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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Bush Doctrine?

In her first sit-down interview since securing the Republican v.p. slot, Sarah Palin talked about her position on the Bush Doctrine with ABC’s Charlie Gibson:

Here’s the relevant section of the exchange:

Gibson: The Bush Doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense; that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

Palin: Charlie, if there is enough intelligent and legitimate evidence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country.

Palin’s response is reasonable. But it is also not really what the Bush Doctrine (more formally known as The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, 2002) says:

For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption of the existence of an imminent threat — most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies and air forces preparing to attack.

We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries. … The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction — and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time or place of the enemy’s act.

The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats. … Yet in an age where the enemies of civilization openly and actively seek the world’s most destructive technologies, the United States cannot remain inactive while dangers gather.

Uncertainty as to the time or place of an enemy’s act, emerging threats and gathering dangers are, of course, a very different standard from an imminent strike. In fact, the Bush Doctrine was controversial in philosophical, legal and international relations circles precisely because it rejected the notion that preemption was justified only in the face of imminent threats.

We can contrast that with former (way former) Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who argued that preemption was justified only if a nation could “show a necessity of self-defence [sic], instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Or, as Princeton University’s Michael Walzer puts the point, preemption “is like a reflex action, a throwing up of one’s arms at the very last minute.”

We’ll leave it to the philosophers, lawyers and political theorists to argue about exactly how imminent a threat has to be to justify preemption. And we’ll leave it to each of you to decide whether you prefer to go with Webster or Bush.

Gibson didn’t follow up on the question, so we don’t know whether Palin ultimately agrees that war is justified when threats are not imminent. But we do know that Palin’s response resembles Webster more than Bush.