Washington has shifted into scandal gear. The Administration offers one explanation after another for the President’s discredited claim in the State of the Union address that British intelligence had “learned” Iraq was seeking to buy lightly refined uranium from Niger. Each explanation contradicts the last. None so far is believable. Talk of resignations is in the air. Perhaps it will be George Tenet, who supposedly “threw himself on his sword,” as people keep saying, when he publicly took responsibility for the President’s mistake. (It turns out that the sword must have been made of rubber, since, two weeks after throwing himself on it, Tenet is still alive and well and in charge of the CIA–a CIA that, furthermore, has partially repudiated Tenet’s gesture by disclosing that it had in fact warned the White House that the President’s claim was shaky.) Next it was National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, Stephen Hadley, who was throwing himself on his sword (rubber or otherwise)–by revealing that he had not passed along the CIA’s warning to his boss Rice. Then there was talk that Rice might have to throw herself on her sword, in order to protect the President. Now the President has said he takes “personal responsibility for everything I say, of course,” but without confirming that the uranium claim was mistaken or disclosing how it got into his speech.

The scandal–which might be called wargate (you only have to remove two letters from “Watergate”), since the cost of the mistake was a war–rightly preoccupies the capital. Yet the problem is not only the fact that Tenet didn’t tell Hadley or that Hadley didn’t tell Rice or that Rice didn’t tell the President, or any other failure or manipulation of intelligence or even flat-out lie (though all these occurred and are important). For the roots of the debacle lie in the policy–it is sometimes called the “Bush doctrine”–in whose name the Administration propelled the country into war. That policy unfolded in a series of bold speeches and documents in the months after September 11. The first step was to designate the American response to the September attack a “war on terror.” By naming “war” (as distinct from police action) as his means, the President put the world on notice that the full, stupendous power of the American military machine would be brought to bear; by naming “terror” (as distinct from the group responsible for the attack, the Al Qaeda network) as the enemy, he signaled that the operations would be global in scope. Next, in his first statement to the joint session of Congress, the President announced that not only “terror” but any regimes that sponsored it would be placed on the list of enemies. Vice President Cheney soon put their number at more than sixty. The first target was the government of Afghanistan, which was duly overthrown.

In the State of the Union speech of 2002, Bush expanded the range of his new doctrine still further. Most important, he incorporated into it the gravest issue that any President of our era has had to face: the danger from nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. Bush named an “axis of evil” consisting of three countries that allegedly were seeking such weapons: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Defining nuclear danger as proliferation–both to new states and to terrorist groups–he asserted that the means to stop it was war. “The United States of America,” he said, employing the classic language of military ultimatums, “will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” With these words, the cause of safety in the nuclear age was subsumed by the war on terror.

Four months later, in a major speech at West Point on June 2, 2002, Bush elaborated the means by which his ambitious new policy would be pursued. The policy of “deterrence” and “containment” had prevailed throughout the cold war. But now, he said, “deterrence–the promise of massive retaliation against nations–means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.” And “containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.” In this speech, too, the President for the first time made an extraordinary claim: The United States would reserve to itself a global monopoly on effective military power, restricting other nations to nonmilitary activities. In his words, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” Throughout history, the choice between war and peace had been open to all nations. Now the United States was claiming war as its exclusive domain and confining other nations to peace.

The elements of the new doctrine were assembled, summed up, elaborated and proclaimed to the world in September 2002, in a White House document called “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” It stated that America’s global military superiority would be able not only to “decisively defeat any adversary” but “dissuade future military competition.” The pre-emptive policy was stated even more boldly. The United States reserved the right to attack “even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.” The proper term for such a policy, as many political scientists have pointed out, is not in fact pre-emptive war (forestalling an attack that is planned and imminent) but preventive war (destroying military forces that might one day be used against you). At the document’s core was still the resolve to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction–whether to states or to terrorists–by military force.

This is the policy whose unraveling across the board we are now witnessing. Condoleezza Rice likened the post-September 11 moment to the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the cold war. President Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson titled his memoir of the period Present at the Creation. The Bush doctrine was self-consciously patterned upon it. Now, less than two years later, we are present at the dissolution.

