White House Backs Australian PM's Pre-Emptive Strike Comments

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The White House Monday voiced its support for controversial statements by Australian Prime Minister John Howard about pre-emptive strikes to prevent terrorist attacks.

"The president of course supports pre-emptive action," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer in response to a press briefing question about Howard's comments, which have drawn hostile reaction in Southeast Asia.

He said Howard's position was consistent with President Bush's doctrine on pre-emptive strikes, enunciated last June.

Howard said Sunday any prime minister would consider the option of attacking terrorists offshore if that was the only way to prevent attacks being planned on Australian soil.

He also repeated his recent suggestions that international law be amended to apply to changed circumstances.

Howard has argued that the U.N. charter on self-defense is outdated in a global climate where the threats are terrorism and weapons of mass destruction use, rather than conventional attacks by one state on another.

Fleischer repeated Bush's view on the fact that the nature of the enemy has changed.

"September 11 changed everything, and nations must respond and change their doctrines to face new and different threats," he said.

"That's the way of the world, it always has been. And a nation that remains in the status quo after an event like September 11 can only endanger its own people, and that is why the president did announce a new doctrine," Fleischer added.

Recent months have seen Australia grapple increasingly with the question of terrorism.

The deaths of some 90 of its citizens in the Oct. 12 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, shook the country, and it now also faces heightened security and warnings of possible attacks on home soil.

Howard's statement, made in reply to a television interviewer's question citing a possible strike on Australia launched from a "neighboring country," drew a sharp reaction from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said any pre-emptive Australian strike on Malaysian territory would be considered an act of war on the government and the country.

Political opponents at home accused Howard of damaging Australia's reputation in Southeast Asia at a time he should be building security alliances with neighboring states.

They also said he was making the country a target for terrorists.

Writing in Tuesday's edition of The Australian, Anthony Bergin of the Australian Defense Studies Centre and Hugh Smith of the Australian Defense Force Academy argued that pre-emption should only arise as an option when cooperation between governments to prevent terrorism has failed, and no other viable option exists.

But this, they said, was anyway precisely the doctrine of self-defense.

"Debate about the nature and limits of self-defense is desirable, but it is not a helpful step to expand its meaning in formal terms."

Bergin and Smith also wrote that talking openly about pre-emptive self-defense would rob it of its element of surprise and allow terrorists to strengthen their defenses.

"It may be most effective simply to act when there seems no feasible alternative and to claim self-defense," they said. "Al Qaeda, after all, has declared war on the West with no holds barred."

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow