Faulty Iraq intelligence won't stop pre-emptive U.S. action
WASHINGTON -- Now that a Senate committee has concluded the CIA falsely claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, expect more caution on Capitol Hill the next time a president seeks approval for pre-emptive military action.
But don't expect America to strike only after an attack.
Even the harshest critics of the Bush administration's policy of pre-emption say the United States must act in the face of a clear threat.
What is a clear threat? Can the public trust what U.S. intelligence says about that threat?
"Iraq was the first case of pre-emptive war by the United States, and we have learned an important lesson -- that pre-emptive war depends on good, actionable intelligence," said Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif.
"In this case, the intelligence was both bad and wrong," said Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which just released its report on prewar intelligence about Iraq.
Months before the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the White House published a "national security strategy." It abandoned the Cold War reliance on deterring potential enemies with overwhelming military strength -- and nuclear weapons.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks showed that America cannot rely on deterrence and must at times strike to prevent attacks, Bush reasoned.
The public version of the document left unstated the implied threat of using nuclear weapons to strike first against weapons of mass destruction.
"The United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past," Bush wrote. "We cannot let our enemies strike first."
Critics, including many Democrats, say the emphasis on pre-emption needlessly antagonized U.S. allies and projected an image of America as a military giant willing to shoot first and ask questions later.
"It really contributed to this sense of an out-of-control, cowboy foreign policy," said analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the liberal Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
The administration and its supporters say abandoning a policy of pre-emptive war would only invite attacks on the United States. They contend the war in Iraq was justified even if Iraq had no chemical or biological weapons because President Saddam Hussein had a longing for such weapons and had used them in the past.
"You have to be an idiot not to attack someone when you're convinced they're ready to attack you," said Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank ideologically aligned with the administration.
"Governments are paid to protect us against worst-case scenarios, not to think the best about potential enemies and hope things will work out," Ledeen said.
Democratic criticism of Bush's pre-emption policy has been nuanced, acknowledging that first strikes can be necessary, especially during the fight against terrorism.
The Democratic Party's platform, for example, reserves the right for a pre-emptive war if candidate John Kerry becomes president.
Like Kerry, the platform says Bush has damaged American credibility and strained relations with allies by appearing to act unilaterally. Democrats say Bush should have built more international consensus for action against Iraq rather than planning to invade and then asking for support.
Bush and administration officials bristle at the use of the word unilateral to describe the war, saying that 30 countries have joined the coalition that ousted Saddam.
Regardless of politics, members of both parties now say Congress will demand more detailed and accurate information before agreeing to any future military action, no matter who is president.
"The shaping of intelligence and analysis over this year and a half has called into question the basis for America's military action in Iraq," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"This cannot happen again."