The Bush-Obama Pre-Emption Doctrine

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Writing at, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an adviser to Mitt Romney, makes a provocative point. If Barack Obama’s threat of military action to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is serious, doesn’t that amount to a policy of… pre-emption?

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta probably gave the clearest administration statement when he said that if “we get intelligence that they’re proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps are necessary to stop it.”

That, combined with the president’s repeated statements that Iran getting a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” surprisingly aligns this administration with the George W. Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emption. That doctrine famously described it as a duty to “anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage.”

To be sure, Barack Obama has never asserted a right of pre-emptive action as assertively as Bush did. Take, for instance, this key passage from Bush’s famous 2002 West Point graduation speech:

Our security will require the best intelligence, to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories…. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

But in a certain sense, Obama is asserting an even broader rationale for pre-emption. When Obama calls an Iran bomb “unacceptable,” and reiterates his willingness to use the military to prevent one, he doesn’t focus on any direct threat to the United States. Here’s Obama talking to the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month:

In addition to the profound threat that it poses to Israel, one of our strongest allies in the world; in addition to the outrageous language that has been directed toward Israel by the leaders of the Iranian government — if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, this would run completely contrary to my policies of nonproliferation. The risks of an Iranian nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorist organizations are profound. It is almost certain that other players in the region would feel it necessary to get their own nuclear weapons. So now you have the prospect of a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions. And it would also provide Iran the additional capability to sponsor and protect its proxies in carrying out terrorist attacks, because they are less fearful of retaliation.

Yes, Obama is (legitimately, I would say) concerned that an Iranian nuke might fall into the hands of terrorists. But his list mostly consists of indirect threats to the U.S. and American lives: the security of Israel; nonproliferation; regional stability and an emboldened regime in Tehran. Those are all valid concerns. But the rationale for bombing Iran, if it comes to that, will be more abstract than the one that was used to justify the American invasion of Iraq. Go figure.