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A Policy Scarier Than the Movie

In seeking to attack Iraq, the president is pushing a minority report.

June 20, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail:

Did you hear about the government's new plan to launch anticipatory strikes against evildoers? No, not President Bush's policy, announced June 1, of "preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." That's old news.

Now it's time to look ahead, to "Minority Report," the new Steven Spielberg movie that offers a window into a dystopian future when government's power is taken to new extremes. If the film scares you, remember, it isn't "only a movie"--it's real life too.

"Minority Report," set in 2054, imagines that the government has set up a Department of Precrime using the clairvoyance of three mutant "precogs" to see criminality before it happens.

But sometimes the visions of the precogs differ, in which case a minority report is filed alongside the majority report. And so the plot thickens.

The film gets its eerie resonance from the rush of reality, from what's happening in the here and now. Already, Uncle Sam is using spooky techniques of profiling and data-mining to gain clues about things to come. In the words of FBI Director Robert Mueller: "What we need to do better is be predictive....We have to develop the capability to anticipate attacks."

Bush believes that future attacks will come from the "axis of evil"--North Korea, Iran and Iraq--that he singled out for stigma in his State of the Union address.

But there's a bug in the "Bush Doctrine." Put bluntly, the president's "pre-knowledge" about these nations puts him in the distinct minority.

For openers, North Korea. South Korea--as well as every other Asian state--believes that North Korea is more likely to starve its own citizens than attack its neighbors.

As for Iran, just Monday the 15-member European Union decided to open formal trade relations with Tehran despite strong objections from Washington. The Europeans have long done business with Iran, but their decision underscores their rejection of Bush's Iran- isolating policy.

In fact, Washington has, in effect, filed two Iranian minority reports. First, the U.S. is in the lonely position of declaring a trade embargo that the rest of the world ignores. Second, at the same time, bizarrely enough, the Bush administration has ended up on the same side as Iran in its reluctance to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. And so it's the U.S.--plus Iran--against the 169 countries that have ratified this equal-rights treaty.

But of course, in the Bush view, the big enchilada of evil is Iraq.

And it takes no special powers to divine the commander in chief's intentions: "I made up my mind that Hussein needs to go," he said April 4.

Leading Democrats agree that a U.S.-imposed "regime change" in Iraq is a matter of when, not if.

But here again, in its preoccupation with Baghdad, the U.S. is in the world minority, destined to attack alone (although perhaps a couple of other countries will provide token support). To be sure, anti-Iraq hawks insist that many countries secretly support American preemption.

But consider: According to this scenario, countries would be lying when they said they opposed Bush administration military action. But if a country is willing to lie to the world publicly about its true policy, how do we know that in fact that same country isn't lying to the U.S. privately?

The answer, of course, is to move from one-on-one preemption to planetary persuasion. That is, if Bush has a good case against Iraq, let him take it to the world; let him turn his present-day minority into a future anti-Saddam Hussein majority.

If he insists on acting alone, however, and if other countries see an Iraq attack as merely the arbitrary use of Pentagon power, then one need not be a precog to see what will happen next. If the U.S. as global leader lets loose a new doctrine of preemption, then other countries will feel emboldened to identify "pre-aggression" all around them, launching unilateral attacks of their own whenever it suits them.

That's a forecast based on history, not technology. In the age of loose nukes, the idea of Washington green-lighting a return to earlier lawless eras, those of lone-wolf attacks across sovereign borders, is scarier than anything in the movies.

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