Rules of Attack

Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict by Michael w. Doyle, Princeton University Press, 175 pages, $24.95

Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats by Matthew Yglesias, Wiley, 272 pages, $25.95

Did September 11 "change everything"? Did it change anything? Did September 11 signal the end of liberal internationalism -- the polestar of American foreign policy from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton -- as the Bush administration claims? Did it underscore the need for an amended view of the threats America faces and the international norms that should govern the uses of American power, as Michael Doyle suggests? Or did it create a political climate that obscured the continuing validity of existing norms, as Matthew Yglesias insists?

Liberal internationalism is the effort to subject the anarchy of nation-state relations to common rules and institutions. For legal purposes, states are regarded as equal, despite profound differences in governance. But liberal internationalism is not morally neutral; it embodies a commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes whenever possible, and it endeavors to restrict the circumstances in which the use of force is necessary and legitimate.

During much of his administration, George W. Bush has gone out of his way to question the liberal internationalist norms that had long guided American foreign policy. His administration has displayed a visceral aversion to treaties that might restrict the United States' freedom of action and has treated traditional allies as nuisances to the extent that they do not bend to our desires. He has rejected the traditional doctrine limiting first strikes to preemptive responses to imminent attack in favor of a new doctrine approving preventive wars against more distant threats. As he declared in June 2005, "After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: This nation will not wait to be attacked again. ...We will take the fight to the enemy."

The risks of this approach are now clear. Identifying prospective threats requires accurate assessments, and if decisions to strike first rest on assessments that turn out to be false, the ensuing mistakes will cost the nation blood, treasure, and credibility. The contrast between the first and second Gulf Wars -- between George H. W. Bush's patient internationalism and his son's truculent unilateralism -- is painfully instructive. Moreover, as Doyle, a well-known international-relations scholar, points out in his new book Striking First, the Bush doctrine is not only dangerously "subjective" and "open-ended" but also an "invitation to chaos" because other states may claim the right to invoke it for their own purposes.

According to a doctrine first articulated by Secretary of State Daniel Webster in 1841, preemptive war is justified if it is intended to counter an attack that is "overwhelming" in its potential impact, leaves no alternative to force, and is imminent and therefore affords no time for "deliberation." As Doyle observes, however, these criteria are so demanding as to exclude nearly every real-world, historical example of preemption, including some that appear legitimate in retrospect. And Webster's doctrine seems especially unsuited to today's circumstances because the classic countermeasures against foreign threats -- dissuasion, defense, and deterrence -- are less likely to work against non-state actors potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction and willing to kill and die for their beliefs.

Instead of embracing the Bush administration's radical alternative, however, Doyle calls for updating the doctrine of preemption without collapsing it into prevention. In place of Webster's doctrine, he proposes four principles of assessment. "Lethality identifies the likely loss of life if the threat is not eliminated. Likelihood assesses the probability that the threat will occur. Legitimacy covers the traditional just war criteria of proportionality, necessity, and deliberativeness of proposed responses. Legality asks whether the threatening situation is itself produced by legal or illegal actions, and whether the proposed remedy is more or less legal." After fleshing out each of these principles, he applies them to a number of real-world cases. Israel's strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor meets his tests for justified preemption, while the war in Iraq does not, largely because U.S. intelligence about the prospective threat was "weak."

But, as Yale law professor Harold Koh argues, why not have a bright-line prohibition on unilateral anticipatory war making? Doyle retorts that the states that ratified the U.N. charter were not entering a suicide pact. Although common-sense principles ought to constrain discretionary state action, even the wisest rules fail to anticipate all contingencies, and we must depend on the wisdom and moderation of those with the power to act. An updated international regime governing the use of force is overdue, but the decision to go to war ultimately requires the judgment of leaders who are subject to political rather than legal accountability.

