WASHINGTON — There was a certain irony in holding the summit of 19 NATO countries plus Russia at Italy's Pratica Di Mare air base.
The irony was that here, symbolically assembled, was the greatest array of armed might in history, nervously taking shelter from terrorists and protesters. At one point, Italian fighter jets scrambled to intercept a Sudanese passenger plane on its regular flight from Cairo to Paris.
We are entering a new era in warfare in which terrorist conspiracies defy armies, borders, and sovereignties. We are, in a way, returning to the Middle Ages, when wars were fought by religious fanatics, suicide attackers, and crusading movements. At the NATO summit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi addressed the terrorists: "We are stronger. You will never be able to beat us. So give up the madness."
If madness it is, it is not giving up. Whether or not Osama bin Laden is alive and functioning, German investigators believe there are several thousand Al Qaeda supporters in cells worldwide, some recently recruited. Netherlands intelligence reports Islamic militants, not necessarily linked to Al Qaeda, enlisting young Muslim immigrants in mosques to join the holy war in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The Bush "axis of evil" doctrine concentrating on rogue states like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea gives insufficient attention to the stateless rogues, who do not respect state borders.
Texas professor Philip Bobbitt takes a long view of the changing times in his just-published book "The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History." He writes, "For five centuries, it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state.... This is no longer true, owing to advances in international communications, rapid computation, and weapons of mass destruction."
The idea of preemptive strikes against terrorists has been gestating in the Bush administration for some time. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on television in February that you have to take the battle to the terrorists.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz said in a speech May 29 that "preemption with military force is now an operative idea with wide support." Preemption was presented as a full-blown doctrine in the president's commencement speech at West Point on June 1. He said that containment and deterrence have become irrelevant and "we must ... confront the worst threats before they emerge."
Preemption, in effect, is not new. Israel launched a famous preemptive strike at the Baghdad nuclear reactor in 1981. President Kennedy considered a preemptive strike at Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. The American-led assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan was partly retaliatory, partly preemptive. Israel justifies its incursion into the West Bank and India its threatened attack on Pakistan as meant to preempt terrorism.
But preemption as a doctrine tends to isolate America in the international community. Determining the existence of a mass-destruction threat is something America will do for itself. A surprise attack does not lend itself to much advance consultation with allies. It is hard to see how military preemption can be applied against terrorists without a territorial base. Terrorist plots generally have no known address. With advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 hijackings, where would the US military have launched its pre-emptive strike?
The Bush preemption doctrine seems tailor-made for Iraq, with its known geography, known military potential, and known record of murderous designs.
For intelligence analysts, it must be much more satisfying writing papers about Iraq than about the amorphous Al Qaeda global conspiracy. Which is probably why Mr. Bush keeps coming back to Iraq, his favorite bête noire. As the president talks of "unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction," the whole idea of the nation-state with sovereign borders is being eroded.
America is playing offense now.
Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.