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  • Writer's pictureQuassim Cassam

Terrorism and Pandemics: Re-Assessing the Bush Doctrine

In a recent tweet, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote that ‘one of Donald Trump’s achievements is that he can even make George W. Bush look like a genius’. What prompted this observation was footage of a speech by President Bush in 2005 on the threat of pandemic flu. Reports suggest that he had recently read a book on the 1918 flu epidemic and was exercised by the need to prepare for a similar event in the future. In outlining a national strategy for dealing with a flu pandemic President Bush said in his speech that ‘if we wait for a pandemic to appear it will be too late to prepare. And one day many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to prepare today’.

In retrospect, this seems remarkably prescient. Yet the words the President used to highlight the need to prepare for a pandemic were remarkably similar to the terms in which he had explained the rationale for what came to be known as the Bush doctrine. Speaking in the context of 9/11, the President committed the U.S. to pre-emptive action against non-immediate but serious threats posed by terrorists and rogue states trying to get their hands on WMD: ‘if we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long’. This is the essence of the Bush doctrine.

Terrorism studies academics, and especially practitioners of so-called ‘critical terrorism studies’, have been highly critical of this doctrine, which they blame for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Richard Jackson has written in this connection about what he calls the ‘epistemological crisis of counterterrorism’. For Jackson, a distinguished terrorism scholar, this crisis is partly constituted by ‘an extreme precautionary dogmatism in which the “unknown” is reflexively governed through preemptive action’. In a similar vein, in her book Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism, Lisa Stampnitzky describes a ‘logic of pre-emption’ in which the slightest chance of a terrorist attack ‘could warrant any degree of preventive action’, including extraordinary rendition and indefinite detention

These criticisms of the Bush doctrine vis-à-vis terrorism raise an obvious question: would similar criticisms have applied to the President’s thinking about a possible pandemic? Hopefully not, given the eminent good sense of his remarks about this subject. But if the two cases are different, how are they different? Pre-empting terrorism by military force is, of course, a very different thing from pre-empting a pandemic by non-harmful measures such as stockpiling personal protective equipment. Still, the question remains whether there is any difference of principle between the two cases. Since there was no evidence in 2005 that a pandemic was imminent, was President Bush guilty of ‘pre-emptive dogmatism’ in calling for pre-emptive action? If not, why not?

Among the most prominent criticisms of the Bush doctrine in relation to terrorism are the following:

  1. It focused on possible rather than probable threats.

  2. It relied on imagined threats rather than evidenced threats.

  3. It confused prevention and pre-emption.

As critics of the Bush doctrine see it, counterterrorism should focus on probable rather than merely possible threats and threats identified on the basis of empirical evidence rather than imagination or fantasy. Prevention rather than pre-emption should be the aim.

Now imagine parallel criticisms of Bush’s pandemic strategy. Suppose that back in 2005 critics had objected that it made no sense to focus on pandemic prevention or pre-emption given the low probability of such an event. The mere possibility of a pandemic, they might have said, is insufficient to justify action. In the absence of evidence that a flu pandemic was imminent the fact that such an occurrence was imaginable didn’t warrant any pre-emptive measures since, as Stampnitzky puts it, ‘traditionally, pre-emption has been used to refer to action taken against an imminent threat’. Prevention, for Stampnitzky, is action taken against a looming but less immediate problem. Yet in 2005 a flu pandemic was neither imminent nor looming.

In representing the logic of pre-emption as paranoid or accusing the President of precautionary dogmatism, critics represent as irrational modes of thought that, when employed in other domains, seem very far from irrational.

