Tastes great, less filling

From Tony Snow, a lesson in Preemption Lite.

Published July 10, 2006 7:32PM (EDT)

Remember preemption?

It seems like just a few months ago -- and it was -- that the Bush administration laid out a National Security Strategy in which it said that the United States held itself free to use force "before attacks occur," even if the time and place of such attacks isn't yet known. "When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating," the Bush doctrine goes, "we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."

WMD attack ... dangers materalizing ... it sounds a lot like North Korea or Iran, right? Right. So we're going to launch a preemptive attack? Wrong.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Preemption Lite.

At today's White House press gaggle, Helen Thomas tried to get Tony Snow to explain how the president's "patience, please" strategy for North Korea lines up with his officially stated strategy of preemption. Snow tried, but without much success: "You've got to understand," he said, "that you preempt when you have concerns about an imminent strike and you also have --" Snow cut himself off, perhaps realizing that "concerns about an imminent strike" might be words that could apply when, say, a hostile nation is firing test missiles toward you, as North Korea did last week.

Snow picked up his train of thought again: "This is an administration that's been engaged in diplomacy on this. I know there's been a lot of reporting in recent days as if George W. Bush just woke up one day and decided to try diplomacy, and it doesn't work that way at all. As a matter of fact, the administration has been working on the North Korea problem in a multilateral manner for a number of years; the same thing with Iran. You also go back to the military engagements -- the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and those were also multilateral. So it is nothing new for this president to try to enlist the aid and support of other nations."

No, it's not. But in the old days -- which is to say, in the days leading up to the war in Iraq -- Bush felt free to abandon the diplomatic process as soon as it no longer served his purposes. Now? Diplomacy is pretty much all he's got, and it may not be enough. Snow tried to argue today that diplomacy is a form of preemption, or that preemption is a form of diplomacy, or, well, something. Preemption "was laid down as a strategy, but you also -- preemption also can be a diplomatic strategy," he said. "What you try to do, for instance, in the case of North Korea, is to preempt activity."

We think we know what he was getting at: When you've got the threat of a preemptive strike out there, that threat, in and of itself, can deter activity you don't like. It's about carrots and sticks, not "flowers and chocolates," which is how Snow characterized the Clinton administration's North Korea policy today.

But for the threat of preemption to have a preemptive effect, it's got to be a credible one. That's where Snow and his boss -- and by extension, the rest of us -- come up short. The U.N. Security Council put off a vote on sanctions for North Korea today amid continuing objections from China. The Japanese are talking about the idea of their own preemptive strike, but a military expert tells the AP that they don't have the ballistic missiles or military capability to pull off any sort of attack on North Korea. And the United States? It can't do much about North Korea or Iran on its own, and some of the allies the president rounded up for Iraq have been so burned by the experience that they're not exactly getting in line to help out again.

As ThinkProgress notes today, Poland's undersecretary of state for defense says his government will probably take a pass on the next U.S. military venture. "[The operation in Iraq] wasnt optimal, wasnt very effective and quite a lot of mistakes were done there and still we make a lot of mistakes," says Stanislaw Koziej. "I personally believe that military intervention in Iran is improbable  So we should get used to the fact that we will have to deal with Iran having nuclear armaments."

Or, as Tony Snow might say, "You do what is appropriate for various circumstances."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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