What went wrong with the prewar intelligence on Iraq? That's the debate now swirling around Washington.

The congressional intelligence committees point fingers at the CIA, which is fingering the White House, which, in turn, is rebuking the Congress. Beneath the normal Washington sport of blamesmanship lies something far more important -- the future of the pre-emption doctrine (search).

Pre-emption must not become another Washington casualty of the blame game. Yet the doctrine remains on an artificial respirator so long as our prewar intelligence on Iraq seems so faulty.

Arms inspector David Kay (search) recently testified that Saddam Hussein did have active biological and missile programs, and plans for reviving his nuclear and chemical build-up. Yet the real threat from his weapons of mass destruction (search) was far less robust, and imminent, than the intelligence community had told us. Maybe we just can’t know what’s going on in countries where we most need to know the frightening things they’re planning.

Regardless, from now on Americans will be skeptical of bold U.S. action based on such inside information. The public’s default position will go from instinctive support -- “let’s back the president” -- to deep doubt -- “there they go again!”

But before we write pre-emption’s obituary, I’d echo that great American philosopher, Gene Autrey (search), when he said, “Whoa, big boy.” For despite the limitations of intelligence, pre-emption must live on to guide U.S. security policy.

Pre-9/11, we weren’t so keenly aware of dedicated fanatics bent on destroying Americans -- not for specific political goals, but out of sheer bile. They’ll stop at nothing to blow up our facilities and citizens. Well, now we know. Once the world’s most vile weapons get in the hands of the world’s most vile people, this puts thousands -- perhaps millions -- of Americans at high risk.

Containment and deterrence won’t work with them. These Cold War (search) doctrines presumed that our enemy had rationality, and a desire for self-preservation. Well, our enemies today sure don’t. So pre-emption must prevail -- more out of necessity than of choice. We simply cannot wait to react until terrorist cells, and vile regimes, actually launch mass weapons against us. We must act before they do.

Of course pre-emption is lots more controversial than previous U.S. doctrines. It’s forceful and active, whereas containment was defensive and passive. The level of evidence, timing and scale of our attacks will all be disputed -- especially now.

The problems implementing pre-emption were foreseen by none other than Machiavelli, when he compared cool statecraft with medical treatment. The more glaring the symptoms of any disease, the more obvious its diagnosis -- but the more difficult its treatment. By the time a doctor is certain that a patient has lung cancer, the time for effective treatment probably has passed.

The best presidents, like the best doctors, act when their evidence is still inconclusive. Otherwise, the window for effective action passes. If pre-emption does become another war casualty, I fear far more serious casualties before we rid civilization of this scourge of terrorism. And, sadly, that’s not about to happen anytime soon.  

Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation.com.