When it comes to Iraq, most Democrats straddle a line. They concede that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction, and that he would show no compunction about using them under certain circumstances, but they do not support a preemptive strike to eliminate him or the weapons. Jesse Jackson, addressing an enthusiastic crowd near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, intoned: “If we launch a preemptive strike on Iraq, we lose all moral authority.”
Among the early presidential candidates who intend to challenge Bush, Democrats Howard Dean and Al Sharpton are vociferously opposed to a preemptive strike. They are representative of a position that argues not just that a preemptive war is unjust, but that it runs counter to the American tradition.
Counter to the American tradition?
It might surprise Democrats to learn that there was a time when leaders — nay, giants — in their own party defended America’s right to strike preemptively. Either today’s Democrats are willfully ignorant of that tradition, or ashamed of it. Either way, in the Senate floor debate over whether to authorize President Bush to use force against the Butcher of Baghdad, Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke more truthfully than she realized: “My vote” she said, in support of authorizing the use of force, “is not … a vote for any new doctrine of pre-emption.”
True enough, senator. For there is an old doctrine of preemption developed and articulated within your own party.
During the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy told the American people, “Neither the United States of America nor the world community of nations can tolerate deliberate deception and offensive threats on the part of any nation, large or small. We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nation’s security…” [emphasis added].
Kennedy then got in a dig at Hitler’s appeasers. “The 1930′s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war…. Our policy has been one of patience and restraint,” the president said. “But now further action is required — and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning…. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.”
JFK was hardly the first Democratic president to make the case for preemption. In a fireside chat three months prior to Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt warned the Nazis that the U.S. would not look passively on their menacing arms buildup and aggression on the high seas. “Do not let us split hairs. Let us not say: ‘We will only defend ourselves if the torpedo succeeds in getting home, or if the crew and the passengers are drowned.’ This is the time for prevention of attack” [emphasis added].
And then FDR uttered these famous words: “When you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him.” A vivid metaphor for preemption, that. (Roosevelt, by the way, delivered this 1941 fireside chat on a date that would take on significance to a later generation — September 11.)
Perhaps the most recent Democratic President, Bill Clinton, was aware of his predecessors’ eloquent defense of preemption when in 1998 he launched Operation Desert Fox, an intense 70-hour bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein. At the end of the campaign, the president told Americans, “we will maintain a strong military presence in the area, and we will remain ready to use it if Saddam tries to rebuild his weapons of mass destruction.”
Clinton left no room for doubt. If the U.N. could not undertake weapons inspections on a regular basis, the U.S. would “remain vigilant and prepared to use force if we see that Iraq is rebuilding its weapons programs” [emphasis added].
FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton. Three presidents. Three generations of leadership. Three public defenses of preemption. Democrats, it turns out, have eloquently made the case for President Bush.
— Gleaves Whitney is the author of a forthcoming book on the wartime speeches of American president and editor of American Presidents: Farewell Messages to the Nation, 1796-2000.