advance the depiction of Al Gore as dishonest. By contrast, during Campaign 2000, the Bush-Cheney campaign was allowed to utter whopper after whopper with the media barely noticing. [See’s "Protecting Bush-Cheney," October 16, 2000]

Restricted Debate

Still, the leit motif running through the attacks against Gore and other Democratic critics of George W. Bush’s "preemptive" wars was that a thorough debate will not be allowed. Rather than confront arguments on their merits, Bush’s supporters simply tried to drum Gore and other skeptics out of what passes for respectable political society.

Bush personally has joined these efforts. Indeed, his political adviser Karl Rove appears to have masterminded a plan to inject the Iraq war debate into the congressional campaigns both to distract voters from the sinking economy and portray Democrats as unpatriotic. One theory holds that the primary target of Bush’s war talk is not Saddam Hussein’s government in Baghdad but "regime change" in the U.S. Senate, which if captured will give the Republicans total control of the U.S. government.

In a speech in Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 23, Bush escalated his rhetoric in attacking Democrats who opposed his demand for sweeping power to circumvent civil service rules in a bill to create a vast Homeland Security Department. "The Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people," Bush declared.

Bush’s assertion that the Democratic-controlled Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people" pushed the normally mild-mannered Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle into a rage. He demanded an apology in the name of many Democrats who had fought for their country. In the U.S. Senate, Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii lost an arm in World War II and Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia lost both legs and one arm in Vietnam. Many other Democratic leaders served the country in war, including Gore who was a military journalist in Vietnam and Daschle who served as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Vietnam War. Contrarily, both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney avoided national military service in Vietnam, Bush by joining the Texas Air National Guard and Cheney by taking advantage of five separate draft deferments.

Bush refused to apologize and the press corps’ turned on Daschle for his supposedly intemperate behavior. While Bush’s comments were presumed to represent his penchant for speaking bluntly, Daschle’s protest was analyzed for its political calculation or for its irrationality. Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s newspaper, The Washington Times, pictured the South Dakota Democrat as headless in an editorial cartoon. Reprising the other media refrain of Lyin’ Al, another Washington Times cartoon drew Gore as Pinocchio.

Another media explanation for the curious behavior of Daschle, Gore and other Democrats was that they were intent on a self-destructive nostalgia trip back to their youth when they had criticized the Vietnam War. "A good many Democratic Party cadre cut their teeth as anti-war protesters marching against Vietnam," wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Robert L. Bartley. "The anti-war movement is dead, but it hangs around the neck of the Democratic Party." [WSJ, Sept. 30, 2003]

So, instead of examining the substance of the criticism from Gore and others, conservative pundits have chosen to ascribe dark political motives and lob accusations. While perhaps effective politically, that approach prevents a full debate on the risks and benefits of Bush’s new doctrine.

Historic Choices

With that doctrine, the United States faces two historic foreign policy choices: what to do about Iraq and what will a policy of preemptive military strikes mean to America’s constitutional framework and the nation’s relationship to the rest of the world.

The White House spelled out Bush’s preemptive policy in a Sept. 20 report on "national security strategy" to Congress. In justifying the departure from traditional U.S. policy, the White House said, "the only path to peace and security is the path of action." The report states, "We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends."

At first blush, there is some logic to the change given the unpredictable nature of rogue states and terrorist networks. But important questions are left unanswered, including such basic ones as what defines an imminent threat.

The report points out that in the past, countries could measure threats by the build-up of forces along borders. But the new doctrine calls for the U.S. "to adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries." The report offers no definition for how to gauge these threats, presumably leaving such judgments to the discretion of the president.

As currently defined, preemption not only requires the U.S. government to analyze another country’s capabilities but to read the minds of that country’s leaders and to assess possible intentions and motives. Like some worldwide version of predictive crime, as in the movie "Minority Report," these evaluations then become the basis for "defensive" action before any offensive action occurs.

Sen. Robert Byrd, known for his scholarship on constitutional issues, argued in a Senate floor speech on Oct. 3 that the Bush Doctrine represents a rewriting of the U.S. Constitution and augurs a new era of international chaos.

