Preempting the Platform

When I see this kind of thing I begin to despair:

The first draft of the Democratic platform that will be presented to the party’s convention late this month calls for a wholesale rewriting of President Bush’s national security strategy, declares that Mr. Bush’s “doctrine of unilateral pre-emption has driven away our allies,” and promises far more focus on reforming intelligence agencies and preventing nuclear terrorism.

Or, we could just promise to lose the election. Look, if you say this, here’s what people are going to say:

We’ve got a country over here and our intelligence says it’s going to launch an attack on the United States. Republicans will act to pre-empt that attack, with UN or NATO support if possible/convenient, but without it otherwise. Democrats will head to Turtle Bay and if the French say “no,” just stand aside and wait for Americans to get killed. Who are you going to vote for?

There’s nothing wrong with a doctrine of unilateral pre-emption. If there’s an attack to pre-empt, then you’d damn well better pre-empt it, unilaterally or otherwise. The problem with the Iraq War isn’t that it was pre-emptive, but that it didn’t pre-empt anything — there was no looming attack, there were no ties to al-Qaeda, and there were no WMD with which to launch the attack. The Iraq War was, at best, an effort to shift global Saddam-management policy (since sovereignty had been off the table since 1991) away from something that was becoming untenable in the medium term and that is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be done unilaterally. The whole point is that there was no moment of crisis (no “imminent threat” as the saying goes) to necessitate drastic action that undermined the international security regime.

Besides which, in a campaign document you want to put together the most shallow critique possible so as to build the widest possible overlapping consensus of critics of the status quo. The least common denominator of criticism of the Bush administration has to do with competence (Drezner’s process critique) so that’s probably the one you want to go with.

But back to preemption. The crazy thing here is that I’m quite sure no one means what that platform statement says. I’ve talked to a lot of Democratic foreign policy people over the past ten months and heard many others speak publicly. Not once has anyone said what the quoted statement means. Of course you pre-empt a real attack from a real threat, the point is that you don’t pre-empt imaginary threats and you certainly don’t invent threats as part of a public-relations strategy. Ashton Carter, who, unlike whoever wrote that, knows what he’s talking about says this:

Mr. Carter added that the Democrats were not seeking to end the use of pre-emption, but rather “return it to where it’s been in history as an act of last resort.”

“It’s the difference between pre-emption as a doctrine and pre-emption as an option,” he said. “You want the preventative diplomacy so that if you have to act pre-emptively, other countries are with us. And we want to focus on figuring out what you do after a pre-emptive action, which is what we didn’t do in Iraq.”

That’s good post hoc spin, but why not have the platform actually say that in the first place. “The Bush administration’s elevation of preemption from an option of last resort to a doctrine pursued even in the absence of an actual imminent threat to American security has driven away our allies.” Still time to change it. I used to be a semi-professional speechwriter, happy to help out….