Punch First as a Last Resort

President Bush made two historic decisions last Friday, one about the past, the other about the future:

(1) He'll now accept an independent probe into how the US government failed to preempt Al Qaeda before Sept. 11; and (2) he officially told Congress that the United States must now preempt similar, specific threats by dangerous enemies.

Preemption of several Al Qaeda attacks on Americans, both at home and abroad, was lacking long before 9/11, going back into the Clinton years. Under the new Bush strategic doctrine, military preemption will now supercede the US strategy of containment and deterrence used against the Soviet Union (successfully), Iraq (not so successfully), and others.

Thus, Mr. Bush has converged history and the future: Americans will learn from the mistakes of past inaction against a rogue enemy even as they enter an uncharted era in which the US will attack enemies that have the means and motives for attacks that are difficult to defend against.

Bush is not exactly breaking new ground in preempting danger. The United Nations has sanctioned military action against sovereign nations over the past decade. It let the US and others control northern Iraq after the Gulf War and roll back warlords in Somalia to feed the starving. It approved US action in Haiti, and of course let NATO rid Bosnia and Kosovo of violent Serbian nationalism.

The Bush doctrine goes further to use preemption for national self-defense. That lays down a model other nations might use to simply attack old rivals. The Bush administration must now prevent that by being more specific in how to judge a threat as imminent so as to justify a first punch.

Defining the Al Qaeda threat to Americans is what tripped up US officials and Congress for years before 9/11. The CIA unofficially declared war on the terrorist network, but somehow the FBI didn't do enough. With the wisdom of hindsight, the US should have been on a war footing.

Now Bush seeks the wisdom of foresight on dangers abroad. History seems on his side. But preemption as a strategy for the US and other nations is still too new and untested to be embraced as sure-all protection.

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