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Strategic errors

March 17, 2006

'AMERICA IS AT WAR." So begins President Bush's introduction to his administration's National Security Strategy, which was unveiled Thursday. But the president's approach to making the U.S. more secure will come at the cost of making many other nations feel less secure. The end result is a more dangerous world.

The 49-page document defines two pillars for national security. The second makes sense. It recognizes that the United States must "lead a growing community of democracies" to deal with challenges such as pandemic disease and terrorism; that promoting democracy and economic growth abroad enhance U.S. security; and that reducing global poverty is a strategic priority.

It's the first pillar that is dangerously askew. It builds on the controversial National Security Strategy of 2002, which raised worldwide alarm with its expansive definition of the right to preemptive attack. Bush's strategists might have reflected on the events of the last four years and corrected their strategic overreach. Instead, they have set about compounding their errors. The new strategy, justified by the "war on terror," reaffirms some of the United States' most self-defeating policies.

The embrace of preventive war, for example, is rationalized by the long-accepted doctrine of preemption. Bush made war on Iraq in part by arguing that Saddam Hussein's thirst for weapons of mass destruction constituted a grave and gathering threat to the region, and that toppling him would deny Al Qaeda a base of operations after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Neither justification was true at the time. But in invading Iraq, Bush has created his own nightmare. Iraq is now a magnet for jihadists. And Iran is even more determined to develop nuclear weapons to forestall a fate similar to Iraq's.

Moreover, the strategy continues to justify preemptive strikes even if the intelligence about an imminent attack is inconclusive: "We do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack." The document also gives the bad guys warning of possible attack: "The world is better off if tyrants know that they pursue WMD at their own peril." States have always reserved the right to preempt an imminent attack, but this is a transparent cover for regime change.

Another dangerous policy reaffirmed in the document is the reliance on enhanced nuclear weapons as a cornerstone of U.S. national security, even as the U.S. continues to insist that other states not develop nuclear weapons to protect their own security. The U.S. rightly asserts that a good offense must supplement the doctrine of deterrence. In the face of suicide attackers, conventional preemption -- bombing Osama bin Laden's headquarters -- makes sense.

But it's scary to suggest that the U.S. use nuclear weapons this way. The document says that the U.S. is developing "offensive strike systems (both nuclear and improved conventional capabilities)." The Pentagon's "global strike" program, designed to hit nuclear sites, is just such an initiative.

In a document that names as enemies Iran and North Korea, such an assertion is counterproductive. It provides all the justification those regimes need for a nuclear deterrent of their own. And it virtually guarantees a continuation of the very proliferation that Bush has identified as the greatest threat of all.

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