'The common defense'

From the wreckage of the Bush administration's foreign policies, the next president will inherit many intractable problems. Underlying many of them is a hard fact that some of the candidates recognize, but that none dare speak: Although the United States still leads the world economically, politically and militarily, its power and prestige, and hence its ability to lead, have been sharply eroded. The overwhelming military superiority the U.S. enjoys has not been matched by a comparable ability to master the geopolitical challenges that threaten our peace and prosperity. This relative decline in power predated the Bush administration but has been accelerated by its wars, its antiterrorism policies, its unilateralism and its failure to address domestic woes, notably the twin fiscal and trade deficits. The result of eight years of arrogant and unwise stewardship will be a weaker and more vulnerable America.

The challenge for the presidential candidates is to explain how they plan to defend the United States, particularly how they would combat international terrorist networks and how they would restore American prestige and leadership in the aftermath of the Iraq war. Most are struggling to do so while trying mightily to avoid awkward truths. It's not politic to admitthat the U.S. is weaker than it was a decade ago. And there is no campaign advantage to acknowledging that our current troubles cannot be blamed solely on either the very real failures of President Bush (as the Democrats would prefer to do) or on the very real dangers posed by Islamist terrorists, nuclear proliferators or oil-flush anti-American strongmen (the preferred targets of Republicans).

We believe that the restoration of American leadership amid rising global anti-Americanism requires an explicit repudiation of the exceptionalism that has soured this administration's dealings with other nations, and so hindered the collective defense of the world's democracies.

"Exceptionalism," like "liberal," has become a loaded term, and that has prevented forthright discussion of its hazards. The United States is an exceptional country in many positive respects. Chief among them is the American willingness to take on huge problems and injustices that other status-quo powers wouldn't dream of tackling at home, and certainly not abroad. Our ambition, idealism and creativity -- which gave birth to the civil rights and women's movements; the Marshall Plan; the microchip, the MRI and the Internet; the insistence that respect for human rights should be a consideration in foreign policy -- are exceptional. Even if sometimes flawed in their realization, these impulses have changed the world for the better.

Yet American exceptionalism has also stumbled into what the human rights scholar Michael Ignatieff calls "exemptionalism" -- the assertion that the United States, because of its inherent humanitarianism and moral probity, may exempt itself from the common rules that other civilized nations accept. This includes our refusal to sign treaties banning juvenile execution or land mines, and our insistence that the status and interrogation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay may be determined solely by U.S. presidential executive order.

Under the Bush administration, exemptionalism has veered into the dangerous assertion of an expanded right to preventive war, a rash reaction to the 9/11 attacks that led directly to the unilateral invasion of Iraq and to our current inability to muster international consensus on issues from Darfur to Kosovo and, most crucially, to punish Iran for its nuclear intransigence.

American presidents should never pander to international public opinion, but neither can the next president deny the link between respect for the United States and our ability to solve international problems that affect our national interests. Consider the tasks the Bush administration tried and failed to accomplish: defanging Al Qaeda and diminishing the appeal of radical Islamist ideology in Muslim communities around the world; routing the Taliban from Afghanistan for the second time; achieving stability in Iraq; halting the spread of nuclear weapons technology; ending the violence in Darfur; reforming the United Nations; brokering a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; winning a broad free-trade agreement for the Americas. No administration, including the next one, could expect to succeed at all of these. But progress is essential, and cannot be accomplished by the United States alone.

We hope the future president will agree that tending alliances is critical to national security, and that compromise is essential. Alliances are formed out of mutual need, but they do not endure without mutual trust and respect -- and humility helps too.

In the wake of the Iraq war and Bush administration threats against Iran, voters need clarity from the candidates on where and when they would use military force without approval by the United Nations or NATO. Last year, the administration revised and updated its National Security Strategy of 2002, the first assertion of the infamous Bush doctrine of preemption. The revision, while less bellicose, continues to proclaim the right of the United States to use military force against "emerging threats." Of course, the U.S. must always retain the right to preempt an imminent attack. But an emerging threat is not an imminent attack; to strike at a threat that might exist is preventive war, not preemption. We hope all of the candidates will repudiate this dangerous standard. The Democrats have all implied they would do so, though none has explicitly called for a revision of the National Security Strategy. To date, the only Republicans brave enough to reject preventive war are Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee.

The right to preempt an attack must be construed more broadly, however, when the would-be attacker is a terrorist such as Osama bin Laden -- a stateless, serial aggressor who seeks both martyrdom and weapons of mass destruction. The question is not whether Bin Laden will attack, but when. That is why both Bush and Democratic candidate Barack Obama have rightly indicated that they would violate Pakistani sovereignty if necessary to preempt such a threat.

Unfortunately, as the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran demonstrates, most situations are far murkier. We hope the next president will reassure the world that the United States will not repeat the mistake of Iraq -- that is, authorizing a preemptive, unilateral military strike against a sovereign nation, even a tyrannical regime hostile to the U.S., absent clear evidence of an impending attack. The world does not need to be reminded that America has the biggest military stick. It does need assurance that America will pursue the common defense with exceptional wisdom and self-restraint.

Next: "The General Welfare" explores healthcare, education and immigration. The complete "American Values" series can be found at latimes.com/values08.

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