Pre-emptive war policy is dangerous, no matter who's pushing it

Sunday, October 10, 2004

We need to really put a stop to dictators who have weapons of mass destruction and threaten to use them against their people," the secretary of state warned.

"There's an old expression that 'you can pay me now, or pay me later,' " added the secretary of defense. "With respect to Saddam Hussein, we can deal with him now, or our children and grandchildren will have to deal with the spread of chemical and biological weapons later. I think now is the time that we deal with it, and not later."

The George W. Bush administration's mantra two years ago in urging preventive war and war against Iraq?

Guess again.

The speakers were Madeleine Albright and William Cohen - President Bill Clinton's secretaries of state and defense, respectively - arguing at an Ohio town hall meeting in February 1998 for the use of military force against Saddam.

President Bush may have alienated allies and perhaps mortally wounded the United Nations' already flawed ability to impose sanctions and nuclear safe- guards with his rush to war.

But the core philosophy that undergirded the 2003 Iraq attack is the same one that Democrats and Republicans both have promoted since the Cold War ended. Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry and his party long have argued that Saddam needed to be disarmed by the application of military force, if necessary, to get the job done.

The question is to what degree "preventative" or pre-emptive war will continue to guide U.S. policies, perhaps taking us into Iran or Syria, or whether the Iraq adventure has sapped our appetite for this type of intervention.

It was not a "neo-con," but President Clinton's second secretary of state who most forcefully articulated the philosophy that dictators forfeit their sovereignty rights if they mistreat their people. America, said Madeleine Albright, is the "indispensable nation" that must lead a coalition of the willing to dislodge dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

"I thought I would have an aneurysm," Colin Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir, "My American Journey," about Albright's view that U.S. military power was merely an asset to be used. "American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global gameboard."

The Democrats now heap opprobrium on the Republican war in Iraq. Yet Clinton lieutenant Richard Holbrooke defends interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo that also lacked U.N. Security Council authorization and stuck NATO and U.S. troops with years of expensive peace-keeping. Bosnia still can't field a national army, and Kosovo remains a pit of ethnic strife dependent on outside troops to prevent the eruption of even more widespread bloodshed.

To Holbrooke, 9/11 vindicated rather than cast doubt on the wisdom of these military strikes. Without them, he told Plain Dealer editors last week, we'd still be seeing "full-scale guerrilla war in Kosovo with massive support from the terrorists, and a Chechnya-type situation."

He said he was speaking for himself and not for Kerry, for whom he has been campaigning and in whose administration he might wind up.

Knowing when to intervene "is incredibly tough," Holbrooke added. "In retrospect, does anyone think we were right to stay out of Rwanda? No. And here you come into the issue of effectiveness. It is clear that - this was Clinton's biggest foreign policy mistake - had we beefed up the U.N. forces instead of pulled them out, probably 400,000 lives would have been saved."

Yet, he said, you could put 1 million foreign troops into neighboring Congo and see them swallowed up without effect in a nation more than half the size of the continental United States.

"Darfur - just Darfur - is the size of France. It's out in the open. American troops would not do well there. But American logistical support, airlift, communications, transportation and support of an African Union force might work."

"A universal interventionist policy is certain to fail," Holbrooke concluded. But "ignoring the rest of the world is equally dangerous."

When are the stakes high enough? What is the core philosophy that will undergird the next administration's approach to the use of American force? How much difference is there, really, between the Democratic and Republican philosophies?

When our saber-rattling repeatedly propels us into wars that flout international law and address no immediate national security interests, no matter which party occupies the White House, it may be time for a course correction.

For more information, visit Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

Contact her at:, 216-999-6153

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