paradox of omnipotence and vulnerability. The U.S. military budget
is greater than those of the next 14 countries combined and the American
economy is larger than the next three combined. Yet Americans going
about their daily lives face a greater risk of sudden death from terrorist
attack than ever before. This situation has fostered a psychology
of vulnerability that makes Americans hyperalert to foreign dangers
and predisposed to use military power in what may be self-defeating
attempts to escape their fears.
The Bush Administration's new national security doctrine, which provides
a superficially attractive rationale for preventive war, reflects
this uneasy state of mind.1
In an open society, no strictly defensive strategy against terrorism
can be foolproof. Similarly, deterring terrorist attack by the threat
of retaliation seems impossible when the potential attackers welcome
suicide. Bizarre or diabolical leaders of potentially nuclear-armed
rogue states may likewise seem undeterrable. If so, attacking the
sources of potential threats before they can mount their own attacks
may seem the only safe option. Such a strategy presents a great temptation
to a country as strong as the United States, which can project overwhelming
military power to any spot on the globe.
In adopting this strategy, however, America risks marching in the
well-trod footsteps of virtually every imperial power of the modern
age. America has no formal colonial empire and seeks none, but like
other great powers over the past two centuries, it has sometimes sought
to impose peace on the tortured politics of weaker societies. Consequently,
it faces many of the same strategic dilemmas as did the great powers
that have gone before it. The Bush Administration's rhetoric of preventive
war, however, does not reflect a sober appreciation of the American
predicament, but instead echoes point by point the disastrous strategic
ideas of those earlier keepers of imperial order.
AMERICA, the great empires
of the 19th and 20th centuries
enjoyed huge asymmetries of power relative to the societies at their
periphery, yet they rightly feared disruptive attack from unruly peoples
along the turbulent frontier of empire. Suspecting that their empires
were houses of cards, imperial rulers feared that unchecked defiance
on the periphery might cascade toward the imperial core. Repeatedly
they tried the strategy of preventive attack to nip challenges in
the bud and prevent their spread.
Typically, the preventive use of force proved counterproductive for
imperial security because it often sparked endless brushfire wars
at the edges of the empire, internal rebellions, and opposition from
powers not yet conquered or otherwise subdued. Historically, the preventive
pacification of one turbulent frontier of empire has usually led to
the creation of another one, adjacent to the first. When the British
conquered what is now Pakistan, for example, the turbulent frontier
simply moved to neighboring Afghanistan. It was impossible to conquer
everyone, so there was always another frontier.
Even inside well-established areas of imperial control, the use of
repressive force against opponents often created a backlash among
subjects who came to reassess the relative dangers and benefits of
submission. The Amritsar massacre of 1919, for example, was the death
knell for British India because it radicalized a formerly circumspect
opposition. Moreover, the preventive use of force inside the empire
and along its frontiers often intensified resistance from independent
powers outside the empire who feared that unchecked, ruthless imperial
force would soon encroach upon them. In other words, the balance of
power kicked in. Through all of these mechanisms, empires have typically
found that the preventive use of force expanded their security problems
instead of ameliorating them.
As the dynamic of imperial overstretch became clearer, many of the
great powers decided to solve their security dilemmas through even
bolder preventive offensives. None of these efforts worked. To secure
their European holdings, Napoleon and Hitler marched to Moscow, only
to be engulfed in the Russian winter. Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany tried
to break the allies' encirclement through unrestricted submarine warfare,
which brought America's industrial might into the war against it.
Imperial Japan, facing a quagmire in China and a U.S. oil embargo,
tried to break what it saw as impending encirclement by seizing the
Indonesian oil fields and preventively attacking Pearl Harbor. All
sought security through expansion, and all ended in imperial collapse.
Some great powers, however, have pulled back from overstretch and
husbanded their power for another day. Democratic great powers, notably
Britain and the United States, are prominent among empires that learned
how to retrench. At the
turn of the 20th century, British leaders
saw that the strategy of "splendid isolation" – what we
would now call unilateralism – was getting the empire into trouble.
The independence struggle of Boer farmers in South Africa drained
the imperial coffers while, at the same time, the European great powers
were challenging Britain's naval mastery and its hold on other colonial
positions. Quickly doing the math, the British patched up relations
with their secondary rivals, France and Russia, to form an alliance
directed at the main danger, Germany. Likewise, when the United States
blundered into war in Vietnam, it retrenched and adopted a more patient
strategy for waiting out its less capable communist opponents.
