US National Security Strategy: a gift to anti–Americans everywhere

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
1 October 2002

The Bush administration’s manifesto of 17 September, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (NSSUSA), is a gift to anti–Americans everywhere. This sweeping declaration of defence and offence, martial intent and free trade, ideas of war and ‘a war of ideas’, is ill–argued, empty, hypocritical and dangerous – but that’s not all that’s wrong with it.

In the nine segments that propose, in children’s book fashion, to ‘Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity’, ‘Strengthen Alliances to Defeat Global Terrorism and Work to Prevent Attacks Against Us and Our Friends’, ‘Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction’, ‘Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade’, ‘Expand the Circle of Development by Opening Societies and Building the Infrastructure of Democracy’, and so on, there emerges a breathtaking ultimatum that must be read to be disbelieved.

Ill–argued, first of all. The opening three–page overview, in particular, is incoherent enough to have been read and approved, if not actually written, by the President himself. It lurches from claim to claim like a drunken prospector. It is broad–brushed in Bush’s brutalist style – things are so because I say so; I need not give arguments; I need not address counterarguments; I need not consider alternatives. Ipse dixit. It makes problems disappear by the simple expedient of failing to allude to them. Notions are not so much defended as heaped.

Overall, the NSSUSA leaves manifold questions unasked and unanswered. Not once does it ask: what are the negative consequences? What happens if things go wrong? When it affirms ‘We seek…to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty’, it fails to show the slightest curiosity about, for example, what it would be right to do if nations X or Y choose ‘for themselves’ a version of liberty that is not to our liking. One size fits all, for there is in the world but ‘a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise’.

Never mind that China is doing rather well, by many lights, with a structure that is not well so characterised. Banging away at the mantra of free trade, the document wholly ignores the way in which East Asian states have become richer with supreme protectionism.

Empty. Turn to any page at random, then stand back as the boilerplate wafts down. Freedom is promoted as if it were all of a piece – the freedom of multinational corporations equivalent to individuals’ freedom of speech, the freedom of religion inseparable from the freedom of abortion (but then again freedom to abort is probably not what the President has in mind).

‘The great strength of this nation must be used to promote a balance of power that favors freedom,’ we read, as if the slogan speaks for itself. (The document favours the latter seven words – the phrase recurs four times.) Never mind that the concept of ‘balance of power’ is, to say the least, peculiar in this setting, since currently there is no other power that needs to be balanced, and one very point of the NSSUSA is to insist that none will be permitted to arise.

The balance–of–power talk is a political science holdover from earlier aeons. (It is noteworthy, by the way, that a bloc of several dozen realist professors of political science, many of them renowned, ran an advertisement last week deploring the rush to war with Iraq, arguing that war with Iraq is not realistic at all.) Moreover, there is not the slightest consideration what sort of ‘freedom’ this administration has it in mind to favour, and whether there is room for dispute as to the qualities of this freedom, as to what happens when one dimension of this freedom collides with another dimension.

Hypocritical. Hypocrisy is the tribute that unilateralists pay to alliances. Since some members of their party, if not in their immediate entourage, still feel sentimental about these alliances, or the idea of them, some passages are thrown their way. Thus, the NSSUSA commends ‘consistent consultations among partners with a spirit of humility’.

If there is anything conspicuously lacking in the young Bush’s approach to Iraq, it is a spirit anywhere near humility. It took remonstrations from most of his father’s top national security honchos to drag him kicking and screaming before the United Nations (UN). (They have not, however, succeeded in persuading him of the use of international treaties, such as the one pertaining to bio–weapons, in restraining the development of weapons of mass destruction by reckless states.)

Expressing some defensiveness in the face of the charge of unilateralism, the NSSUSA bounces back with the claim that what it embraces is really internationalism: ‘a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.’ An internationalism so distinctive that no one but Americans need be taken seriously.

