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Preempting the Platform

When I see this kind of thing I begin to despair:

The first draft of the Democratic platform that will be presented to the party's convention late this month calls for a wholesale rewriting of President Bush's national security strategy, declares that Mr. Bush's "doctrine of unilateral pre-emption has driven away our allies," and promises far more focus on reforming intelligence agencies and preventing nuclear terrorism.
Or, we could just promise to lose the election. Look, if you say this, here's what people are going to say:
We've got a country over here and our intelligence says it's going to launch an attack on the United States. Republicans will act to pre-empt that attack, with UN or NATO support if possible/convenient, but without it otherwise. Democrats will head to Turtle Bay and if the French say "no," just stand aside and wait for Americans to get killed. Who are you going to vote for?
There's nothing wrong with a doctrine of unilateral pre-emption. If there's an attack to pre-empt, then you'd damn well better pre-empt it, unilaterally or otherwise. The problem with the Iraq War isn't that it was pre-emptive, but that it didn't pre-empt anything -- there was no looming attack, there were no ties to al-Qaeda, and there were no WMD with which to launch the attack. The Iraq War was, at best, an effort to shift global Saddam-management policy (since sovereignty had been off the table since 1991) away from something that was becoming untenable in the medium term and that is the sort of thing that shouldn't be done unilaterally. The whole point is that there was no moment of crisis (no "imminent threat" as the saying goes) to necessitate drastic action that undermined the international security regime.

Besides which, in a campaign document you want to put together the most shallow critique possible so as to build the widest possible overlapping consensus of critics of the status quo. The least common denominator of criticism of the Bush administration has to do with competence (Drezner's process critique) so that's probably the one you want to go with.

But back to preemption. The crazy thing here is that I'm quite sure no one means what that platform statement says. I've talked to a lot of Democratic foreign policy people over the past ten months and heard many others speak publicly. Not once has anyone said what the quoted statement means. Of course you pre-empt a real attack from a real threat, the point is that you don't pre-empt imaginary threats and you certainly don't invent threats as part of a public-relations strategy. Ashton Carter, who, unlike whoever wrote that, knows what he's talking about says this:

Mr. Carter added that the Democrats were not seeking to end the use of pre-emption, but rather "return it to where it's been in history as an act of last resort."

"It's the difference between pre-emption as a doctrine and pre-emption as an option," he said. "You want the preventative diplomacy so that if you have to act pre-emptively, other countries are with us. And we want to focus on figuring out what you do after a pre-emptive action, which is what we didn't do in Iraq."

That's good post hoc spin, but why not have the platform actually say that in the first place. "The Bush administration's elevation of preemption from an option of last resort to a doctrine pursued even in the absence of an actual imminent threat to American security has driven away our allies." Still time to change it. I used to be a semi-professional speechwriter, happy to help out....

July 4, 2004 | Permalink


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The problem with the Dems is that they don't have someone looking at everyone of their policy statements from the Bush "let's make an attack ad out of this" point of view.

Or of they do, they're not nearly nefarious enough.

Look at the flap about The New War book. Why did they have to say that book was a plan for fighting terrorism? The Bushies jumped all over it.

Nothing's going to stop the Bushies from putting out desperate attack ads, nor am I saying we should play defensively, but do we really have to give them such easy targets?

Posted by: mario | Jul 4, 2004 11:39:38 AM

With inadequate data to really know if or when Iran will give a warhead to Osama, a cost/benefit calculation must be made as to whether the damage of being premature outweighs the damage of being too late. This is the real question of Iraq.

Certainly intelligence capability need to be improved.

And Rove wasn't so terribly wrong to believe that internal dissension in the Democratic Party would make the war a useful election issue.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 4, 2004 11:43:24 AM

Matt's proposed language would give Kerry some 'splainin' to do. But I've never figured out why Kerry won't just say, "I made a decision to trust the President when he said that Iraq's weapons programs posed a threat to us, and I was wrong." Proceed to laying out the sliminess of the WMD argument for war. OK, maybe there are too many other statements Kerry has made, but I think that could work.

