The feathers are hitting the fan in the nation's capital over word that the Bush administration is developing a strategic doctrine to allow the United States to strike first against terrorist states or networks with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Before "pre-emption" or "defensive intervention," as it is euphemistically called, succumbs to demagogic name-calling - "Dr. Strangelove warmongers" vs. "peace-at-any-price cowards" - let's hope the issue gets some serious debate by serious people.
One point everyone agrees on. The pre-emption option marks a sharp break from the 50-year-old Cold War doctrine of achieving deterrence and containment via mutually assured destruction: neither side would launch a nuclear strike first because the other side would retaliate in kind.
This may be a good doctrine when you know your foe is as concerned about staying alive and healthy as you are. But when you're up against radical Islam which teaches that there are 72 virgins and a place reserved in heaven for "martyrs" - i.e., mass suicide killers - mutually assured destruction is no deterrent.
To the contrary, radical Muslims might very well welcome a weapons of mass destruction exchange that, from their point of view, guarantees death and suffering for millions of infidels.
When dealing with that kind of mentality, the United States would be remiss to rule out a first-strike option. What would Americans want their government to do if it learned that terrorists were targeting the nation with weapons of mass destruction? Wait to see if the enemy strikes? Or strike first and wipe out the enemy threat?
The answer is obvious. History would never forgive American leaders who failed to protect the nation when they had good reason to believe the enemy was preparing to attack with weapons of mass destruction.
There's another sound reason to include pre-emption as a U.S. self-defense option - to deter the enemy. If the enemy is assured we'll never strike first, they'll have no fear in continuing to develop their own nuclear capability and using it against us. If they believe their N-program could be destroyed by a first-strike against them they might sensibly conclude it's a risk not worth taking.
The most serious problem we see with pre-emption is that for it to succeed, the attack would have to be a surprise. Since Congress is the only entity empowered to declare war, this creates a constitutional issue. By the time Congress debated and decided on war, the enemy would have plenty of time to take defensive action.
While the first strike debate heats up, constitutional scholars need to look at ways to bring the Constitution's 18th century perspective on warfare into the 21st century.