Dangerous. ‘As a matter of common sense and self–defense,’ the prologue reads, ‘America will act against…emerging threats before they are fully formed.’ In a startling rewrite of cold war history, the document views Soviet Communism in retrospect as ‘a generally status–quo, risk–averse adversary’. (Take that, Ronald Reagan.) By contrast, the argument goes, rogue states are not deterrable. Leave aside that Iraq has, in fact, been deterred from aggression since 1991; that North Korea has been, too.

Now, not everything is cold because George W. Bush says it is hot. The NSSUSA does have it right with respect to al–Qaida, whose would–be caliphate, controlling no territory, can legitimately be said to be uncontainable. But vis–à–vis stateless terrorists, the document pauses not for a moment to acknowledge the danger of reckless swashbuckling.

As previous empires learned at their peril, even centres of power must act with restraint. But the Government of the United States will ask not so much as a by your leave. It will know when threats are emerging, partly formed, and it will not have to say how it knows, or be convincing about what it knows. All that you, earthling, must know is that it will act. Stand back. A Congressional resolution is likely to pass soon, suitably moderated from the original Bush proposal to give the President war–making authority only in Iraq and not – as he proposed – the entire Middle East. Even this milder version will arrogate to one man the war–making authority to rip apart Iraq whenever he chooses.

Gored. Since the current effort promises a national purpose as momentous as the cold war, it was appropriate that the 98–year–old George F. Kennan, who devised the strategy of containment (though he came to deplore what was made of it), declared himself horrified by the Bush doctrine.

But the political reverberations in the United States began when a reborn Al Gore came forward on 23 September in San Francisco to thunder that ‘the Administration’s disdain for the views of others is well documented’, adding that ‘it is more important to note the consequences of an emerging national strategy that not only celebrates American strengths, but appears to be glorifying the notion of dominance. If what America represents to the world is leadership in a commonwealth of equals, then our friends are legion; if what we represent to the world is empire, then it is our enemies who will be legion.’

About the NSSUSA, Gore said that it incorporates an unspoken idea that ‘we claim this right for ourselves – and only for ourselves…. President Bush is presenting us…one of the most fateful decisions in our history: a decision to abandon what we have thought was America’s mission in the world – a world in which nations are guided by a common ethic codified in the form of international law….’ Gore concluded that the new doctrine ‘destroys the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law’ in favour of ‘the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the President of the United States.’

Not one of the major commercial networks, however many hours they have to fill, found Gore’s effort worthy of full coverage. But Gore did open space for Senator Robert Byrd, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia, and Senator Ted Kennedy, the liberal from Massachusetts, to chime in with principled doubt about the Iraq adventure.

For his pains, Gore earned Republican venom and pundit vituperation of a considerable magnitude. Here is Michael Kelly in the Washington Post: ‘Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts; bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical…. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.’

Advice for paranoids with real enemies

What is wrong with the NSSUSA is worse than I have suggested, because it is so sweeping in its reach that it discredits what might have been, from another hand, more modest imperatives.

There is a case to be made (as the UN Charter presupposes) for national self–defence as a last resort. There are organisations such as al–Qaida whose purposes can properly be called genocidal, and it is not clear how, in the years to come, we are to cope with them and their purposes. Critics of American bravado are obliged to address the question in earnest, not rhetorically – in particular, to address the question of what they propose to do if inspections in Iraq (a) are repelled by Saddam Hussein or (b) uncover, on or under the ground, violations of Security Council resolutions about weapons of mass destruction.

It is mightily worth underscoring that, as the document says, ‘international obligations are to be taken seriously. They are not to be undertaken symbolically to rally support for an ideal without furthering its attainment.’ This is code, of course, for a chastisement of the UN Security Council, which has permitted Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to escape inspections for almost four years now, in flagrant violation of many resolutions, without any serious attempt at a remedy.

It is also some satisfaction, albeit a small one, that the Bush group went to the trouble of issuing a manifesto at all. What the manifesto manifests is a recognition that the White House needs to defend its approach to the world with a gesture toward values.