The West Virginia Democrat said Bush’s resolution seeking broad powers to wage war in the Middle East was "a product of presidential hubris. This resolution is breathtaking, breathtaking in its scope. It redefines the nature of defense. It reinterprets the Constitution to suit the will of the executive branch. This Constitution, which I hold in my hand, is amended without going through the constitutional process of amending this Constitution."

Byrd said Bush’s policy of preemptive war represented "an unprecedented and unfounded interpretation of the president’s authority under the Constitution of the United States, not to mention the fact that it stands the Charter of the United Nations on its head."

Other countries, Byrd noted, can be expected to cite the U.S. precedent in justifying strikes at their enemies which might be considered potential threats sometime in the future.

A Spiral of War

Indeed, by definition, preemption would beget preemption. If one country explores the possibility of taking preemptive military action, as the U.S. has against Iraq, the logic of preemption would permit a country like Iraq to attack first, preemptively. If this new rule applied to all countries, it would usher in a cycle of military conflicts that would be self-sustaining and never-ending.

Of course, that is not what the Bush Doctrine envisions. It asserts the notion that the United States stands alone above other nations in its right to assess the intentions of other countries and attack preemptively. Yet how the Bush administration plans to put the genie of preemption back into the bottle once it’s been released is not explained.

George W. Bush also makes a questionable argument when he asserts that the dangers now facing the United States are unprecedented, thus justifying an unprecedented response. During the Cold War, the U.S. government faced down direct threats to its existence with the Soviet Union and China possessing nuclear weapons. Still, presidents from Harry Truman through the first President Bush managed the threat without recourse to invading and disarming the Soviet Union and China.

In some ways the Bush Doctrine resembles the position of military hawks at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. They favored an invasion of Cuba to remove missiles delivered by the Soviet Union, but the hawks were thwarted by President John F. Kennedy who chose a non-violent blockade and negotiations to eliminate the Cuban missile threat and reduce tensions.

Now, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has chosen to opt for military preemption against countries that might become threats to U.S. security. After Iraq, the policy of preemptive war would presumably justify U.S. conflicts with many countries including Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, China and North Korea. Each of these countries, to varying degrees, rejects U.S. hegemony and represents potential security threats.

Gore's Critique

Al Gore raised a series of similar questions in his Sept. 23 speech, the one that was then characterized as crazy, opportunistic and self-immolating. But just what did Al Gore actually say that merited that new round of personal calumny?

Speaking to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Gore laid out a series of concerns and differences that he has with Bush’s policy of "preemption" and specifically the decision to refashion the war on terror into an immediate war with Iraq.

Gore, who supported the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, was not opposing efforts to oust Saddam Hussein, though the media coverage obscured that point. Rather, the Tennessee Democrat expressed concern over Bush’s approach to the task. One of Gore's criticisms focused on Bush’s failure to enlist the international community as his father did in 1990. Gore warned about the negative impact alienating other nations is having on the broader war against terror.

"I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century," Gore said. "To put first things first, I believe that we ought to be focusing our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on Sept. 11. …

"Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism."

Gore centered his criticism largely on the pace and the strategy, not the goal of driving Hussein from power. "I believe we are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion," Gore said. "If you’re going after Jesse James, you ought to organize the posse first, especially if you’re in the middle of a gunfight with somebody who’s out after you."

Instead of keeping after al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, Bush has chosen to jump to a new war against Iraq as the first example of his policy of preemption, Gore said. "He is telling us that our most urgent task right now is to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein," Gore said. "And the president is proclaiming a new uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat."

War Timing

Gore also objected to the timing for a war that isn’t triggered by a specific Iraqi action, but rather Bush’s determination that Iraq may pose a threat sometime in the future. "President Bush is demanding, in this high political season, that Congress speedily affirm that he has the necessary authority to proceed immediately against Iraq and, for that matter, under the language of his resolution, against any other nation in the region regardless of subsequent developments or emerging circumstances," Gore said.

