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U.S. Goes It Alone at Its Peril

June 18, 2002

As terrorist threats mount, the United States has responded through its defense policies. President Bush's proposal to strengthen the Homeland Security Office is a sizable shift that makes good sense. U.S. international defense policy since World War II is a touchier issue, however. It has depended on collaboration with NATO, the United Nations and other treaty organizations. That bedrock should remain.

Bush has made tentative steps toward a more preemptive policy for months, saying the U.S. must respond to threats before they are carried out. In urgent, specific cases such as attacking terrorist training camps, that's fair enough. But his call in a speech Friday for a new doctrine of preemptive attacks against potential threats--maybe Iraq today, yet conceivably any troublesome nation--goes too far in making the U.S. a power answerable only to itself.

Before Sept. 11, the president and his advisors said openly that, in contrast with the Clinton administration, they had more faith in the might of the United States than in international institutions like the United Nations. But after Sept. 11, Bush of necessity changed course.

The U.S. worked with NATO to coordinate intelligence and to obtain U.N. Security Council approval for the attack on the Taliban. Cooperation existed only because the U.S. had worked for half a century to build an international community that shares common values about the right to self-defense and opposition to aggressive wars. It is this very community that the Soviet Union, no longer a Cold War enemy, is now joining.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 20, 2002 Home Edition California Part B Page 14 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Nation's name--An editorial Tuesday on defense policy should have referred to Russia, not the Soviet Union.

President Reagan, in justifying the U.S. bombing of Libya in April 1986, referred to the right of self-defense codified in Article 51 of the United Nations. The first President Bush sought and received the approval of the Security Council for the Gulf War. In this and other instances, including the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has sought collaboration.

President Bush, however, has in recent speeches championed a right to go-it-alone action wherever a threat is perceived.

Along those lines, Bush reportedly has authorized funding of Iraqi opposition groups and CIA infiltration of Iraq, both eminently justifiable because of Iraq's defiance of U.N. weapons inspection. But beyond that lies the possibility of assassination or unilateral military action to topple Saddam Hussein. Even Kuwait, invaded by Iraq in 1990, has opposed that.

The president appears to want a vague authority that allows a preemptive war against terrorists--or nations. This enshrining of unilateralism will obviously antagonize allies. And other countries--for instance, India or China--could attack a neighbor and say that, like the U.S., they were acting defensively.

The Bush administration is right to test new policies to confront terrorism. But the fight requires diplomacy and good intelligence work, not just firepower that could blow up in America's face.

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