The Bush administration is developing a new strategic doctrine that moves away from the Cold War pillars of containment and deterrence toward a policy that supports preemptive attacks against terrorists and hostile states with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The new doctrine will be laid out by President Bush's National Security Council as part of the administration's first "National Security Strategy" being drafted for release by early this fall, senior officials said.
One senior official said the document, without abandoning containment and deterrence, will for the first time add "preemption" and "defensive intervention" as formal options for striking at hostile nations or groups that appear determined to use weapons of mass destruction against the United States.
Bush hinted at the new doctrine in his State of the Union address in January, when he labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil" and warned that he would not allow them to threaten the United States with weapons of mass destruction. The president articulated the doctrine for the first time June 1 in a commencement address at West Point.
By adopting the doctrine as part of its formal national security strategy, the administration will compel the U.S. military and intelligence community to implement some of the biggest changes in their histories, officials said. That is already touching off heated debates within the administration and among defense commentators about what changes need to be made and whether a doctrine of preemption is realistic.
But there is general agreement that adopting a preemption doctrine would be a radical shift from the half-century-old policies of deterrence and containment that were built around the notion that an adversary would not attack the United States because it would provoke a certain, overwhelming retaliatory strike.
Administration officials formulating the new doctrine said the United States has been forced to move beyond deterrence since Sept. 11 because of the threat posed by terrorist groups and hostile states supporting them. "The nature of the enemy has changed, the nature of the threat has changed, and so the response has to change," said a senior official, noting that terrorists "have no territory to defend. . . . It's not clear how one would deter an attack like we experienced."
The administration's embrace of the new doctrine has triggered an intense debate inside the Pentagon and among military strategists about the feasibility and wisdom of preemptive strikes against shadowy terrorist networks or weapons storage facilities.
It has aroused concern within NATO as well. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the United States' 18 NATO allies in Brussels last Thursday that the alliance could no longer wait for "absolute proof" before acting against terrorist groups or threatening countries with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson, reacting to Rumsfeld's remarks, said NATO remained a defensive alliance. He added, "We do not go out looking for problems to solve."
Some defense analysts said preemption carries the risk of causing a crisis to escalate quickly by increasing pressure on both sides to act sooner rather than later -- forcing them, in the parlance of the nuclear chess game, to "use it or lose it."
"Preemption is attractive on the surface," said defense analyst Harlan Ullman. But he added: "As one gets deeper, it gets more and more complicated and dangerous."
Critics also note that a botched attack that blew chemicals, biological spores or radioactive material into the atmosphere would risk killing thousands of people, not only in the target nation, but in neighboring countries.
Even proponents of preemption inside and outside the government concede that this more aggressive strategic doctrine requires far better and far different intelligence than the U.S. government gathers -- at a time when the abilities of the CIA and the FBI to fulfill their current duties are under scrutiny.