The former vice president staked out a position with subtle but important differences from Bush’s broad assertion that the U.S. has the right to override international law on his command. Gore argued that U.S. unilateral power should be used sparingly, only in extreme situations.

"There’s no international law that can prevent the United States from taking action to protect our vital interests when it is manifestly clear that there’s a choice to be made between law and our survival," Gore said. "Indeed, international law itself recognizes that such choices stay within the purview of all nations. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq.

"Indeed, should we decide to proceed, our action can be justified within the framework of international law rather than requiring us to go outside the framework of international law. In fact, even though a new United Nations resolution might be helpful in the effort to forge an international consensus, I think it’s abundantly clear that the existing U.N. resolutions, passed 11 years ago, are completely sufficient from a legal standpoint, so long as it is clear that Saddam Hussein is in breach of the agreements made at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War."

Gore’s central point was that Bush had unnecessarily alienated the international community over Iraq, thus making the war against terrorism more difficult. "Our ability to secure that kind of multilateral cooperation in the war against terrorism can be severely damaged in the way we go about undertaking unilateral action against Iraq," Gore said.

World View

Gore also contrasted the younger Bush’s approach now with his father’s in 1991. "Iraq had crossed an international border, invaded a neighboring sovereign nation and annexed its territory," Gore said. "Now, by contrast, in 2002, there has been no invasion. We are proposing to cross an international border. And, however justified it may be, we have to recognize that this profound difference in the circumstances now compared to what existed in 1991 has profound implications for the way the rest of the world views what we are doing, and that in turn will have implications for our ability to succeed in our war against terrorism."

Gore noted, too, that the senior Bush confronted Iraq with the support of a broad international coalition of nations, including every Arab nation except Jordan. Now, Gore said, many allies around the world are opposed to Bush’s course of action. The senior Bush also waited until after midterm elections to push for a vote by Congress, while his son has demanded a vote in the weeks before the elections.

"Rather than making efforts to dispel these concerns at home and abroad about the role of politics in the timing of policy, the president is on the campaign trail two or three days a week, often publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a no vote," Gore said. "The Republican National Committee is running pre-packaged advertising based on the same theme.

"All of this apparently in keeping with a political strategy clearly described in a White House aide’s misplaced computer disk which advised Republican operatives that their principal game plan for success in the election a few weeks away was to, quote, ‘focus on the war.’ Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, has indignantly described suggestions of any such thing as reprehensible and then the following week took his discussion of the war to the Rush Limbaugh Show."

Good Will Lost

In his speech, Gore bemoaned the fact that Bush’s actions have dissipated the international good will that surrounded the United States in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks. "That has been squandered in a year’s time and replaced with great anxiety all around the world, not primarily about what the terrorist networks are going to do, but about what we’re going to do," Gore said. "Now, my point is not that they’re right to feel that way, but that they do feel that way."

Then, the former vice president addressed his broader concerns about Bush’s "preemption" doctrine.

"To begin with, the doctrine is presented in open-ended terms, which means that if Iraq is the first point of application it is not necessarily the last," Gore said. "In fact, the very logic of the concept suggests a string of military engagements against a succession of sovereign states – Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran – none of them very popular in the United States, of course, but the implication is that wherever the combination exists of an interest in weapons of mass destruction, together with an ongoing role as host to or participant in terrorist operations, the doctrine will apply.

"It also means that if the Congress approves the Iraq resolution just proposed by the administration, it would be simultaneously creating the precedent for preemptive action anywhere, any time this or any future president, as a single individual, albeit head of state, decides that it is time."

As much as the international community is unnerved by Bush’s asserted power, Gore said, the position is strongly supported by Bush’s political base. "From the outset, the administration has operated in a manner calculated to please the portion of its base that occupies the far right, at the expense of solidarity among all of us as Americans and solidarity between our country and our allies," Gore said.

Gore also took aim at Bush’s unilateral assertion of his right to imprison American citizens without trial or legal representation simply by labeling them "enemy combatants."

"The very idea that an American citizen can be imprisoned without recourse to judicial process or remedy, and that this can be done on the sole say-so of the president of the United States or those acting in his name, is beyond the pale and un-American, and ought to be stopped," Gore said.

