Kerry's pre-emptive war policy

Posted: Feb 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Consider the following hypothetical situation. In September 2005, the president is informed by his CIA director that they have concluded there is a one in two chance that North Korea will transfer five nuclear bombs to bin Laden within the next month, and that after the transfer, despite our best efforts, the CIA judges that it is more likely than not bin Laden will succeed in detonating at least one of them in a major American city, resulting in one to three million deaths. Should the president consider taking pre-emptive military action? And let's assume that the president is named John Kerry.

Returning from the hypothetical to the current reality, Senator Kerry and the Democrats have severely chastised President Bush for advocating and practicing pre-emptive war. In a major foreign policy address at Georgetown University last year, Mr. Kerry said that the Bush administration relies "unwisely on the threat of military preemption against terrorist organizations." Two months ago, at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Kerry accused President Bush of being "enthralled by the idea of preemption and American military might ... " Virtually across the board, the Democratic Party's national leadership has condemned President Bush's September 2002 National Security Strategy Document, which embraces (where justified) preemptive military action.

Also, not only Mr. Kerry and the Democrats, but most of the major media have harshly criticized the president for going to war in Iraq without having proof beyond a doubt that Iraq then had weapons of mass destruction. And yet, I would hope that a notional President Kerry confronted with the hypothetical described at the beginning of this column would not stand by his -- and his party's -- purported policy on preemption and certainty.

It makes fine campaign rhetoric to proclaim that he will never "take America into war" without absolutely certain intelligence, and never to do it unilaterally or preemptively. But, as Henry Kissinger has written, the advantage that critics after the event have over statesmen is that statesmen must act with inadequate information within an inadequate time. If Senator Kerry is president in September 2005, according to the above hypothetical, even if he has busily been reforming the CIA, he would be faced with making a command decision with ambiguous intelligence assessments. Would he be willing to take a one in two bet on the lives of millions of American citizens? Those odds are pretty good if you are betting on a horse. They stink if you are betting on your constitutional duty to protect Americans from foreign attack and slaughter.

Senator Kerry appears to be an intelligent, rational person. Surely he would at least consider preemptive action on ambiguous information in the hypothetical case cited. Unless he is prepared to categorically reject such considerations, he has no principled difference with President Bush. His differences with the president are merely ones of case-by-case judgment calls and implementing skills.

It would be good if sometime during the election campaign Sen. Kerry were confronted with such a proposition. After all, this election campaign is going to be about more than individuals; it will be about first principles of governance in the age of terrorism. We know President Bush's first principles -- they are written by his war decisions over the last three years. The Democratic contender's principles can only be written in his words. The media should compel maximum precision in those words over the next nine months.

But regarding Bush's Iraq diplomacy, Senator Kerry has already provided some specific words at his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in December. They are revealing. In the question period after the speech, a Newsweek reporter asked whether Kerry, who faulted the president's diplomacy, could have done a better job.

"Yes. Absolutely. Let me explain," Kerry said. The senator went on to say: "Now at the time, (the French and Germans) were pushing for a second vote. But there was a way through that path ... I don't think it took a lot of skill or analysis to understand that the politics of their populations at that time were not ready to move. And any president ought to understand the politics of other people's electorates ... "He then suggested we could isolate the French and German governments by co-operating with their delays for a little while.

Was Sen. Kerry being na? or disingenuous with that answer? Surely he knew that German Chancellor Schroeder had himself whipped-up anti American fervor to win his election. And France's Chirac -- riding a wave of anti-Americanism out of his own corruption scandals -- had already admitted the Iraqi WMD threat but categorically rejected an armed response. This was great domestic politics for both those European leaders. Sen. Kerry would have held American security hostage to fanatically anti-American French and German public opinion being cheered on by their cynically calculating leaders.

Senator Kerry's portentously delivered criticisms of President Bush's foreign policy sound credible to the credulous listener. But when one looks closely, his foreign policy strategies seem to be well described by Blanche DuBois' last words in the Tennessee Williams play, "Streetcar Named Desire": "Whoever you are -- I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."