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The 'Bush Doctrine' Experiences Shining Moments

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2003; Page A26

It has been a week of sweet vindication for those who promulgated what they call the Bush Doctrine.

Beginning with the capture of Saddam Hussein a week ago and ending Friday with an agreement by Libya's Moammar Gaddafi to surrender his unconventional weapons, one after another international problem has eased.

On Tuesday, the leaders of France and Germany set aside their long-standing opposition to the war in Iraq and agreed to forgive an unspecified amount of that country's debt. On Thursday, Iran signed an agreement allowing surprise inspections of its nuclear facilities after European governments applied intense pressure on the U.S. foe. On Friday, Libya agreed to disarm under the watch of international inspectors, just as administration officials were learning that Syria had seized $23.5 million believed to be for al Qaeda.

To foreign policy hard-liners inside and outside the administration, the gestures by Libya, Iran and Syria, and the softening by France and Germany, all have the same cause: a show of American might.

Those who developed the Bush Doctrine -- a policy of taking preemptive, unprovoked action against emerging threats -- predicted that an impressive U.S. victory in Iraq would intimidate allies and foes alike, making them yield to U.S. interests in other areas. Though that notion floundered with the occupation in Iraq, the capture of Hussein may have served as the decisive blow needed to make others respect U.S. wishes, they say.

"It's always been at the heart of the Bush Doctrine that a more robust policy would permit us to elicit greater cooperation from adversaries than we'd had in the past when we acquiesced," said Richard Perle, an influential adviser to the administration. "With the capture of Saddam, the sense that momentum may be with us is very important."

Perle had provoked much criticism for saying a successful U.S. invasion of Iraq would signal to other foes that "you're next." But he said the actions by Libya and Iran prove that the threat alone was sufficient to produce action. "Gaddafi surely had to take more seriously that we would not allow him to get away with the programs he was embarked," he said.

Perle and the other "neo-conservative" hawks whose views dominate the Bush administration know better than to claim victory. Gaddafi or the Iranians may still cheat despite admitting inspectors. And other potential foes, notably North Korea and China, have shown little susceptibility to the threat implicit in the Bush Doctrine. Still, Perle allowed, "it's nice to have a good week every once in a while."

Bush's domestic adversaries have had some trouble responding to the administration's diplomatic successes. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a presidential aspirant, portrayed the success with Libya as an exception to the Bush Doctrine. "Ironically, this significant advance represents a complete U-turn in the Bush administration's overall foreign policy," he said in a statement Saturday. "An administration that scorns multilateralism and boasts about a rigid doctrine of military preemption has almost in spite of itself demonstrated the enormous potential for improving our national security through diplomacy."

But Bush's supporters say it is precisely his willingness to go it alone and take preemptive action that has encouraged other countries to seek diplomatic solutions before the United States launches a military attack. The Libya and Iran concessions "show the peripheral benefit of preemption," said Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan administration arms control official who now serves on a Pentagon advisory panel. "Most of all it scares the bejesus out of rogue dictators." As for stubborn allies such as Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, "they pay more attention when there's a forceful U.S. policy," Adelman said.

It is unlikely, of course, that France or Germany would acknowledge that they are reacting to U.S. strength. Yet it is noteworthy that they were conciliatory on the issue of Iraqi debt forgiveness after Hussein was captured -- even though they were complaining bitterly just a week before about a Bush plan to exclude them from U.S.-funded Iraq reconstruction projects.

And it is inarguable that Germany and France have taken a more active role in winning Iranian compliance with weapons inspections since the United States invaded Iraq. The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain visited Iran in October, overcoming Iran's longtime resistance to signing a monitoring agreement.

"The Europeans never would have taken these steps [in Iran] without Bush taking the steps he took in Iraq," said Gary Schmitt, who directs the hard-line Project for the New American Century. "The Europeans don't want us to do another Iraq there, so they're rushing in to get a deal. Bush gets an immense amount of credit for laying out what the agenda is and making others step up to the plate."

Bush still has some inconsistencies to work out with his doctrine. Earlier this month, he drew rebukes from conservatives for undermining democratic Taiwan to win favor with totalitarian China. And, as Bush's domestic opponents point out, he has been contradictory in his views of international organizations. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said the administration's support for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in Libya and Iran "is difficult to reconcile with the administration's previous ridicule of IAEA inspectors in Iraq."

But such complaints, at least for now, have been overshadowed by the results achieved with Iran and Libya. That was the clear message Bush delivered in his unusual appearance late Friday in the White House briefing room. Mentioning the fate of Hussein, Bush said, "These actions by the United States and our allies have sent an unmistakable message to regimes that seek or possess weapons of mass destruction."

If Bush was oblique, a senior aide who briefed reporters after the president's statement, was quicker to take credit. "The outcome today is a response [to] the policies that we have pursued," he said. The official said the secret discussions with Libya began in March -- when the invasion of Iraq started. "I can't imagine that Iraq went unnoticed by the Libyan leadership," the aide said.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company