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THE WORLD | NEWS ANALYSIS

Plan Likely to Further Isolate U.S.

Policy: Some critics worry that other nations will see a rationale to also strike preemptively.

September 21, 2002|SONNI EFRON and CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Friday's blunt and uncompromising blueprint of President Bush's new security doctrine is likely to further strain relations between the United States and nations large and small that already complain about America's dangerous tendency to go it alone.

Critics say the doctrine's assertion of a right to stage preemptive attacks on terrorists and rogue nations could be used by Russia, India, Pakistan and other nations to claim a similar right to self-defense in tinderboxes across their borders.

Others worry the doctrine might strengthen the hand of Chinese hard-liners who already believe that the U.S. is using its "war on terrorism" as an opportunity to expand its military presence on China's periphery.

What is clear is that the mushrooming international debate about when preemptive military action is justified and when it merely cloaks aggression could complicate the administration's difficult task of building a coalition against Iraq.

"My impression is that the dominant people in the administration don't really care much about offending allies," said Richard Betts, director of the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University in New York. "They are sure that they know the right thing to do, and either get others to come along by pointing it out and showing our resoluteness, or 'to hell with them.' "

"It's ironic, because one of the things Bush had said during the [2000 election] campaign is that if we're humble, others will respect us, and if we're arrogant, they will not," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Though there are differences of tone and emphasis from the Clinton administration's 1999 security doctrine, which put more stock in treaties and multilateralism, analysts found much historical continuity in the Bush doctrine. Clinton did reserve the right to act unilaterally and talked about "shaping the environment" with commanding military superiority, Nye said.

And the doctrine's pledge to make the U.S. military mighty enough that no foe will attempt to equal or surpass it isn't particularly new. "Since 1945, it's been our position that we will remain the global and regional preeminent power," said Bates Gill of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

However, said Nye, "that is speaking a fact about the way the world is, but [the Bush administration has] underlined it and rubbed people's noses in it."

The most controversial aspect of the document released Friday is its assertion that the U.S. must deal with the realities of terrorists willing to use weapons of mass destruction by amending the definition of "imminent threat" that has been used in international law to justify preemptive strikes.

"For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves," the document said. " ... The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction--and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack.

"To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively. The United States will not use force in all cases ... nor should nations use preemption as a pretext for aggression. Yet in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world's most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain idle while dangers gather." Foreign policy elites here and abroad were not convinced.

"This is a devaluation of deterrence and containment, as if those were 20th century ideas that are now outmoded," Graham T. Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, said Friday.

"If something in the zone between preemption and prevention came to be the general international understanding, you could see a significant increase in the number of attacks," Allison said.

These distinctions may seem academic to the majority of Americans, who tell pollsters they support an attack on Iraq, but they are crucial to the thinking of European, Russian and Chinese leaders.

Many Europeans fear the Bush doctrine could encourage Russia to claim a similar right to preemptive military action to defeat the Chechen separatists it calls terrorists, and to defend southern Russian regions from cross-border incursions being staged from within Georgia.

A senior administration official dismissed the idea that Russia or India could credibly invoke the Bush doctrine to launch preemptive strikes on Chechnya or Kashmir.

"It isn't going to be considered a legitimate argument if it is clearly a cover for naked aggression," the official said.

"And that is a judgment that ... the world community will easily make in a case where there's either an underlying political dispute that could be resolved ... or where there are other means by which to resolve the conflict."

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