At the three-year mark of an Iraq war that has proved much more difficult and costly than the Bush administration anticipated, the White House released a National Security Strategy report that stands by its approach of "preemptive war."
In the National Security Council's first such report since September 2002, the White House reasserted the principle of self-defense that guided its decisionmaking when President Bush gave the go-ahead for the Iraq war on March 19, 2003.
"When the consequences of an attack with WMD [weapons of mass destruction] are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize," the report said. But it also acknowledged that several investigations concluded that prewar intelligence on WMD in Iraq proved wrong and that "we must learn from this experience if we are to counter successfully the very real threat of proliferation."
Such a reassertion reflects the habits of an administration known for staying on message and not admitting fault, analysts say. Still, there are signs of evolution: The report puts greater stress on an approach administration officials call "effective diplomacy" - with the aim of encouraging "transformational democracy" - than it did in 2002.
"The administration we have today is not the administration that came into office," says Jon Wolfsthal, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's no longer a [neoconservative] government, it's a realistic government."
He cites the new stress on involving allies, as well as diplomatic maneuvers on Iran and North Korea.
The report's emphasis on Iran's nuclear ambitions reflects the administration's view of the new reality: that Iran sponsors terrorism, threatens Israel, is meddling in Iraq's nascent democracy, and represents a generally destabilizing force in the region. "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," the report says, adding that diplomacy must succeed in order to avoid confrontation.
Some analysts have pointed out the report's inconsistent treatment of North Korea, which says it has already developed nuclear weapons. But administration officials say that that calculation applies to North Korea, too.
Even if the updated National Security Strategy sticks to its guns on Iraq, the change in tenor represents a big difference with its predecessor, says John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago.
"It's not an especially hawkish document," says Professor Mearsheimer. "It makes arguments about using force that most security experts - left or right - would agree with. It goes out of its way to say that using force would be a last resort."
Like its predecessor, the new security strategy espouses basic liberal ideals - that democracy, prosperity, and international cooperation are the building blocks of global peace. "It could have been written by Woodrow Wilson or Bill Clinton," he says. But while its predecessor was "Wilsonianism with teeth" - in that it advocated use of the military as the primary means to this end - in the new document, "the teeth are much less prominent," he says. "There is a subtle but important shift away from the emphasis on force."
Still, say other analysts, the policy of preemption is an important option to maintain in the post-9/11 world. "In dealing with terror groups and insurgents and all these nonstate actors - they're not open to containment," says Richard Shultz, director of security studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. "It's unclear whether you can deter them - maybe you can deter some of them - but we have to have that arrow in our quiver."
The tone of the report maintains the optimism that Bush has favored as he tries to sell his foreign policy to an increasingly skeptical American audience. In the introduction, Bush declares that American security strategy is founded on two pillars: "promoting freedom, justice, and human dignity" and "confronting the challenges of our time by leading a growing community of democracies."
Bush appears to be extending an olive branch to countries that rejected the unilateralist approach of his first term. In addition, more than in the 2002 document, Bush speaks of global challenges beyond the military and security threats.
"Many of the problems we face - from the threat of pandemic disease, to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to terrorism, to human trafficking, to natural disasters - reach across borders," the introduction states. "Effective multinational efforts are essential to solve these problems."
• Identifies tyrannical countries: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Burma (Myanmar), and Zimbabwe.
• Obligates US to promote human freedom. "Yet freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen."
• Says the war in Iraq "has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry."
• "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."
• "The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century...."
• Notes diminishing freedoms in Russia.
• Urges greater political and religious freedoms in China.
• Emphasizes need to meet public health problems, including AIDS in Africa.
2006 National Security Strategy