The Cold War and After: History, Theory, and the Logic of International Politics

By Marc Trachtenberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Preventive War and U.S. Foreign Policy

ON SEPTEMBER 11,2001, the United States suddenly found itself in what seemed to be a new world, a perplexing world, a world where the old guideposts no longer seemed adequate. How was the nation to deal with the enormous problems it now faced? Above all, what could it do to make sure that “weapons of mass destruction,” and above all nuclear and biological weapons weapons, would not be used against it?

President George W. Bush and his top advisors soon came up with some basic answers to those very fundamental questions. A new national security policy was worked out, and the main lines of that policy were by no means kept secret. U.S. policy, the Bush administration declared quite openly, could no longer be based on the principle of deterrence. The nation could not “remain idle while dangers gather.” It had to identify the threat and destroy it “before it reaches our borders” and “take whatever action [was] necessary” to protect itself. It had to be prepared to move “preemptively”—and, indeed, alone if necessary— against “rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends.” America, in other words, had to seize the initiative, “take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” “In the new world we have entered,” the president declared, “the only path to peace and security is the path of action.”1

That new strategy of “preemption,” as it was called, did not go unnoticed, either in the United States or in the world as a whole.2 Presi

This article was published in Security Studies 16, no. 1 (January-March 2007). A slightly different version was published at more or less the same time in Henry Shue and David Rodin, eds., Preemption: Military Action and Moral Justification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

1 Bush West Point speech, June 1, 2002; Cheney speech, August 26, 2002; and “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” (with Bush introduction), September 2002; all available on the White House website (http://www.whitehouse .gov).

2 As it was called, that is, mainly by the administration and its supporters; many observers, especially in the academic world, strongly object to the use of the term preemption in this context. That term, they believe, should be reserved for cases where a country strikes in the belief it is about to be attacked; if no attack is viewed as imminent, they think the term “preventive war” should be used. But not all scholars take that view. Paul

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