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Bush's Endless 'Predictive' Wars

By Robert Parry
October 12, 2004

In the months before the Iraq invasion in 2003, we began writing that the proper term for the so-called Bush Doctrine was not “preemptive” war but “predictive” war. Our reasoning was that “preemptive” war required clear evidence that Iraq was threatening or preparing to attack the United States, but George W. Bush was simply predicting that Iraq might someday pose a threat.

We compared the Bush Doctrine with “predictive crime” featured in the futuristic Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” in which police rely on oracles to arrest people who are judged to be on the verge of committing murder.

During the second presidential debate in St. Louis on Oct. 8, Bush effectively confirmed that he is operating under a doctrine of "predictive" war.

The admission came when Bush was discussing the findings of his own inspection team, which had reported that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq didn't even have any active programs to build them. So, Bush shifted his defense.

His new argument for the Iraq invasion was twofold: Saddam Hussein held a grudge against the United States and harbored hopes that he might eventually be able to restart his weapons programs.

“What Saddam Hussein was doing was trying to get rid of sanctions so he could reconstitute a weapons program,” Bush said. “We knew he hated us.” In other words, Hussein had a motive and a hypothetical, maybe-sometime-in-the-future opportunity. Nothing in Bush's position justified a claim of "preemptive" war, which is defined as striking an enemy that is poised and prepared to attack. (We also have resisted applying the term "preventive" war because waging war to "prevent" war has an Orwellian ring to it.)

Bush gave his answer in response to an audience question about whether he could name three mistakes that he had made as president. Bush refused to admit any specific errors and declared that his invasion of Iraq was “the right decision.”

To support his position, Bush cited the new report by chief inspector Charles Duelfer, who had found no WMD in Iraq and no WMD programs but did speculate that Hussein might have harbored hopes that he might be able to escape international sanctions at some point and then resume his pursuit of WMD. As Duelfer's report pictured the reality on the ground, however, Hussein's Iraq was neither an imminent nor even a “gathering” threat, as Bush had claimed before the war.

'Hypothetical' War

While it's true that Hussein was lobbying against international sanctions and chafing under the U.N. inspections regime, there was no real reason to believe that he would have been freed of those constraints in the foreseeable future. In any case, the world community was sure to keep a close eye on Hussein's activities.

Plus, Duelfer's report represented undeniable proof that the often-maligned U.N. inspections regimen had worked, that Hussein's WMD ambitions had been kept in check with the dictator having little hope of threatening his neighbors in the region, let alone the United States on the other side of the globe.

Based on Bush's latest statements, one might even argue that the Bush Doctrine has moved beyond “predictive” war to a kind of “hypothetical” rationale for invading other countries – that is, if a future threat is just conceivable, no matter how unlikely, then Bush has the right to invade. By contrast, the safeguards envisioned in the movie, “Minority Report,” look positively judicial and rational.

The American people and the world also can expect that Bush fully intends to apply his war doctrine during a second term. "This is a long, long war," Bush declared in one chilling comment during the second presidential debate.

Indeed, on the campaign trail on Oct. 11, Bush recommitted himself to total victory over terrorism, reminiscent of his earlier pledges to rid the world of "evil." Reacting to Democrat John Kerry's statement that a realistic goal would be to reduce the threat of terrorism to a "nuisance" rather than an all-consuming national concern, Bush chastised Kerry for the remark and vowed "to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world." [NYT, Oct. 12, 2004]

Vice President Dick Cheney piled on, denouncing Kerry's views as "naïve and dangerous."

Textbook Doctrine

Yet few counter-insurgency experts believe that total victory over terrorism is realistic, since terrorism is essentially a tactic rather than a defined ideology or organization. While it might be possible, for instance, to destroy a terrorist organization, such as al-Qaeda, terrorism represents a tactic traditionally defined as using violence against civilians for a political effect.

If the elimination of the tactic of terrorism is the ultimate goal, then Bush's war moves beyond even the predictive and the hypothetical to the subjective and the endless.

For instance, in line with the old saying that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," there was strong evidence in the 1980s that the Reagan-Bush administration supported the Nicaraguan contras when they were involved in attacking civilian populations for political reasons. The Reagan-Bush reaction was to simply deny the evidence compiled by international human rights groups. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege, or his earlier book, Lost History.]

Sometimes even U.S. officials were implicated in acts of terror. CIA Director William J. Casey helped finance a 1985 operation against Hizbollah leader Sheikh Fadlallah that included hiring operatives who detonated a car bomb outside the Beirut apartment building where Fadlallah lived.

As described by Bob Woodward in Veil, “the car exploded, killing 80 people and wounding 200, leaving devastation, fires and collapsed buildings. Anyone who had happened to be in the immediate neighborhood was killed, hurt or terrorized, but Fadlallah escaped without injury. His followers strung a huge ‘Made in the USA’ banner in front of a building that had been blown out.”

More recently, there have been questions about whether George W. Bush's indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in Iraq have crossed the line into terrorism. For instance, during the early days of the war, Bush ordered the bombing of a Baghdad restaurant because he thought Hussein might have been having dinner there. As it turned out, Hussein wasn’t among the clientele, but the attack killed 14 civilians, including seven children. One mother collapsed when rescue workers pulled the severed head of her daughter out of the rubble.

Beyond murky judgments about the boundaries of terrorism, there is a more practical concern raised by counter-insurgency experts who understand that the textbook strategy for winning irregular wars is to apply a combination of tactics to reduce levels of violence and turn the conflicts into more manageable police actions.

While hardcore enemies may require elimination through military attacks, the larger pacification strategy must be to isolate the extremists from the population by addressing root causes that have fed the violence. The textbook goal is to win by gradually lowering the conflict down the spectrum of violence until police and judicial systems can do the job. However, the Bush administration continues to mock this approach as one that fails to embrace the need for an all-out war.

Bush also has operated under the dubious assumption that "freedom and liberty" will somehow eliminate the root causes of Middle East anti-Americanism, when that sentiment is actually driven by a host of other reasons. These include animosity over the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the extraction of the region's oil in ways that often enrich corrupt Arab elites far more than average citizens, and the long history of the West placing its hunger for oil above the cause of freedom in the Middle East. For decades, Washington has operated under the Realpolitik judgment of providing security for regimes regardless of their repressive policies – the Saudi royal family, for instance – in exchange for reliable supplies of oil.

But the Bush Doctrine and its shifting standards for waging war have unnerved people far beyond the Middle East. Given the enormous destructive power of the U.S. military, Bush’s elastic rationales for war represent an unprecedented claim of nearly unlimited authority by one man to inflict death and destruction on any country in the world at his discretion.

It remains possible that Bush has learned lessons from the Iraq War, which he just doesn't want to admit during a political campaign. Conceivably, he might exercise more restraint in a second term. But there is no evidence that he would. The only meaningful opportunity to put a check on his breathtaking assertion of authority may be the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 2.

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Award-winning investigative reporter Robert Parry's latest book is Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. It can be purchased at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com.

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