Challenging ‘Pre-emption’

Challenging ‘Pre-emption’

The rising tide of anti-Americanism is attributable to the distrust engendered by this Bush doctrine.


Remarks on the 138th Anniversary Celebration of The Nation Magazine, December 14, 2003, in New York City

The older I get, the more I become convinced that wisdom is enhanced by age, and I think the same can be said of The Nation magazine. It is more than a good read. It has become, over the years, an essential publication and a voice for the loyal opposition that is needed today as perhaps never before.

Tonight, I have been asked to speak about Iraq.

Early this morning came news of the capture of Saddam Hussein. That is good news. Despite his fall from power many months ago, the specter of a possible return to power had cast a constant shadow over Iraq and the Iraqi people. I applaud the tenacious work of the military and intelligence communities for their success today.

But that success does not diminish the challenges that remain in Iraq, and it certainly does not tamp the passions inflamed against the United States throughout the Muslim world by our actions in Iraq. The capture of Saddam Hussein will not be the keystone for peace in that volatile region. This day’s news does not lessen the danger that the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strike poses to international peace and stability.

In order to bring lasting stability to Iraq, that nation needs the help of the entire world, not just America and her fighting needs.

As each day passes and as more American soldiers are killed and wounded in Iraq, I become ever more convinced that the war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place for the wrong reasons. Contrary to the President’s rosy predictions–and the predictions of others in the Bush Administration–the United States has not been universally greeted as a liberator in Iraq. The peace–if one can use the term “peace” to describe the chronic violence and instability that define Iraq today–the peace is far from being won. Iraqi citizens may be glad that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power, but they appear to be growing increasingly resentful that the United States continues to rule their country at the point of a gun.

What a huge price we are now paying for the President’s bullheaded rush to invoke the unwise and unprecedented doctrine of pre-emption to invade Iraq, an invasion without provocation, an invasion without the support of the United Nations or the international community.

It would be tragic enough if the casualties of the Iraq war were confined to the battlefield, but they are not. The casualties of this war will have serious repercussions for generations to come. Truth is one casualty. Despite the best efforts of the White House to contort the invasion of Iraq into an extension of the war on terror, there was never a connection between Saddam Hussein and September 11. There was never a connection between Iraq and September 11. Not a single Iraqi was among the nineteen hijackers of those four planes. Despite dire warnings from the President, Saddam Hussein had at his fingertips neither the means nor the materiel to unleash deadly weapons of mass destruction on the world. Despite presidential rhetoric to the contrary, Iraq did not pose a grave and gathering menace to the security of the United States. The war in Iraq was nothing less than a manufactured war. It was a war served up to a deliberately misled and deluded American public to suit the neoconservative political agenda of the Bush White House.

A lasting casualty is the international credibility and reputation of the United States of America. We have squandered the good will that had rallied to our side after the attacks of 9/11, attacks that struck just a few short blocks from where we sit tonight. At the end of that fateful day, the world was with us. The French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed, “We Are All Americans.” But we squandered that good will. We turned our sights on Iraq and turned our back on the United Nations. As a result, in some corners of the world, including some corners of Europe and Great Britain, our beloved nation is now viewed as the world bully.

Finally, and most disheartening to me, Congress allowed the Constitution to become a casualty of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes. Congress allowed its constitutional authority to declare war to fall victim to this irresponsible strategy. Just a little more than a year ago, in October 2002, the Senate obsequiously handed to the President the constitutional authority to declare war. It failed to debate; it failed to question; it failed to live up to the standards established by the Framers. Like a whipped dog, the Senate put its tail between its legs and slunk away into the shadows, slunk away from its responsibility. Congress–and I mean both houses–Congress delegated its constitutional authority to the President and effectively washed its hands of the fate of Iraq. It is a dark and despicable mark on the escutcheon of Congress.

The roots of this travesty can be traced directly back to the President’s doctrine of pre-emption, that cockeyed notion that the United States can pre-emptively attack any nation that for whatever reason may–may!–appear to pose a threat in the future. Not only is the doctrine of pre-emption a radical departure from the traditional doctrine of self-defense but it is also a destabilizing influence on world affairs. The Bush doctrine of pre-emption is a dangerous precedent. The Bush doctrine of pre-emption is a reckless policy. The rising tide of anti-Americanism across the globe is directly attributable to the fear and distrust engendered by this Bush doctrine of pre-emption.

Yet too many Americans are willing–yes, even eager–to swallow the Administration line on pre-emption without examining it, without questioning it, without challenging it.

Thank God for courageous institutions–like this one–which are willing to stand up to the tide of popular convention. I commend The Nation magazine for filling this vacuum, and I urge you to continue in your mission, without fear, without constraint, and with an unyielding commitment to truth.

Today, for better or worse, the United States has embroiled itself in the future of Iraq. But that does not mean that we need to continue to be the lone wolf in Iraq. Unfortunately, the Administration’s latest edict to freeze out the French, German, Russian and Canadian companies from Iraq gives me little reason to hope that the President is even remotely interested in internationalizing the political, economic and security reconstruction effort. As a result, the White House continues to feed the perception throughout the world that Iraq’s reconstruction is a spoil of war. Reconstruction contracts, funded with $18.6 billion from the American taxpayer, seemingly have become kickbacks to those countries which dared not speak out–as Germany, France, Russia and Canada did speak out–against a policy of pre-emptive war.

Like all roads to peace in the Middle East, the path to stability in Iraq may still face obstacles. We cannot precisely predict what those obstacles will be. But we must demand accountability from the Bush White House. We must continue to raise questions. We must continue to seek the truth. We must continue to speak out against wrongheaded policies and dangerous strategies.

I am reminded of the closing lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

We are not now that strength which in old days…tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are–
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For my part, I will continue to speak out, I will continue to challenge, to question, and never to yield in defense of the Constitution, the United States Senate and the American people. For your part, I hope that The Nation magazine will sail on, always serving as an advocate for the truth and an antidote to the tide of imperialism that threatens to encompass our government. Congratulations on your remarkable achievements.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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