Yglesias, an associate editor at The Atlantic, is a feisty blogger who has long since lost patience with the leaders of the Democratic Party. The title of his new book, Heads in the Sand, sums up his critique: In the face of the doctrinal challenges that Bush's foreign policy presented, Democrats failed to respond in a coherent, principled manner and resorted instead to a politics of evasion. This strategy was a moral and political failure. The Democrats' 2002 effort to change the subject from terrorism to health care yielded losses in the midterm elections. John Kerry's presidential campaign fell prey to the "fundamentally contradictory story about U.S. national security" that he and his advisers offered. And despite the Republican reverses in the 2006 elections and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendations, the Democratic congressional leadership has been unable to redeem its promise to end the Iraq War.

Yglesias embeds this narrative in a larger thesis. Because the American people have long seen Democrats as less credible than Republicans on national security, Democrats have been conditioned to approach security debates from a "reflexive posture of fear," which makes it "impossible to practice politics effectively." As a result, they have been unwilling to take on the "fundamental theoretical premises underlying the hypermilitarism of the Bush years" or to offer a "principle-driven alternative."

Yglesias argues that this is less difficult than it appears: "The need for novelty has been vastly overstated." There is nothing wrong, or outdated, about liberal internationalism. Indeed, its underlying logic of "rule-governed reciprocity" is more relevant than ever. Applied to our immediate circumstances, liberal internationalism would require us to admit that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, forswear unilateral preventive war, negotiate with Iran, and pursue multilateral approaches to nonproliferation. More broadly, we should return to an international legal regime whose institutions and procedures rest on the equality of states, regardless of differences of regime, because there is no other workable basis of international legitimacy.

Despite the clarity of Yglesias' argument, it is not fully persuasive. In the first place, Yglesias regards the case against invading Iraq as a slam dunk: Only the administration's aggressive duplicity, abetted by Democrats' craven timidity, permitted the invasion to proceed. This is a caricature of the situation we faced in 2002, when reasonable people could be found on both sides of the question. Although I opposed the invasion in this magazine in the fall of 2002, scholars and politicians I have long respected offered arguments in favor that gave me pause. If Saddam Hussein had possessed or was aggressively pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and if there were a serious chance that he would assist terrorists in attacks against the United States or its vital interests, and if no means short of war could have clarified the dimensions or abated the threat, and if the military means at our disposal offered a high probability of success, then there would have been a compelling moral and political case for invading Iraq with the aim of transforming its regime. Although we now know that none of these conditions was satisfied, the situation was much less clear at the time.

In the second place, Yglesias' narrative overlooks an inconvenient truth. While President Bush could rely on a united party, Democratic leaders enjoyed no such luxury. The Democrats were nearly split down the middle: 39 percent in the House and 58 percent in the Senate voted for the Iraq War resolution. Or to look at it the other way, just over half the Democrats in Congress voted against the resolution -- evidence for something other than the spinelessness that Yglesias sees at the root of the Democrats' problems. The simple fact is that Democrats disagreed on Iraq while Republicans did not, and it is difficult for congressional leaders and presidential candidates to sound clarion calls while seeking common ground within a divided party.

Finally, Bush responded to 9-11 by tearing up the previous foreign-policy playbook, and the results have been disastrous on many fronts. It is tempting to respond, as Yglesias does, by advocating a return to the pre-September 11 status quo, but this would be a mistake. Although 9-11 did not change everything, it does not follow that it changed nothing. To survive as a workable theory of international relations, liberal internationalism must adapt, as Doyle rightly insists.

The threat of fanatical non-state actors obtaining nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is large enough that we must take it more seriously than we did in the exhilarating years after the fall of communism. President Bush was wrong about many things, but not this. Regrettably, his administration's mind-set and modus operandi got in the way. To do better, the next administration must stop endlessly insisting that other countries adopt our outlook as if they were slow and recalcitrant schoolchildren. We have to strike the compromises necessary for effective new nonproliferation agreements. And to reach those compromises, we will need a new approach that regards prudent treaties as sources of stability and strength, not as bothersome restraints on our freedom to act. And we must accept the disagreeable fact that despite our commitment to a law-like regime of international affairs, there may be rare occasions when we find ourselves compelled to act alone.