Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unsullied by experience

This is no big surprise, coming from the leadership team that is averse to admitting error:
The Bush administration said today that the 2002 Bush Doctrine – which argued for the right to initiate wars against imminent foreign threats - is alive and well in 2006, and unsullied by the ongoing furor over whether Saddam Hussein was truly an imminent foreign threat.
As articulated in the new National Security Strategy (a government document required by law and updated every few years), the Bush Doctrine essentially "remains the same," despite the fact that the Iraq experience has arguably demonstrated the pitfalls of initiating war on the basis of flawed WMD intelligence. As chief weapons inspector David Kay admitted two years ago, "we were all wrong."
Some of the fine print in the new document appears less assertive than in the previous document, which was unveiled in September 2002. The old document said that America reserves the right to launch hostilities against "emerging threats before they are fully formed. " The new document says that if America is facing a potentially "devastating" WMD attack, "we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."
It seems to me that the new wording establishes a stricter rationale for a preventive attack; in practice, however, these could be distinctions without a difference.
Moreover, the administration does not believe that its failed prewar WMD claims have undercut the Bush Doctrine. The new report does acknowledge that those prewar claims were a tad off base; nevertheless, it argues that we can never be 100 percent certain about the information that is used to justify a preventive war.
As the new report puts it, "there will always be some uncertainty about the status of hidden programs, since proliferators are often brutal regimes that go to great lengths to conceal their activities."
Here's the problem with that argument, as it applies to Iraq: it's highly misleading.
Paul Pillar, who until last year coordinated Middle East intelligence for the CIA, writes in a recent Foreign Affairs article that the Bush administration decided ahead of time that it wanted to invade Iraq, and that "intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made."
Secondly, even though the new Bush Doctrine report says that brutal regimes will always seek to hide their WMD activities, it doesn't mention what actually happened in the case of Hussein. As another new Foreign Affairs article points out - it's authored by three military analysts for the U.S. Joint Forces Command- Hussein actually went to great lengths to conceal the fact that he didn't have WMDs anymore, because admitting he was weapon-free would have looked like a sign of weakness. In the author's words, Hussein "found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world."
It's conceivable that the Bush war planners didn't know that back in 2002, when they were assessing the Hussein threat. But it's striking that the updated Bush Doctrine does not acknowledge what Hussein actually did, nor acknowledge the possibility that brutal regimes might be bluffing rather than concealing.
By the way, here's a little light reading, an article contradicting the administration's view that the doctrine lives on. It argues that there's intramural GOP skirmishing over the doctrine's future. I saw no skirmishing last weekend when GOP bigwigs met in Memphis, but that means nothing. Substantive foreign policy issues are generally the province of the wonks who work behind the scenes; most Republicans at this point are standing with Bush on Iraq; and one doubts that "Amend the Bush doctrine!" would be a catchy political slogan on the stump.