The Bush policy has failed in Iraq. The Iraq war gave life to every one of the main tenets of the Bush doctrine: It was an exercise in the raw, overwhelmingly unilateral use of American military power; its chief justification was stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction (the Congressional resolution passed last October authorized forcing compliance with UN resolutions, which dealt almost exclusively with the disarmament issue); and it was preventive par excellence. Now the weapons of mass destruction are nowhere to be found. To the arguments that preventive war is illegal (a clear violation of the UN Charter) and strategically reckless (if taken as a model by other states, it is a formula for international anarchy), we must add that it is unusually prone to catastrophic error. The President’s spokesman has commented, “the President is not a fact-checker.” But he had better become one if he wishes to pursue a policy of pre-emptive war, whose justifications depend entirely on the accuracy of facts.

Intelligence failures–a serious problem in any war–fatally undercut a pre-emptive war policy. The recent arguments by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and others in the Administration that the war was worth it even if the intelligence was “murky” (i.e., wrong) is unlikely to persuade the families, American and Iraqi, of those who died in the war. (As the factual basis of the war justification collapses, the words of the National Security Strategy of the United States make interesting reading: “To support pre-emptive options, we will: build better, more integrated intelligence capabilities to provide timely, accurate information on threats, wherever they may emerge.”) Meanwhile, the war itself spins out of control. The plan for global military domination, it has turned out, had no political underpinnings. The Administration knew it had a regime to destroy but apparently forgot that it would then be in possession of a country to govern. In what is the most colossal intelligence failure of them all, the Bush Administration scarcely seems to know what a country is, or what is required to keep one–its electricity, its schools, its local governments, its hospitals, its museums–running.

The policy has failed in North Korea. While attacking a country that had no known, current program for building weapons of mass destruction, the Administration proved helpless to deal with a country that, by its own account, has moved swiftly and brazenly to acquire them. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has said that he cannot even detect that the Administration has a policy toward North Korea. In truth, there was a policy–it was the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive attack announced in statement after statement by the President–but the problem was that it simply had no feasible application to a country that, like North Korea, had a significant conventional force and, allegedly, several nuclear weapons. The United States might drop the policy of deterrence in favor of pre-emption/prevention; but in the event it was itself deterred, leaving it with the absence of policy noted by Perry. It was left in the position–diametrically at odds with its own repeated warnings–of saying that the appearance of a nuclear arsenal in North Korea was “not a crisis.” Perry now counsels a belated turn to negotiation, and his proposal is well worth trying, but the likelihood of success is uncertain. North Korea has witnessed regime change in Iraq and shows every sign of believing that a growing nuclear arsenal is its best means of heading off the same fate for itself.

The policy has failed in Iran, also apparently on its way to building nuclear weapons. Like North Korea, Iran has not canceled or shelved but stepped up its nuclear program in response to the war in Iraq. Does the Bush doctrine offer a solution? Unable to govern Iraq, can it add Iran to the list of countries it seeks to rule? American military forces are already stretched to the breaking point by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, and other deployments, and soldiers are simply not available to invade Iran, even if the Administration should wish to undertake such a lunatic project. The high-tech forces so useful for annihilating conventional armies have proved useless for running the countries thus acquired. You can knock down government ministries with precision-guided munitions; you can’t pick up garbage with them.

The policy has failed in the world as a whole. It has encouraged the proliferation it was meant to stop, leaving the United States and the world without an effective nonproliferation strategy. It has dishonored the democratic system it was meant to promote. The political disaster in Iraq is writ large in the decline of US reputation and power among the nations of the world, almost all of whom opposed the war and are now perfectly ready to watch on the sidelines as the United States sinks in the Iraq bog. It has estranged America’s traditional friends, including its NATO allies. It has created a divide between the United States and Europe. It has demeaned and damaged the UN. It has placed a roadblock in the way of the international cooperation necessary to solve the most important economic and social problems of the twenty-first century: saving the global environment and working to fashion a more just and prosperous global economy.

Wargate must be investigated, and those responsible must be brought to account, but none of this will matter if the policy stays the same. Building an alternative vision will be the work of the political opposition to this Administration–and, we hope, a new administration in 2004–but already the general outlines of one are obvious: The United States needs to choose cooperation over coercion; multilateralism over unilateralism; respect for international opinion over defiance; defense over offense; containment and deterrence over prevention; diplomacy over force; peace over war. Neither the resignation of Tenet nor of Hadley nor of Rice nor of all of them together will check the mounting damage. Not even the replacement of the President will in itself be enough. That, too, important as it is, will be significant only to the extent that it is one more means for changing the fundamental direction of the foreign policy of the United States.