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White House Updates National Security Strategy

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. It has been a day dominated by news from and about the war in Iraq. The new Iraqi parliament held its first session, lasting less than an hour. U.S. and Iraqi forces launched the largest airborne action since the invasion of Iraq nearly three years ago. And the White House has released an update of its preemptive war strategy. The document underscores the administration's commitment to the fight in Iraq, even as new polls show fewer Americans than ever share its assurance. In a few moments, we'll hear two views of whether the president's doctrine is a sound one. First, a report from NPR's Don Gonyea at the White House, who has looked at the document that details the administration's national security strategy.

DON GONYEA reporting:

At the front of the 49-page document released by the White House this morning is a letter from President Bush. It begins with these four words: America is at war. It's familiar language from the president, a tone that bespeaks the mindset that has driven Bush administration national security policy since the 2001 terror attacks. Mr. Bush left it to his surrogates to talk publicly about this report today. One of them, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, delivered a speech on the subject in Washington.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Advisor): The president believes that we must remember the clearest lesson of September 11th, that the United States of America must confront threats before they fully materialize.

GONYEA: The national security strategy, updated for the first time since 2002, reasserts the need to strike preemptively against potential threats. That's what the U.S. said it was doing in Iraq, with the president and a long list of White House officials asserting with all certainty before the war that Saddam Hussein had amassed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Of course, no WMDs were ever found, raising serious questions as to whether preemptive military action was warranted. But the revised security plan reveals no such second thoughts by the White House. Again, Stephen Hadley.

Mr. HADLEY: Under longstanding principles of self-defense, we do not rule out the use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack.

GONYEA: The report does say that "our intelligence must improve," but it also says, "there will always be uncertainty." The national security strategy looks at threats around the world and says of Iran, "we may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." It says an international effort aimed at ending Iran's nuclear ambitions must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided.

As for North Korea, which claims to already possess nuclear weapons, the report says the regime there must change its policies, open its system and give its people freedom. But there is no talk of confrontation with North Korea. At the White House, there were questions today about the timing of this document, coming out on the day when the U.S. military in Iraq launched a major air strike described as the largest since the war began. Press Secretary Scott McClellan denied that the air strike and the report were all part of a PR push to demonstrate that the administration is on top of the situation. The renewed offensive in Iraq, he said, was a military decision made by commanders.

Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Press Secretary): Those are decisions made by the military. You ought to direct those questions to them.

Unidentified Reporter: So all that is done without consultation with the administration.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: That's correct.

GONYEA: But the questions about action in Iraq do underscore a challenge that the administration does have to face. New polling shows fewer Americans than ever believe the president has a plan for success in Iraq, and more than ever harbor doubts about the president's ability to handle threats to the national security.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.