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Rescinding the Bush Doctrine

RATHER THAN vainly sniping at President Bush over his management of the Iraq war, the Democratic-controlled Congress ought to focus on averting any recurrence of this misadventure. Decrying the so-called "surge" or curbing the president's authority to conduct ongoing operations will contribute little to that end. Legislative action to foreswear preventive war might contribute quite a lot.

Long viewed as immoral, illicit, and imprudent, preventive war -- attacking to keep an adversary from someday posing a danger -- became the centerpiece of US national security strategy in the aftermath of 9/11. President Bush unveiled this new strategy in a speech at West Point in June 2002. "If we wait for threats to fully materialize," he said, "we will have waited too long." The new imperative was to strike before threats could form. Bush declared it the policy of the United States to "impose preemptive, unilateral military force when and where it chooses."

Although the Constitution endows the legislative branch with the sole authority to declare war, the president did not consult Congress before announcing his new policy. He promulgated the Bush Doctrine by fiat. Then he acted on it.

In 2003, Saddam Hussein posed no immediate threat to the United States; arguing that he might one day do so, the administration depicted the invasion of Iraq as an act of anticipatory self-defense. To their everlasting shame, a majority of members in both the House and the Senate went along, passing a resolution that "authorized" the president to do what he was clearly intent on doing anyway. Implicitly, the Bush Doctrine received congressional endorsement.

Events since have affirmed the wisdom of seeing preventive war as immoral, illicit, and imprudent. The Bush administration expected a quick, economical, and decisive victory in Iraq. Advertising the war as an effort to topple a brutal dictator and liberate an oppressed people, it no doubt counted on battlefield success to endow the enterprise with a certain ex post facto legitimacy. Elated Iraqis showering American soldiers with flowers and candies would silence critics who condemned the war as morally unjustified and patently illegal.

None of these expectations has come to pass. In its trial run, the Bush Doctrine has been found wanting.

Today, Iraq teeters on the brink of disintegration. The war's costs, already staggering, continue to mount. Violence triggered by the US invasion has killed thousands of Iraqi civilians. We cannot fully absolve ourselves of responsibility for those deaths.

Our folly has alienated friends and emboldened enemies. Rather than nipping in the bud an ostensibly emerging threat, the Iraq war has diverted attention from existing dangers (such as Al Qaeda) while encouraging potential adversaries (like Iran) to see us as weak.

The remedy to this catastrophic failure lies not in having another go -- a preventive attack against Iran, for example -- but in acknowledging that the Bush Doctrine is inherently pernicious. Our reckless flirtation with preventive war qualifies as not only wrong, but also stupid. Indeed, the Bush Doctrine poses a greater danger to the United States than do the perils it supposedly guards against.

We urgently need to abrogate that doctrine in favor of principles that reflect our true interests and our professed moral values. Here lies an opportunity for Congress to make a difference.

The fifth anniversary of President Bush's West Point speech approaches. Prior to that date, Democratic leaders should offer a binding resolution that makes the following three points: First, the United States categorically renounces preventive war. Second, the United States will henceforth consider armed force to be an instrument of last resort. Third, except in response to a direct attack on the United States, any future use of force will require prior Congressional authorization, as required by the Constitution.

The legislation should state plainly our determination to defend ourselves and our allies. But it should indicate no less plainly that the United States no longer claims the prerogative of using "preemptive, unilateral military force when and where it chooses."

Declaring the Bush Doctrine defunct will not solve the problems posed by Iraq, but it will reduce the likelihood that we will see more Iraqs in our future. By taking such action, Congress will restore its relevance, its badly tarnished honor, and its standing in the eyes of the American people.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.