Contemporary America, too, is capable of anticipating the counterproductive
effects of offensive policies and of moderating them before much damage
is done. The Bush team, guided by wary public opinion,
worked through existing UN resolutions during the fall of 2002 to
increase multilateral support for its threats of preventive war against
Iraq. Moreover, the administration declined to apply mechanically
its preventive war principles when North Korea renounced international
controls on its nuclear materials in December 2002. Strikingly, too,
codicil to the NSS, dealing specifically with the proliferation
of weapons of mass destruction, never mentioned the option of preventive
attack.2 A brief tour through the misguided strategic
ideas of previous empires underscores the wisdom of such self-restraint.
of Security Through Expansion
MAJOR historical instance of imperial overstretch has been propelled
by arguments that security could best be achieved through further
expansion – "myths of empire", I have called them.3 Since
many of these myths are echoed eerily in the Bush Administration's
strategic rhetoric, it is worthwhile recalling how those earlier advocates
of imperial overstretch tried to make their dubious cases. Eight themes
general of the myths of empire is that the attacker has an inherent
advantage. Sometimes this is explained in terms of the advantages
of surprise. More often, it relies on the broader notion that seizing
the initiative allows the attacker to impose a plan on a passive enemy
and to choose a propitious time and circumstance for the fight. Even
if the political objective is self-defense, in this view, attacking
is still the best strategy. As the NSS says, "our best
defense is a
Throughout history, strategists who have blundered into imperial overstretch
have shared this view. For example, General Alfred von Schlieffen,
the author of Germany's misbegotten plan for a quick, decisive offensive
in France in 1914, used to say that "if one is too weak to attack
the whole" of the other side's army, "one should
attack a section."4 This idea defies
military common sense. In war, the weaker side normally remains on
the defensive precisely because defending its home ground is typically
easier than attacking the other side's strongholds.
The idea of offensive advantage also runs counter to the most typical
patterns of deterrence and coercion. Sometimes the purpose of a military
operation is not to take or hold territory but to influence an adversary
by inflicting pain. This is especially true when weapons of mass destruction
are involved. In that case, war may resemble a competition in the
willingness to endure pain. Here too, however, the defender normally
has the advantage, because the side defending its own homeland and
the survival of its regime typically cares more about the stakes of
the conflict than does a would-be attacker. It is difficult to imagine
North Korea using nuclear weapons or mounting a conventional artillery
barrage on the South Korean capital of Seoul for purposes of conquest,
but it is much easier to envision such desperate measures in response
to "preventive" U.S. attacks on the core power resources
of the regime.
Because the Bush Administration saw such retaliation as feasible and
credible, it was deterred from undertaking preventive strikes when
the North Koreans unsealed a nuclear reactor in December. Indeed,
deterring any country from attacking is almost always easier than
compelling it to disarm, surrender territory or change its regime.
Once stated, this point seems obvious, but the logic of the Bush strategy
document implies the opposite.
REASON that blundering empires have been keen on offensive strategies
is that they have relied on preventive attacks to forestall unfavorable
shifts in the balance of power. In both World War I and II, for example,
Germany's leaders sought war with Russia in the short run because
they expected the Russian army to gain relative strength over time.5
But the tactic backfired badly.
Preventive aggression not only turned a possible enemy into a certain
one, but in the long run it helped bring other powers into the fight
to prevent Germany from gaining hegemony over all of them. This reflects
a fundamental realist principle of the balance of power: In the international
system, states and other powerful actors tend to form alliances against
the expansionist state that most threatens them. Attackers provoke
fears that drive their potential victims to cooperate with each other.
Astute strategists learn to anticipate such cooperation and try to
use it to their advantage. For example, one of the most successful
diplomats in European history, Otto von Bismarck, achieved the unification
of Germany by always putting the other side in the wrong and, whenever
possible, maneuvering the opponent into attacking first. As a result,
Prussia expanded its control over the German lands without provoking
excessive fears or resistance. Pressed by his generals on several
occasions to authorize preventive attacks, Bismarck said that preventive
war is like committing suicide from fear of death; it would "put
the full weight of the imponderables . . . on the side of the enemies
attacked."6 Instead, he demanded patience: "I
have often had to stand for long periods of time in the hunting blind
and let myself be covered and stung by insects before the moment came
to shoot."7 Germany fared poorly under
less-able successors, who shared his ruthlessness but lacked his understanding
of the balance of power.
Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait, the elder Bush enjoyed a diplomatic
advantage in the 1991 war. That's why the coalition against Iraq was
so large and willing. This advantage is vastly and inherently more
difficult to achieve in a strategy of preventive attack, as the younger
Bush has learned over the past year. Especially when an adverse power
shift is merely hypothetical and not imminent, it hardly seems worthwhile
to incur the substantial diplomatic disadvantages of a preventive
PAPER TIGER ENEMIES
ALSO become overstretched when they view their enemies as paper tigers,
capable of becoming fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled
by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory.
For example, Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong
and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge,
selfsufficient empire to get the resources to defend itself; yet at
the same time, the Japanese regime saw the United States as so vulnerable
and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would discourage
it from fighting back.
Similarly, the Bush Administration's arguments for preventive war
against Iraq have portrayed Saddam Hussein as being completely undeterrable
from using weapons of mass destruction, yet Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld said he expected that Iraq would not use them even if attacked
because "wise Iraqis will not
obey his orders to use WMD."8 In other words,
administration strategists think that deterrence is impossible even
in situations in which Saddam lacks a motive to use weapons of mass
destruction, but they think deterrence will succeed when a U.S. attack
provides Iraq the strongest imaginable motive to use its weapons.
The NSS says "the greater the threat, the
greater is the risk of inaction"; but this is a rationale for
preventive attack only if we accept a paper tiger image of the enemy.
MYTH of empire is
that states tend to jump on the bandwagon with threatening or forceful
powers. During the Cold War, for example, the Soviet Union thought
that forceful action in Berlin, Cuba and the developing world would
demonstrate its political and military strength, encourage socalled
progressive forces to ally actively with Moscow, and thereby shift
the balance of forces still further in the favor of the communist
bloc. The Soviets called this the "correlation of forces"
theory. In fact, the balance of power effect far outweighed and erased
the bandwagon effect. The Soviet Union was left far weaker in relative
terms as a result of its pressing for unilateral advantage. As Churchill
said of the Soviets in the wake of the first Berlin Crisis, "Why
have they deliberately acted for three long years so as to unite the
the 1991 Gulf War, the earlier Bush Administration argued that rolling
back Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait was essential to discourage
Arabs throughout the Middle East from jumping on the Iraqi bandwagon.
Now the current Bush Administration hopes that bandwagon dynamics
can be made to work in its own favor. Despite the difficulties that
the United States has had in lining up support for an invasion of
Iraq, the administration nonetheless asserts that its strategy of
preventive war will lead others to jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Secretary
Rumsfeld has said that "if our leaders do the right thing, others
will follow and support our just cause – just as they have in the
global war against
the same time, some self-styled realists in the administration also
argue that their policy is consistent with the concept of the balance
of power, but the rhetoric of the NSS pulls this concept
out: "Through our willingness to use force in our own defense
and in the defense of others, the United States demonstrates its resolve
to maintain a balance of power that favors freedom." What this
Orwellian statement really seems to mean is that preventive war will
attract a bandwagon of support that creates an imbalance of
power in America's favor, a
conception that is logically the same as the wrongheaded Soviet theory
of the "correlation of forces." Administration strategists
like to use the terminology of the balance of power, but they understand
that concept exactly backwards.
BIG STICK DIPLOMACY
CLOSELY RELATED myth is
the big stick theory of making friends by threatening them. Before
World War I, Germany's leaders found that its rising power and belligerent
diplomacy had pushed France, Russia and Britain into a loose alliance
against it. In the backwards reasoning of German diplomacy, they decided
to try to break apart this encirclement by trumping up a crisis over
claims to Morocco, threatening France with an attack and hoping to
prove to French leaders that its allies would not come to its rescue.
In fact, Britain did support France, and the noose around Germany
How does the United States today seek
to win friends abroad? The NSS offers some reassuring language
about the need to work with allies. Unlike President Bill Clinton
in the Kosovo war, President Bush worked very hard for a UN resolution
an attack on Iraq. Nonetheless, on the Iraq issue and a series of
others, the administration has extorted cooperation primarily by threats
to act unilaterally, not gained it by persuasion or concessions. Russia
was forced to accept a new strategic arms control regime on
American terms. EU
member states were similarly compelled to accept an exemption for
U.S. officials from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.
Germany was snubbed for resisting the war against Iraq. Multilateral
initiatives on the environment were summarily rejected. Secretary
Rumsfeld, in his personal jottings on strategy, has raised to the
level of principle the dictum that the United States should "avoid
trying so hard to persuade others to join a coalition that we compromise
our goals."11 Either the administration
allies are dispensable, or a powerful faction within it adheres to
the Kaiser Wilhelm theory of diplomacy.
