Did America make a mistake in launching its first preemptive war? Certainly, the liberation of millions of Shiites and Kurds from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein by U.S. troops is a good thing. Yet the nation didn't go to war to save Iraqis but to protect Americans.
The justification of the invasion was to stop another September 11-style terrorist attack by preventing Iraq from threatening the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction. It's now clear that intelligence showing Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons was almost certainly false. "It turns out we were almost all wrong," admitted David A. Kay, the CIA's former weapons inspector. We were also wrong about Iraq's nuclear weapons program and the link between Saddam and al Qaeda. None of this appears to have existed.
This failure of intelligence is devastating. It undermines the Bush Administration's doctrine of preemption. Without good intelligence, it's impossible to know what threats are real and imminent and what action should be taken. This intelligence failure is made worse by the suspicion that information was slanted for or by Pentagon and White House policymakers to support a preconceived decision for war.
The Bush Administration's unilateral preemptive strategy outlined in the 2002 National Security Strategy document is now in question. Unilateralism first alienated allies who opposed America's go-it-alone posture. With the revelation that there were no WMDs, they're even more skeptical of U.S. leadership. Without their help, the Army is overextended and the budget deficit is overburdened with heavy security spending. Unilateral preemption also alienated the U.N., which the Bush Administration now needs to help rebuild Iraq.
The independent commission being established by President Bush needs to deal with the failure of intelligence -- and soon. Until America gets its intelligence straight, it will remain vulnerable to terrorism. But a much deeper rethinking of U.S. foreign policy remains to be done.