- Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption
If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path to action. And this nation will act.– George W. Bush1
It was with these words, uttered in June 2002 in a speech before the graduating class of the United States Military Academy, that George W. Bush first gave explicit expression to the approach that would become the hallmark of his administration’s foreign policy. The doctrine of preemption would lead the United States from the invasion of Afghanistan to the War in Iraq, and carry Bush himself to reelection in 2004. It would also lead, after another two short but eventful years punctuated by the turbulence of a hurricane and the death of a great American city, to the dramatic defeat of the President’s party in the 2006 mid-term elections. The most immediate casualty of that defeat would not be President Bush himself but the man he dubbed “The Architect.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the individual most identified in the public’s mind with the doctrine of preemption and its translation into action in Iraq, would take the fall. He would be out of office within twenty-four hours of the vote count. The reason universally cited for the election defeat was the growing dissatisfaction of the American public with the fact that there had been no palpable change in the situation in Iraq.
What had changed in the lead-up to the election lay half a world away from Iraq, in North Korea. Although the North Korean government’s October 2006announcement that it had tested a nuclear weapon barely created a ripple on the surface of the American electorate’s general awareness and was not cited in press analyses as having had an appreciable influence on the election outcome, it seemed to be one more sign that the Bush administration’s defining doctrine of preemption was fast becoming history. For here was a “fully materialized” threat, and the Bush administration was not rushing to take a unilateral “path to action.” Instead, it was emphasizing just the kind of multilateral, non-military response it had brushed aside in its rush to invade Iraq. In his first press conference following the North Korean announcement, Bush reassured the world that “the United States affirmed that we have no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. We affirmed that we have no intention of attacking North Korea. ...The United States remains committed to diplomacy.”2 In the same appearance, Bush changed his tune on Iraq for the first time. In response to polls already registering the devastating impact of the War in Iraq on Republican Party popularity, Bush reinterpreted the mantra on Iraq he had intoned for months. “Stay the course,” he said, really meant “don’t leave before the job is done,” and getting the job done, he continued, sometimes means “change tactics.”
Coming from a President so intransigent that he had never before been able to bring himself to so much as entertain the possibility that his administration’s decisions had been anything less than perfect, this semantic metacommentary seemed momentous. The statement was picked up by the press, repeated, commented upon, blogged, analyzed, and variously cited as a sudden attack of wisdom and ridiculed as a bumbling too-little-too-late. Either way, it had popular play. The statement on North Korea, although duly reported, did not. It is likely that only an infinitesimal percentage of the American electorate would be able to correctly identify its own government’s policy on North Korea, but only the most severely news- and entertainment-deprived would fail to have registered that the President was no longer exactly staying the course on Iraq. The President’s own admission of the need for a change and the Democrats’ subsequent regaining of control of both houses of Congress led many to the conclusion that the direction of the country was about to take a major turn.