WASHINGTON – John F. Kennedy made the case for preemption against the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis (search). Three months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued a stern warning to the Nazis that their arms activities would not be ignored.
But President Bush's "first-strike" or "pre-emption" doctrine — used to justify U.S. military might in Iraq — is catching heat from Democrats, anti-war groups and other critics who say not only has foreign policy gone wrong but it has put the United States in an untenable position.
"I am confident that, when we have that debate and investigation, more people will realize that the use of military force as a first-strike option is a dangerous precedent that can be used by other countries, including nuclear powers," said Rep. Barbara Lee (search), D-Calif., who has introduced a resolution with 24 co-sponsors that disavows the pre-emption doctrine.
"That is not a world we want to live in and not an example we want to set," Lee told Foxnews.com in an e-mail.
Lee said the current controversy over whether the White House provided faulty evidence to go to war with Iraq is just one reason why a first-strike doctrine often can backfire.
But experts say first-strike is a good policy to have on hand, especially in the war on terror.
"I think that if you have enemies in this world and they believe you'd never pre-empt them, that could be a bad thing," said Mark Burgess, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information (search). "I think it's a good tool to have. I think it's not a good tool to have if it's the only tool in your chest."
President Bush's "doctrine of pre-emption," announced last summer, says the United States is willing to use force, and go it alone if need be, to ward off potentially hostile states determined to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction.
"If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long," Bush said in a speech to West Point graduates in June 2002. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."
That policy position has provided ample fodder for Democratic presidential hopefuls like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who vehemently oppose pre-emptive strikes.
The Bush administration "relies primarily and unwisely on the threat of military pre-emption against terrorist organizations, which can be defeated if they are found, but will not be deterred by our military strength," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, who voted for the resolution authorizing military action in Iraq.
Some analysts question whether the administration will back down from its first-strike policy since no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found in Iraq.
"It's pretty hard to assert that doctrine and claim a clear and present danger when you haven't necessarily proven that in Iraq," said Harlen Ullman, senior adviser for the
international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) and the principal author of "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance."
"I don't think Americans will swallow the argument that the danger was clear … I think the administration has certainly caused the administration to think twice" about employing the doctrine.
But the administration does not appear to be distancing itself from the policy. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, author of the policy, recently told Fox News Sunday that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks will always stand as a reminder of why pre-emption is needed.
"These are people who operate in the shadows, with a great deal of secrecy, and a great deal of false information planted all over the place," Wolfowitz said. "I think the lesson of 9/11 is that, if you're not prepared to act on the basis of murky intelligence, then you're going to have to act after the fact. And after the fact now means after horrendous things have happened to this country."
Burgess said the administration likely realizes that the pre-emption policy can't be used in all cases. For instance, Washington is applying a diplomacy-based plan to deal with nuclear weapons-holding North Korea and has issued verbal warnings to Iran to stop building nuclear weapons.
"What was perhaps viewed as workable in Iraq would be less useful in a regime such as North Korea — rather than pre-empting anything, you would just be causing a different problem," Burgess said.