Posted by: Sean Flaherty | Jul 4, 2004 1:29:23 PM

I think you ought to combine what's in that platform statement with what's in Biden's interview with Josh Marshall. Biden's themes were (1) sovereignty can be violated by unilateral US force if there's genocide going on, or if there's a verifiable terrorist threat and (2) pragmatism--can we do it? Fade back a bit the Bush Admin's focus on 'state-sponsorship' (which means idiocies on the order of the 'axis of evil' finally get their vaudeville hook), and you can see where this is going. It's preemption-lite. Give it another name, and I'd wager we're close to what will come out of a 'wholesale rewriting of President Bush's national security strategy.'

We can't b-slap Biden for this--as I've seen done in force--and at the same time despair that Dems are going to come off too soft.

Posted by: djangone | Jul 4, 2004 2:44:58 PM

Unfortunately, the Democrats aren't having their foreign policy experts write their platform. They are letting the grassroots do the foreign policy part of it - and that IS the policy of the activist left. Of course, letting the grassroots write platforms is rarely a good idea - witness the Texas Republican platform. (Hopefully, the National Democratic one won't be as far to the left as Texas's was to the right - I'd like to see Bush win, but I DON'T want to see him with 60% of the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. One party rule is a Bad Thing.)

Posted by: rvman | Jul 4, 2004 3:21:12 PM

Your point is obvious - I can recall a discussion of the difference between preventive and preemptive war on WBUR Radio's "On Point" back in 2002 - but the media hasn't really picked it up. Perhaps the point needs to be simplified? How's this:

"George Bush has argued for a policy of 'preemptive war', but the Iraq war wasn't really "preemptive": it was "preventive". If a man draws a gun on you, and you shoot first, that's preemptive. If a man files for a gunowner's permit, and you shoot him, that's preventive. Iraq was no immediate threat to the US. It didn't even LOOK like an immediate threat given the intelligence of 2003. It did look like a potential threat several years down the road.

"I [John Kerry] promise to preempt any immediate threat. Alone or with allies, I'll always act to protect our nation. But invading some country to prevent a danger years away needs a lot of justification. We should be sure there's no alternative. We should have a broad base of allie to share the burden. We should have enough troops. Above all, we should have a plan for what to do once we've won so that we don't trade one danger for another."

Posted by: David Carroll | Jul 4, 2004 4:33:13 PM

The problem with Matt's, um, preemption of the GOP criticism is that not everyone is convinced that the Dems really mean what Carter says they mean. Now certainly I believe that guys like Holbrooke and Berger don't plan on going soft on legitimate threats, but this kind of phrasing really leaves me wondering whether some important people in the Kerry campaign sincerely believe that the biggest threat facing the world is the US military.

If that disturbs people then it's because it should.

Posted by: Jonathan Dworkin | Jul 4, 2004 5:58:21 PM

"Bush Doctrine: Not valid in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Sudan."
-Jon Stewart

Posted by: MattB | Jul 4, 2004 7:10:11 PM

As I understand it, Bush's preemptive strike doctrine and his unilateralism were in no way dependent on an imminent threat. The whole point of Bush's failure in Iraq is that the level of proof has to be higher before we attack someone because they might be a threat down the road. We are seeing before our eyes the manifold effects of a failed doctrine as Bush defined it.

Matt is getting too fine this late in the game to be distinguishing between a preemptive strike as it has been traditionally understood (the right to defend oneself when one knows an attack is imminent) and the principle of prevention which, as is usual when Bush names his doctrines and programs, is called the preemptive strike doctrine. Keep in mind that Bush traps himself somewhat by claiming that he really didn't mean that Iraq was an imminent threat though the intent of the p.r. campaign to justify the war was to give the impression of an imminent threat. Given the pragmatists that Kerry is surrounding himself with I'm not too concerned about the wording. In general, the American public is tired of the Republican leadership parsing words in ways that are much too clever by far.

Posted by: Craig | Jul 4, 2004 7:29:34 PM

The next voter to pay attention to a platform statement will be the first in history. Platforms scream "Caution: Politicians Talking Among Themselves." This country can't concentrate on anything for more than ten seconds; this is not worrisome. No one cares.

Posted by: Nick | Jul 5, 2004 11:51:01 AM

Again, the Republicans confuse "pre-emption" -- which every country reserves the right to practice and every leader, left and right, tends to support -- and the Bush policy of "preventive" war.

Posted by: cmdicely | Jul 6, 2004 10:44:06 AM

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