COMMON myth of
empire is the famous domino theory. According to this conception,
small setbacks at the periphery of the empire will tend to snowball
into an unstoppable chain of defeats that will ultimately threaten
the imperial core. Consequently, empires must fight hard to prevent
even the most trivial setbacks. Various causal mechanisms are imagined
that might trigger such cascades: The opponent will seize ever more
strategic resources from these victories, tipping the balance of forces
and making further conquests easier. Vulnerable defenders will lose
heart. Allies and enemies alike will come to doubt the empire's resolve
to fight for its commitments. An empire's domestic political support
will be undermined. Above all, lost credibility is the ultimate domino.
Such reasoning has been nearly universal among
overstretched empires.12 For
example, in 1898 the British and the French both believed that if
a French scouting party could claim a tributary of the Upper Nile
– at a place called Fashoda – France could build a dam there, block
the flow of the Nile, trigger chaos in Egypt that would force Britain
out of the Suez Canal, cut Britain's strategic lifeline to India,
and thus topple the empire that depended on India's wealth and manpower.
Britain and France, both democracies, nearly went to war because of
this chimera. Similarly, Cold War America believed that if Vietnam
fell to communism, then the credibility of its commitment to defend
Taiwan, Japan and Berlin would be debased. Arguably, the peripheral
setback in Vietnam tarnished American deterrent credibility only because
we so often and so insistenly said it would.
arguments, especially ones that hinge on lost credibility, have informed
Secretary Rumsfeld's brief for preventive war against Iraq. In a nice
rhetorical move, he quoted former President Clinton to the effect
that if "we fail to act" against Saddam's non-compliance
will conclude that the international community has lost its will.
He will conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an
arsenal of devastating destruction. . . . Some day, some way, I guarantee
you he will use that
could have added (but didn't) that the Clinton Administration made
the same argument even more strongly about the dire precedent that
would be set by permitting the further expansion of North Korea's
nuclear weapons capability. Ironically, the credibility of the United
States is on the line in such cases mainly because of its own rhetoric.
yet it may be that the threat of an American attack is all too
main motivation for North Korea to break out of the 1994 agreement
constraining its nuclear program was apparently its perceived need,
in light of the Bush Administration's preventive war doctrine and
reluctance to negotiate, for more powerful weapons to deter the United
A ubiquitous corollary of the domino theory holds that it is cheap
and easy to stop aggressors if it is done early on. Secretary Rumsfeld
has made this kind of argument to justify a preventive attack on Iraq.
Between 35 and 60 million people died needlessly, he claimed, because
the world didn't attack Hitler preventively: "He might have been
stopped early – at minimal cost in lives – had the vast majority of
the world's leaders not decided at the time that the risks of acting
were greater than the risks of not acting." Apart from its questionable
relevance to the case of Iraq, the historical point is itself debatable:
Britain and France were militarily ill-prepared to launch a preventive
attack at the time of the Munich crisis, and if they had, they probably
would have had to fight Germany without the Soviet Union and the United
States as allies. As Bismarck had understood, preventive war is bad
strategy in part because it often leads to diplomatic isolation.
EL DORADO AND MANIFEST DESTINY
OF the central myths of
empire focus on a comparison of the alleged costs of offensive versus
defensive strategies. In addition, myths that exaggerate the benefits
of imperial expansion sometimes play an important role in strategic
debates. For example, German imperialism before World War I was fueled
in part by the false idea that Central Africa would be an El Dorado
of resources that would strengthen Germany's strategic position in
the same way that India had supposedly strengthened Britain's. In
debates about preventive war in Iraq, some commentators have portrayed
an anticipated oil windfall as a comparable El Dorado. Astutely, the
Bush Administration has refrained from rhetoric about this potential
boon, realizing that it would be counterproductive and unnecessary
to dwell on it. Such a windfall could turn out to be a curse in any
event, since pumping massive amounts of oil to pay for an occupation
of Iraq could undercut Saudi oil revenues and destabilize the political
the promised benefits of imperial expansion are also ideological –
for example, France's civilizing mission or America's mission to make
the world safe for democracy. In a surprising moment of candor, John
Foster Dulles, a decade before he became Dwight Eisenhower's Secretary
of State, wrote that all empires had been "imbued with and radiated
great faiths [like] Manifest Destiny [and] The White Man's Burden."