"Now, regarding other countries, the administration’s disdain for the views of others is well documented, and need not be reviewed here. It is more important to note the consequences of an emerging national strategy that not only celebrates American strength, but actually appears to glorify the notion of dominance. The word itself has been used in the counsels of the administration.

"If what America represents to the world is leadership in a commonwealth of equals, then our friends are legions. If what we represent to the world is an empire, then it is our enemies who will be legion. At this fateful juncture in our history, it is vital that we see clearly who are our enemies, and that we intend to deal with them. It is also important, however, that in the process we preserve not only ourselves as individuals, but our nature as a people dedicated to the rule of law."

Chaos in Iraq

Gore also raised practical concerns about the dangers that might follow the overthrow of Hussein, if chaos in Iraq follows. Gore cited the deteriorating political condition in Afghanistan where the new central government can extend its control only to areas of the capital and has ceded effective power to warlords in the countryside.

"What if, in the aftermath of a war against Iraq, we faced a situation like that, because we’ve washed our hands of it?" Gore asked. "What would then happen to all of those stored reserves of biological weapons all around the country? What if the al-Qaeda members infiltrated across the borders of Iraq the way they are in Afghanistan? Then the question wouldn’t be, ‘Is Saddam Hussein going to share these weapons with a terrorist group?’ The terrorist groups would have an enhanced ability to just walk in there and get them.

"Now, I just think that if we end the war in Iraq the way we ended the war in Afghanistan, we could very well be much worse off than we are today."

Gore also raised questions about the international chaos that could be unleashed by the Bush Doctrine of "preemptive" wars against countries that may become threats to U.S. national security sometime in the future. Gore noted that the United States survived dangerous times during the Cold War by operating through a strategy of collective defense and multilateral organizations, such as NATO and the United Nations.

"Through all the dangerous years that followed, when we understood that the defense of freedom required the readiness to put the existence of the nation itself into the balance, we never abandoned our belief that what we were struggling to achieve was not bounded by our own physical security, but extended to unmet hopes of humankind," Gore said, according to a text of his speech.

"The issue before us is whether we now face circumstances so dire and so novel that we must choose one objective over the other," Gore said. "Even those who now agree that Saddam Hussein must go, may divide deeply over the wisdom of presenting the United States as impatient for war.

"At the same time, the concept of preemption is accessible to other countries. There are plenty of potential imitators: India/Pakistan, China/Taiwan; not to forget Israel/Iraq or Israel/Iran. Russia has already cited it in anticipation of a possible military push into Georgia, on grounds that this state has not done enough to block the operations of Chechen rebels.

"What this doctrine does is to destroy the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law, particularly in the matter of standards for the use of violence against each other. That concept would be displaced by the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the president of the United States.

"I believe we can effectively defend ourselves abroad and at home without dimming our principles. Indeed, I believe that our success in defending ourselves depends precisely on not giving up what we stand for."

Modern-Day Rome

While it may be understandable why Bush’s supporters would be upset over Gore’s address – Rush Limbaugh said he was unable to get to sleep after listening to it – their subsequent reaction was more attuned to obscuring Gore’s arguments than addressing what he actually said. [That is why we have quoted from the speech at some length, so the readers can judge Gore’s words themselves.]

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that as the Bush administration sets the United States on a course to become a modern-day Rome that many traditional notions of democracy, including the value of vigorous debate and the rule of law, also would require revision.

In effect, Bush and his supporters already have created a domestic flip side to the coin of worldwide "preemptive" war. They judge even serious critics to be outside the acceptable public debate, which then turns almost exclusively to the means of fighting war – displayed in 3-D graphics and night-vision video – rather than on a thoughtful debate of the justifications and the principles behind going to war.

As many in ancient Rome learned two millennia ago, it is difficult if not impossible to maintain a republic within an empire.

[Readers: the last five paragraphs of Gore’s speech cited above are taken from the prepared text because the transcript of the actual speech as published on the Washington Post’s Web site was cut off by an end to the audio feed.]

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