President George W. Bush has made a fatal change in the foreign policy of the United States. He has repudiated the strategy that won the cold war—the combination of containment and deterrence carried out through such multilateral agencies as the UN, NATO, and the Organization of American States. The Bush Doctrine reverses all that. The essence of our new strategy is military: to strike a potential enemy, unilaterally if necessary, before he has a chance to strike us.
Mr. Bush has replaced a policy aimed at peace through the prevention of war by a policy aimed at peace through preventive war. He did this quietly, smoothly, and skillfully, without calling undue attention to so fundamental a revision of foreign policy or provoking a national debate over his drastic change of course.
The combination of containment and deterrence was initiated over half a century ago by President Truman. It was confirmed as a bipartisan policy by President Eisenhower and thereafter sustained by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (with modifications), Carter, Reagan (with deviations), George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. During the long years of the cold war, preventive war was unmentionable. Its advocates were regarded as loonies.
In the Truman administration, Francis P. Matthews, a secretary of the Navy, called publicly for war on the Soviet Union as a way to compel cooperation for peace. He was immediately rebuked by the President. “I have always been opposed, even to the thought of such a war,” Truman wrote in his Memoirs. “There is nothing more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war. You don’t ‘prevent’ anything by war except peace.”
In 1954 James Reston of The New York Times asked President Eisenhower in a press conference what he thought of preventive war. “A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility,” Eisenhower said. “…I don’t believe there is such a thing, and frankly I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”
In 1962, when the Kennedy administration was wrestling with the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended removing the missiles by preventive attack. Robert Kennedy called the Joint Chiefs’ idea “Pearl Harbor in reverse.” He added, “For 175 years we had not been that kind of country.” President Bush, it seems, would like to make us that kind of country today.
Looking back over the forty years of the cold war, we can be everlastingly grateful that the loonies on both sides were powerless. In 2003, however, they run the Pentagon, and preventive war—the Bush Doctrine—is now official policy. Sixty years ago the Japanese anticipated the Bush Doctrine in their attack on the US Navyat Pearl Harbor. This was, FDR observed, an exploit that would live in infamy—except now, evidently, when employed by the United States.
Given the disrepute attached to the idea of “preventive” war, the Bush administration prefers to talk about “preemptive …