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Bush calls for diplomacy, reasserts pre-emption policy

WASHINGTON—The edges are rounder but the point remains sharp.

President Bush places more emphasis on working with allies in his new National Security Strategy than he did in his first-term declaration, but still asserts that America under his leadership stands ready to launch pre-emptive strikes to eliminate potential enemies, a principle he applied by invading Iraq.

In the document released Thursday, Bush asserts that diplomacy is "our strong preference" when addressing the threat of weapons of mass destruction. He also talks of working with organizations such as the United Nations, the African Union and the Organization of American States to promote democracy as an antidote to terrorism.

That kinder, gentler tone is consistent with Bush's stated second-term goal of repairing relations with international allies that were frayed by the White House's go-it-alone attitude toward Iraq, said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University international relations professor and former National Security Council staffer under President Clinton.

"I find the tone somewhat more moderate and noted that there appears to be some talk of community-building, working with others, that wasn't there before," Kupchan said. "Its edges are somewhat rounded; it's not as strident. It bends over backward to stress America's need to work with others."

But even while making a softer pitch, the document retains the key element of the 2002 National Security Strategy: pre-emption.

"To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self defense," the document says.

Reassertion of the pre-emption policy isn't a surprise, analysts said. Bush believes in it and thinks it serves America and him well. But given that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq—the main pretext for the war—some experts question whether pre-emption remains a practical option.

"It's certainly much less viable now than it was in the days before the Iraq war," Kupchan said. "The Bush administration and the American people have gotten a bitter taste of the cost of pre-emptive war."

The war has dragged down Bush's approval ratings in polls to a range from the mid-30s to the low 40s, the lowest of his presidency, and polls show that most Americans favor withdrawing from Iraq. That would make any new pre-emptive strike much harder to sell.

"The whole thing hinges on intelligence information; the quality and quantity of the information," said Wallace J. Thies, a political science professor at the Catholic University of America, in Washington. "After Iraq, you would think they (White House) would be very careful before doing another pre-emptive strike."

In the new 49-page strategy, Bush calls Iran and North Korea serious challenges because they want nuclear-weapons programs. He expresses disappointment at rollbacks of democratic reform in Russia and warns China not to limit freedoms. He also identifies Cuba, Belarus, Burma, Syria and Zimbabwe as problem countries.

On Iran and North Korea, the National Security Strategy calls for taking "all necessary measures" to protect the United States while the administration seeks to resolve differences with both countries diplomatically. It's approaching North Korea through six-nation talks that include South Korea and China and is working with European allies on Iran, which they've referred to the U.N. Security Council.

Kupchan said he considered Iran a likely candidate for U.S. pre-emption because American military forces had a better chance there of identifying and taking out suspected nuclear facilities.

"The option in North Korea is about nonexistent because of its proximity to South Korea and because North Korea already has nuclear weapons," he said.

Other experts said pre-emptive action against Iran wasn't likely either, because another U.S. attack on a Middle Eastern country would further inflame the Muslim world, where Bush is trying to spread democracy.

"The Iranians would try to disturb the flow of oil, use their alleged terrorist links to strike U.S. interests, and oil prices would spike to $100 a barrel," Thies said. "The pain would be felt around the world."

Instead, Thies said, Bush is hoping that the threat of the National Security Strategy will be all the pre-emption he needs.

"It's a way of putting the Iranians on notice, trying to get leverage with other countries," he said. "It's a way of getting things done with words rather than deeds."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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