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If You Take the First Hit, You're Dead

Bush's N. Korea line points up a proper shift in our foreign policy.

June 10, 2003|Mickey Edwards | Mickey Edwards, a former member of the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives, now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

With President Bush neither softening his rhetoric nor easing up on his demand that North Korea end its nuclear arms program before the United States will even consider an aid package, it is important to understand that the administration's foreign policy approach -- such as its decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein -- reflects a fundamental shift in the way Republican presidents view the imperatives of national defense. But it's not a recent shift: It began with Ronald Reagan, more than two decades ago.

During the long buildup to the war in Iraq, critics of the impending conflict argued that the best way to handle the Iraqi dictator was not through war but through "containment." It was a plea that fell on deaf ears. The theory that one can simply wall off a potential enemy and hope the threat will diminish or disappear is no longer considered by most conservatives to be a viable part of American defense policy.

Containment -- the construct that served as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy during much of the decades-long standoff with Moscow -- was long ago abandoned by Republican security planners who realized that keeping a potential threat safely within an economic or diplomatic box was easier said than done.

In the case of the Soviet Union and an expansionist communist ideology, the sides of the box continued to expand for three decades, increasing rather than reducing the likelihood of an eventual confrontation. That is why Reagan scrapped containment in favor of the more dynamic policy of "rollback," a systematic process of confrontation that was designed to reduce the threat rather than merely attempt to keep it bottled up within an increasingly elastic "sphere of influence."

The guiding principle was that the U.S. had to put its Cold War enemies on the defensive, make them defend their own turf rather than allow them to encroach further into the territory of the free world. It worked.

That remains the central idea of Bush's foreign policy strategy today. It is the key to understanding not only why the president acted as he did in Afghanistan and Iraq, where his goals were to drive the Taliban and Hussein from power, but also why he refuses to negotiate with North Korea while it continues to develop nuclear weapons.

A number of critics of the Iraq war focused their comments on the preemptive nature of Bush's action, but by definition, rollback is a proactive policy; preemption is its natural complement.

At the heart of this policy is a commitment to initiate protective measures, to meet the threat by placing the wielder of that threat on the defensive, whether the means be rhetorical ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"), economic, diplomatic or military.

As administration officials see it, there are realities today that cannot be ignored. It is increasingly difficult to defend an open society like ours against nontraditional enemies whose methods of attack are difficult to detect and can cause a heavy death toll. In addition, potential enemies of a more traditional nature, like North Korea, may be able to develop weapons capable of killing on a scale unimaginable 50 years ago. Waiting to absorb a first blow may no longer be a viable option for a nation that takes the lives of its citizens seriously.

Thus, the string of decisions and strategies that have laid the groundwork for American policy in the 21st century. In today's world it has become impossible, and perhaps suicidal, to let one's prospective attackers get the upper hand.

There is no indication that this president is ready to launch an attack against North Korea's nuclear facilities -- a possibility seriously contemplated by President Clinton -- but Bush is determined neither to submit to Pyongyang's open attempts at extortion nor to simply sit back and hope for the best. When it comes to the defense of the nation, "containment" is history; proactive engagement has become Washington's guiding principle.

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