April 13, 2003

Aftermath: The Bush Doctrine

After the three-week military campaign that dispatched the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration may be tempted to unleash American forces against the next fire-snorting dragon down the line, whether in Syria, Iran or North Korea. While President Bush has every right to be pleased by the victory in Iraq, he should not confuse the military achievement for a validation of his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.

We did not like the combative doctrine when it was formally unveiled last September because it seemed to walk away from America's historical inclination to work with other nations to preserve the peace and to rely on force only when its security was directly threatened. The overthrow of Mr. Hussein does not make it seem any more valid.

We do not belittle the achievement of American fighting forces. But their victory was the one element of this campaign that was never in doubt — just as there is no doubt that American soldiers could be toppling statues in Damascus, Tehran or even Pyongyang if they were ordered to do it. The trouble is that each of these cases has its own complexities, its own consequences. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to world affairs, and even if there were, it is far from certain that Iraq is a template. The situation there remains chaotic, and it will take a long time to judge whether American intervention will bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq or improve the situation in the Middle East.

So far, the hawks in the administration have not publicly suggested a sequel to Iraq, even if there have been warnings to other malefactors contemplating weapons of mass destruction to "draw the appropriate lesson" from the war. We have no doubt that the administration would far prefer that Iraq proved to be the catalyst for velvet revolutions across the Middle East and beyond.

The yearning to right wrongs has a noble tradition in American foreign policy, and few could oppose those portions of the Bush doctrine that would extend the benefits of freedom, democracy, prosperity and the rule of law to the far corners of the globe. Unfortunately, these goals were overshadowed by an arrogant, go-it-alone stance and an aggressive claim to the right to use pre-emptive action against threatening states.

For many people and nations, the way the Bush administration went after Saddam Hussein confirmed fears raised by the doctrine. That is one reason why the move to war drew so much opposition around the world, and why this page urged the administration to pursue its goals in Iraq within an international framework. A doctrine that purports to spread happiness, but ends up spreading resentment, is not working, no matter how many statues come tumbling down. That is why it is especially important now to show that the United States also has the confidence and wisdom to sheath its sword until it is really needed.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company