WASHINGTON — Vice President Dick Cheney made an impassioned argument Wednesday for the Bush administration's policy of preemptive attacks, saying the United States will strike at terrorists and the countries that harbor them to prevent any attack on the American homeland.
In a speech to the Air Force Assn. annual convention here, Cheney took a somewhat harder line than other White House officials have in recent statements, saying the country needs "a strategy that puts us on the offense."
"Some people -- both in this nation and abroad -- have questions about that strategy," Cheney said. "They suggest that somehow it's wrong for us to strike before an enemy strikes us.
"But as President Bush said, 'If the threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words and all recriminations would come too late.'
"We will be much more secure," Cheney continued, "if we aggressively go after the terrorists -- and after the nations and the mechanisms that support them -- than if we lay back and wait for them to strike us again here in the United States."
Standard interpretations of international law consider preemptive wars to be illegal. However, starting with a speech at West Point in June 2002, Bush has argued that old concepts of deterrence must be reinterpreted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
A year ago this month, Bush formally adopted a national security strategy claiming the right to attack preemptively, international law notwithstanding.
"The problem with terrorist organizations is that even if you build defenses that are 99% successful, the 1% that gets through can still kill you," Cheney said.
Despite criticism from some allies, the president emphasized the right of preemption in the run-up to the war against Iraq.
However, the administration's language in recent weeks has tended to be more conciliatory. Bush is preparing to speak to the United Nations next week, at a time when he is seeking financial and military support for the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq.
Cheney, considered a hard-liner closely allied with Pentagon policymakers, sometimes steps out ahead of the president on issues of war and peace.
"We need a strategy that puts us on the offense, that lets us go after those who pose a threat to the United States or our friends and allies -- a strategy that allows us to destroy the terrorists before they can launch attacks against us," Cheney said. "We cannot wait to act until after another day like 9/11, or a day far worse."
Cheney argued that recent terror attacks elsewhere in the world are a sign that the U.S. preemption policy is necessary. However, critics argue that the administration's aggressive policies, particularly in Iraq, may encourage such attacks.
Cheney said that the war on terrorism will require sacrifice, noting that nearly 400 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also reminded his audience that "we lost some 3,000 of our fellow citizens right here at home on 9/11."
Citing the head of U.S. Central Command, Cheney said guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq are easing. "According to Gen. [John] Abizaid, the actual number of daily incidents this month is significantly below what it was last month, and we're determined to make sure those numbers keep going in the right direction," Cheney said.