In retrospect, we can see that the possibility of a catastrophic but low probability pandemic did justify anticipatory measures, including early detection, vaccine development and stockpiling of antiviral drugs and personal protective equipment. The lack of evidence of an imminent pandemic was no argument against such measures, and scholarly debates about the semantics of ‘prevention’ and ‘pre-emption’ would have been beside the point. With the benefit of recent experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is easy to relate to Bush’s observation in 2005 that ‘a pandemic is a lot like a forest fire: if caught early, it might be extinguished with limited damage; if allowed to smolder undetected, it can grow to an inferno that spreads quickly beyond our ability to control it’. To put it another way, if we wait for a pandemic to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.

The point of drawing attention to the similarities between Bush’s comments about the threat of pandemics and the threat of terrorism is definitively not to defend or justify the invasion of Iraq or extraordinary rendition or anything else that his administration did to address the terrorist threat. The point is rather to question the idea that the administration’s thinking about these matters was flawed in principle or symptomatic of an epistemological crisis. It is one thing to endorse the principle of pre-emption, another to endorse specific pre-emptive measures.

In representing the logic of pre-emption as paranoid or accusing the President of precautionary dogmatism, critics represent as irrational modes of thought that, when employed in other domains, seem very far from irrational. It actually is the business of governments to confront dangers before they appear and stop them, as far as possible, from materializing. The basic confusion in criticisms of the Bush doctrine is between criticising a principle or philosophy and criticising its practical implementation. The thesis that if we wait for threats to fully materialize we will have waited too long gives expression to a precautionary philosophy that, as it turns out, underpinned Bush’s thinking both in relation to terrorism and to pandemics.

Similar reflections are prompted by Apocalypse How? a recent book by the former British cabinet minister Oliver Letwin. The book is set in 2037 and imagines the consequences of a power failure that knocks out the entire country’s communication networks. As Letwin points out, ‘if the electricity grid and the Internet go down in the late 2030s, and if we have not taken very particular precautions, it is likely that life as we know it will close down too, for as long as it takes to resume normal service’.

When this scenario is not just thought about but imagined in detail, as Letwin does, it seems obvious that we should be doing something now to pre-empt such a catastrophic event by building the backup systems to keep essential services going until the problem has been fixed. Yet, as Letwin points out, the reaction of most people to apocalyptic warnings of the kind contained in his book is to dismiss them as hyped-up nonsense or to assume that someone somewhere is dealing with the problem. This seems a little optimistic, given the failure of the UK government to prepare adequately for a pandemic despite that fact that a pandemic is at the top of its National Risk Register.

Imagining threats or disasters can be a legitimate way to reflect on what they might look like in practice and on our levels of preparedness.

One of Jackson’s criticisms of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 thinking about the threat of terrorism and WMD was its ‘legitimisation and institutionalisation of imagination and fantasy as a necessary counterterrorism tool’. In support of this criticism Jackson gives the example of a meeting between counterterrorism officials and Hollywood film directors and screen writers. The aim of the meeting was supposedly to brainstorm possible terrorist targets and schemes in America.

This sounds like a bizarre way of proceeding until one remembers that Bush’s pandemic warning and, even more clearly, Letwin’s account of a national communication breakdown are also based on ‘imagination and fantasy’. Imagining threats or disasters can be a legitimate way to reflect on what they might look like in practice and on our levels of preparedness.

Imagining is not the same as knowing but can lead to knowledge by a mechanism described by the philosopher Timothy Williamson. Imagination can alert us to dangers we might not have thought about. For example, imagining that there are wolves in a forest that we are about to enter might sensitize us to their presence and cause us to keep a sharper lookout for them. Williamson notes that for imagination to be useful in this way it must be selective and reality-oriented. This raises questions that can only be answered by further epistemological reflection. However, the basic idea that imagination can be useful for threat detection and preparedness is both plausible and important.

If this is right then it is time to rethink recent criticisms of the so-called logic of pre-emption. Precautionary dogmatism can lead us astray but it is important not to go too far the other way. Certainly, when the Bush doctrine is viewed through the lens of the current pandemic and the President’s 2005 speech, recent criticisms of the doctrine itself (as distinct from its implementation) do not look half as compelling as they once did.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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