Has Obama taken Bush’s ‘preemption’ strategy to another level?

Walter Pincus
Reporter January 9, 2012

Has President Obama adopted George W. Bush’s “policeman of the world” approach to the fight against terrorism?

A troubling element of Bush’s defense strategy was the perceived need for the United States to prevent ungoverned areas of the world from becoming breeding grounds for terrorists, on the assumption that all terrorists are a threat to U.S. interests. That approach apparently has been expanded and given more prominence in Obama’s revised strategic guidance, which was released Thursday.

Under the subtitle “A Challenging Global Security Environment,” the first pages discuss the success in killing Osama bin Laden and rendering al-Qaeda “far less capable,” then say that extremist groups in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere “will continue to threaten U.S. interests, allies, partners and the homeland.”

The paper says, “For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary” — emphasis added.

The United States has a long history of launching major military interventions when national security interests appear to be at stake. But Bush’s adoption, after Sept. 11, 2001, of a policy of preemptive action took American intervention to a new, questionable level.


U.S. President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush in the Rose Garden of the White House on Jan. 16, 2010. Pincus says Obama has taken notion of “preemption” as a defense strategy even further than Bush did. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

With the country still reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush justified that approach in a September 2002 National Security Strategy paper, saying, “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.”

Its first implementation was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, allegedly to prevent Saddam Hussein from giving weapons of mass destruction, if he had them, to terrorists who would then attack the United States. The final results of that “preemptive” war are not yet in, but almost 4,500 U.S. troops were killed, an additional 32,200 seriously wounded and nearly $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent. To make matters worse, Bush, and now Obama, along with Congress, have used a credit card rather than paying for the war with a tax.

In December 2005, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took the preemption doctrine to a new level. She wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that weak and failing states — not countries like Iraq — pose an “unparalleled” danger to the United States because they permit the growth and movement of criminals and terrorists. “Absent responsible state authority, threats that would and should be contained within a country’s borders can now melt into the world and wreak untold havoc,” Rice wrote.

The Bush State Department’s Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2007-2012 aimed to “directly confront threats to national and international security from . . . failed or failing states.” It called on the U.S. military to provide training to weak states’ security forces so they could combat internal terrorist threats and insurgencies.

The National Security Strategy added: “Military involvement may be necessary to stop a bloody conflict, but peace and stability will last only if follow-on efforts to restore order and rebuild are successful.”

Among the steps proposed: “Expanding Special Operations Forces and investing in advanced conventional capabilities.”

Does that sound familiar? It’s also contained in Obama’s strategy paper, along with the Bush concerns about ungoverned territories.

But what particularly caught my eye was that phrase — the United States will consider “directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary.”

What exactly does that mean?

Who are the “dangerous groups and individuals”?

Who puts them on the list, and what are the criteria?

And who makes the decision that direct U.S. strikes are needed, and on what basis?

These questions need to be asked and answered, at least by congressional committees that have a responsibility to do so on behalf of the American people.

All of this has a “policeman of the world” quality, to use a phrase employed 45 years ago by Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.), who was questioning U.S. military and intelligence operations worldwide to counter communism, particularly in former colonial nations such as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We have since learned that many of those called “communists” back then were really nationalists opposing harsh, undemocratic rulers in their countries.

How many such rulers today are being given U.S. security assistance by labeling their opponents “terrorists”?

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