Bush genuflects in the direction of what an earlier American manifesto called ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’, and lists principles on its way to the tough talk: ‘People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children – male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labour.’ It’s hard to imagine landless peasants in China and union organisers in Bangladesh brandishing these words as government and company goons crack down – but genuine democrats and lovers of justice might. It’s always helpful to the causes of the weak when might glances in the direction of right.

Still, the document’s emphasis is on the might. As one of the small tribe of liberal columnists, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, observed: ‘This is not a doctrine; it’s an impulse.’ Actually, it’s a doctrine that puts a gloss on an impulse, an impulse to which this administration was already disposed before 11 September 2001; Bush’s impulse to rip–roar through obstacles without hesitation.

Their métier is not consultation outside their charmed circle. They practise small–group communion. The rhetoric of the NSSUSA is recognisably the logic of the Republican majority in the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, the logic that put Bush in the White House. It reads like a bulldozer – things are so because we say they are so. This is the bully’s logic. It must be opposed – not because America has no enemies, or because it deserves the enemies it has, but because even paranoids who have real enemies are obliged to be intelligent and wise. P.S. From trauma, preemption
Bush’s TV address

What does the theory of unilateral action demand? Unilateral practice performed with multilateral gestures.

Here we go, said President George W. Bush on October 7 in Cincinnati, shrewdly holding out to domestic doubters the hope that he would cooperate with the United Nations (UN) Security Council, while seeming to insist on conditions that make such cooperation about as likely as Saddam Hussein’s conversion to Zionism.

Having been told over and over by pundits and Democrats that he had to explain himself, he made his most ambitious attempt to do just that. He pressed the panic button with gloved hand. He scored the political points he wanted to score by delivering, without gaffes, a collection of allegations and claims, none of which by itself was determining, but all of which, in the aggregate, lent an appearance of sense – an appearance of sense – to what had previously, for months, been a herky-jerky pantomime of an argument.

All the right topics flowed by in his uncharacteristically dense and brisk address: Saddam as builder of biological weapons, chemical weapons, and, if he has his way, ‘nucular’ weapons; Saddam making progress on all fronts; Saddam with ‘high-level contacts’ to terrorists; Saddam harbouring terrorists, granting medical favours to terrorists, training al-Qaida members in weapons of mass destruction; Saddam able to turn weapons of mass destruction over to terrorists.

One after the other, Bush called out the names of the issues itemised by his opponents. Why prepare for war now? Because tomorrow the danger would be worse. Do we care for the Iraqi people? We care for the Iraqi people. They should trust us.

He amassed a list of Saddam Hussein’s abominations. It was not a new list. No new intelligence was provided. For good measure, old issues were dragged in, including a missing American serviceman from the Gulf War. And irrelevancies: Americans living in the Middle East are at risk. (Americans living in every region are at risk nowadays and will be at greater risk should we go to war.) Fear was the background rumble. ‘We have every reason to expect the worst,’ said Bush. The unmistakable tattoo consisted of two repeated words: terror and terrorist. What Saddam is driving towards is ‘an arsenal of terror’.

‘We refuse to live in fear,’ Bush said, but the message presupposed that Americans do live in fear, in waves of unarguable jitters. Toward remedying that fear, he imagines that they will sign over to him all the initiative he desires. This was the barely subterranean subtext – because you fear al-Qaida, you must fear Saddam Hussein, and therefore you must trust me to do what I must to bring him down (with a very little help from our apprehensive friends). From trauma Bush extracts preemption.

Some Democrats were impressed. Not Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the ancient of days and one of the Democrats’ most pronounced opponents of unilateral military force. Byrd said that he kept waiting during the speech and heard nothing new. ‘We’re making ourselves look like the bully of the town,’ he said on a chat show. To fellow Democrats, he warned: ‘We’re letting ourselves be stampeded.’ Congress will vote later this week.

The stampede has left the corral.

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