Bush's security strategy: defend the nation, change the world

Mariano Aguirre
30 March 2006

In the midst of a serious legitimacy crisis over the policies of the George W Bush administration and its war in Iraq, the White House made public a new national security strategy on 16 March 2006. It has five principal tenets:

  • the right to launch pre-emptive attacks
  • the fight against radical Islam
  • the view of Iran as the main enemy
  • the need for caution towards China and Russia
  • the promotion of regime changes by means of "transformational diplomacy"

Conclusion: this is a presidency on the defensive.

This, the first national-security strategy announced by the administration since 2002, is explicit in setting the scene: because "America is at war", the country requires a new strategy appropriate for "times of war". The immediate adversary is radical Islamism: "terrorism fuelled by an aggressive ideology of hatred and murder" and the "great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century". The forms of war are many and varied. The mission is "to end tyranny in the world", and the American approach "is idealistic about our national goals, and realistic about the means to achieve them" (on the implications of this outlook, see Paul Rogers, "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Mariano Aguirre is a journalist and writer on international relations. He is co-director of the Peace & Security and Human Rights programmes Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid.

Among Mariano Aguirre's articles on openDemocracy:

"America underneath New York"
(November 2004)

"The many cities of Buenos Aires" (February 2005)

"Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff"
(July 2005)

"The Hurricane and the Empire"
(September 2005)

"Haiti: living on the edge"
(February 2006)


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The previous strategic document released on 20 September 2002 was based on military responses, pre-emptive strikes and unilateral action by the US. This approach acted as a cover for the policies that had been launched after 11 September 2001: enormous military budget increases, the search for dominance over enemies and allies alike, and focussing war strategy on global terrorism. Furthermore, it prepared the terrain for the offensive against Iraq, which was being planned to exceed anything the United Nations might agree to, and do far more than demolish Saddam Hussein's alleged arsenals.

Now the emphasis is on "leadership over isolationism", moderate multilateralism ("strong alliances and international institutions"), the energy race and (without abandoning pre-emptive war) a more open attitude towards promoting democracy involving mechanisms other than violent regime change. "Freedom cannot be imposed; it must be chosen". In its relations with its allies, the US should still maintain "global leadership" – but with certain limits.

The pre-emptive attack doctrine drew strong criticism when it was first outlined. Although it is unlikely that Washington would launch another adventure like the one in Iraq, the doctrine plays with uncertainty, while at the same time weakening international law. In this context, Iran is the principal enemy: "The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq". These words sound like an echo of the arguments against Saddam Hussein in 2002, as the drumbeats of war were being sounded.

The document also indicates that in the case of Iran it does not rule out the possibility, despite negotiations to halt its nuclear-energy programme, of taking "anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack".

The reference to "being at war" and that the "frontline" is in Afghanistan and Iraq is not merely rhetorical. One of the problems Bush is facing is that the more information that comes to the surface about the lies over weapons of mass destruction and the supposed link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, the more questions are asked about whether the president led the country into an illegal war and whether spying illegally on its citizens and ordering the use of torture might expose those responsible to legal prosecution.

Rhetoric and reality

A certain moderation in the language of the document is the only response to the US's failure in Iraq where civil war is becoming a reality and the project of democracy-building has been reduced to fragmenting the country. It is also an acknowledgement of the neo-conservative project's failure to launch democratisation of the middle east in the site of its first major experiment. This failure is evident in three ways: the Iraq war is proving beneficial for Iran, the human-rights violations perpetrated by the US (in Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and elsewhere) are creating more hate and terrorism towards the west; and Hamas's triumph in Palestine in the 25 January elections makes clear that democratic elections can produce unpredictable results.

The new strategy sets out the need to promote "effective democracies", that is to say those that have stable institutions. At the same time, it introduces the concept of "transformational diplomacy", which the state department director for policy planning, Stephen Krasner, defines (at the Center for Global Governance) as "supporting change within states, not relations among them. It is about the nature of domestic political regimes rather than the international balance of power and that is a very different conceptualisation of how we think about diplomacy".

Meanwhile, the secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has launched a reform of diplomacy and international development aid aimed at "failed states", as the administration considers that threats such as terrorism and radical Islam find safe havens more easily in them.

The Bush administration and some think-tanks sympathetic to it are seeking to rationalise future aggressions by linking pre-emption with failed states. Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute indicated to the Washington Post that "we have to understand pre-emption – it's not going to be simply a pre-emptive strike. That's not the end of the exercise but the beginning of the exercise"; an exercise he described as "building a sustainable, responsible state in place of a rogue nation" (see Peter Baker, "Bush to Restate Terror Strategy", Washington Post, 16 March 2006).

The strategy describes the type of state that Washington wants to promote, in which human rights are respected, institutions are protected and the rule of law prevents the abuse of power. The administration's own practices contradict these proclaimed ambitions. Sandra Day O'Connor, the former supreme-court judge, states that if the attacks on judicial power continue, the US runs the risk of slipping into dictatorship. At the same time, allegations about torture, corruption and illegal actions by the administration are piling up.

Such criticisms are reflected in two new books. James Risen's State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration (Simon & Schuster, 2006) provides a wealth of evidence and argument about how the Bush administration has illegally spied on citizens and abused its power, and how the defence department has crafted its own foreign policy with the president's complicity. Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2006) argues – revealingly for an ex-president of the country – that Bush's United States is flouting the principles of freedom, religious tolerance and democracy that the country was founded on.

The concerns are justified. The national security strategy only confirms, in its forty-eight pages, the abyss that exists between the document's emollient words and a reality that remains as harsh as ever.

This article was translated from Spanish by Fionnuala Ni Eigeartaigh

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