TCS Daily

The Incoherent Dean Doctrine

By Lee Harris - December 12, 2003 12:00 AM

Howard Dean is generally regarded as an intelligent man; after all, he is a doctor. Which leaves me at a loss to explain his recent attack on the Bush Doctrine of preemption. How could such a clever man say things that could confuse me so much?


For example, during a recent interview with the editors of The Boston Globe, the Vermont governor and front-running Democratic contender for the Presidency argues that while there is nothing wrong with the United States having a doctrine of preemption, it is terribly wrong to announce it boldly to the world. Indeed, Dean goes so far as to assert that "America has always had an unspoken doctrine of preemption," but he denies that American has ever had "a spoken doctrine of preemption."


Leaving aside historical quibbles, Dean's criticism would appear to reflect the wise maxim that certain things are better left unsaid. For instance, if a doctor is charging a fortune for treating a seriously ill patient, it would be imprudent for him to remind his patient that the patient must still pay for his services even if these services should result in his own demise. Everyone with any sense knows that this is the case, after all, so why the need to go crying it from the rooftops?


In short, Dean is criticizing Bush for his lack of tact, or, more properly, diplomatic finesse -- it is fine to have a doctrine of preemption, you just can't tell anyone you have it.


Yet, shortly after making this point, Dean turns around and summarily announces his own policy of preemption, stating that "If we had known Osama bin Laden with real certainty was going to attack the United States, of course, we would have done something about it."


But this is somewhat confusing. For, in making this statement, it would very much appear as if Mr. Dean is formulating nothing less than the Dean Doctrine of preemption; and announcing it to the world in the same frank and candid manner that Mr. Bush announced his doctrine.


True, Mr. Dean is not yet President, and so may argue that he is not in fact declaring an official policy of the United States government; but surely if Mr. Dean turns out to be our next President, he will not wish to repudiate his earlier statement. In short, it would appear that Mr. Dean, and perhaps shortly the whole Democratic party, is now struck with the Dean Doctrine, which, thanks to The Boston Globe, has now been disseminated around the world, in all its brutal and undiplomatic starkness: when threatened by attack, the United State will take unilateral preemptive action against those who are responsible for the threat.


Yet, virtually at the same breath, Dean argues that "To lay out a doctrine of the right of the United States to preempt any time there is a threat is pretty much an international outrage." But isn't this precisely what Dean has just done himself?


Yet before we accuse a man as intelligent as Governor Dean of gross and outright inconsistency, let us go back and examine the precise language in which he has framed his own preemption doctrine. "If we had known Osama bin Laden with real certainty was going to attack the United States, of course we would have done something about it." I have added the italics here to emphasize what would appear to be the one and only difference between Mr. Dean's doctrine of preemption and the President's. Dean would preempt only when he had "real certainty" of an attack, but not otherwise.


But what counts, for Governor Dean, as "real certainty?"


A medical doctor may demand "real certainty" that a patient has a malignant tumor before deciding to attack it, and such certainty can be quite clearly specified in advance. If certain tests show that the presence of the tumor, and certain probes demonstrate its malignancy, and all the other doctors who have been consulted on the case agree with this diagnosis, then you have "real certainty" -- not the elusive absolute certainty that philosophers have vainly sought, but something you can take to the bank.


But what is the analogue of "real certainty" in terms of the probability of one nation attacking another? What tests do you run, what blood work do you rely on, to demonstrate that there is a real certainty that you are going to be attacked by another nation?


Yes, you may have spies and agents spread around the world, and they may give warnings of imminent attack. But can you trust them? Or there may be other sources of information, but here again, the problem is the same. In 1942, Winston Churchill tried to warn Stalin that Hitler was planning to invade Russia; but Stalin, relying on the Soviet-German non-aggression pact and highly suspicious of Churchill's real motives, declined to act on this information, and so was caught unprepared by the German Blitzkrieg. But isn't this inevitable? In a world on the brink of war, the first casualty is mutual trust, and there is simply no real certainty that even the most reliable sources may not be either wrong, or in league with the enemy. In such a world, all sources of information are inevitably tainted with systematic and irremediable uncertainty: to act on them is always to take an enormous risk that you are doing precisely what your enemy wants you to do.


Indeed, the closest thing to real certainty that nations have been able to obtain in this respect has been what we might call diplomatic certainty.


In the period of human history preceding 9/11, it was often quite possible for one nation to have diplomatic certainty that another nation was going to attack it. For example, when England and France gave Germany the ultimatum to withdraw troops from Poland in the last days of August 1939, the Germans had the diplomatic certainty that if they did not comply with the ultimatum that England and France would declare that a state of war existed between them and Germany.


Obviously diplomatic certainty is not absolute certainty, since, after all, even the most fiercely worded ultimatum may always prove to be a bluff. And yet, simply because a called bluff destroyed a nation's diplomatic credibility, diplomatic certainty was normally as close to a real certainty as it is possible to get under the circumstances. It was, once again, the kind of certainty you could take to the bank -- and indeed should take to the bank, if you wished to survive.


Yet, unfortunately, even this kind of certainty is not possible in our post 9/11 world. Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center did not come at the conclusion of a long and increasingly menacing series of diplomatic exchanges between the United States and Al Qaeda. It came out of the blue, without any diplomatic preamble.


That is the nature of catastrophic terror, and it is this fact that renders traditional diplomacy utterly useless as a prophylactic against it. Catastrophic terror, unlike a declaration of war, does not come about through a sequence of set moves, each of it is self-evidently more hostile than the one before. One morning it happens, and that is all that you can say about it.


If the Dean Doctrine of Preemption requires the United States to act only when it diplomatic certainty of an attack, then the best that can be said about it is that it would have been a wonderful doctrine in the world that ceased to exist on 9/11; but in today's world it is as out of place as the therapeutic use of leeches.


Real certainty is no longer available to our leaders in the post 9/11 world The next threat can come at any time, without any warning, and without any certainty as to its magnitude; it may be a car bomb or an atomic bomb -- and this is a simple fact that those who aspire to be our leaders must master as quickly as possible; and preferably before they are called upon to make decisions on which our survival will depend. The fate of our nation is too important to trust to interns -- even very clever ones.


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