We Americans "need a faith", said Dulles, "that will
make us strong, a faith so pronounced that we, too, will feel that
we have a mission to
spread throughout the world."14
An idealistic goal is patently invoked here for its instrumental value
in mobilizing support for the imperial enterprise.
idealistic notes that grace the Bush Administration's strategy paper
have the same hollow ring. The document is chock full of high-sounding
prose about the goal of spreading democracy to Iraq and other countries
living under the yoke of repression. President Bush's preface to the
strategy document asserts that "the United States enjoys a position
of unparalleled military strength", which creates "a moment
of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe.
We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development,
free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." This
sounds like insincere public relations in light of candidate Bush's
warnings against the temptations of nation-building abroad. The theme
of promoting democracy is rare in Secretary Rumsfeld's statements,
which may turn out to be a better index of the administration's underlying
FINAL MYTH of empire is that in strategy there are no tradeoffs. Proponents
of imperial expansion tend to pile on every argument from the whole
list of myths of empire. It is not enough to argue that the opponent
is a paper tiger, or that dominoes tend to fall, or that big stick
diplomacy will make friends, or that a preventive attack will help
to civilize the natives. Rather, proponents of offensive self-defense
inhabit a rhetorical world in which all of these things are
true, and thus all considerations point in the same direction.
The Bush Administration's strategic rhetoric about Iraq in late 2002
did not disappoint in this regard. Saddam was portrayed as undeterrable,
as getting nuclear weapons unless deposed and giving them to terrorists,
the war against him would be cheap and easy, grumbling allies would
jump on our bandwagon, Iraq would become a democracy, and the Arab
street would thank the United States for liberating it. In real life,
as opposed to the world of imperial rhetoric, it is surprising when
every conceivable consideration supports the preferred strategy. As
is so often the case with the myths of empire, this piling on of reinforcing
claims smacks of
ex post facto justification rather than serious
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Condoleezza Rice wrote of Iraq
that "the first line of defense should be a clear and classical
statement of deterrence – if they
do acquire WMD, their weapons will be unusable because any attempt
to use them
will bring national obliteration."15 Two years
later, however, the possibility of deterrence has become unthinkable
as administration rhetoric regarding Iraq has been piled higher and
higher. "Given the goals of rogue states [and] the inability
to deter a potential attacker" of this kind, says the NSS,
"we cannot let our enemies strike
first." Administration dogma left no room for any assessment
of Iraq that did not reinforce the logic of the prevailing preventive
Why Are Myths of Empire So Prevalent?
IN AMERICA today, strategic experts
abound. Many are selfstyled realists, people who pride themselves
on accepting the hard reality that the use of force is often necessary
in the defense of national interests. It is striking that many of
these realists consider the Bush Administration's strategic justifications
for preventive war against Iraq to be unconvincing. Indeed, 32 prominent
international relations scholars, most of them realists, bought an
ad in the New York Times to make their case against
the Bush strategy. Included among them was the leading proponent of
the "offensive realism" school of thought, John Mearsheimer,
professor at the University of Chicago.16
of the new preventive strategy charge that such realists are out of
touch with a world in which forming alliances to balance against overwhelming
U.S. power has simply become impossible. It is true that small rogue
states and their ilk cannot on their own offset American power in
the traditional sense. It is also true that their potential greatpower
backers, Russia and China, have so far been wary of overtly opposing
U.S. military interventions. But even if America's unprecedented power
reduces the likelihood of traditional balancing alliances arising
against it, the United States could find that its own offensive actions
create their functional equivalents. Some earlier expansionist empires
found themselves overstretched and surrounded by enemies even though
balancing alliances were slow to oppose them. For example, although
the prospective victims of Napoleon and Hitler found it difficult
to form effective balancing coalitions, these empires attacked so
many opponents simultaneously that substantial de facto
alliances eventually did form against
them. Today, an analogous form of selfimposed overstretch – political
as well as military – could occur if the need for military operations
to prevent nuclear proliferation risks were deemed urgent on several
fronts at the same time, or if an attempt to impose democracy by force
of arms on a score or more of Muslim countries were seriously undertaken.
Even in the absence of highly coordinated balancing alliances, simultaneous
resistance by several troublemaking states and terrorist groups would
be a daunting challenge for a strategy of universal preventive action.
Highly motivated small powers or rebel movements defending their home
ground have often prevailed against vastly superior states that lacked
the sustained motivation to dominate them at extremely high cost,
as in Vietnam and Algeria. Even when they do not prevail, as on the
West Bank, they may fight on, imposing high costs over long periods.
Precisely because America is so strong, weak states on America's hit
list may increasingly conclude that weapons of mass destruction joined
to terror tactics are the only feasible equalizer to its power. Despite
America's aggregate power advantages, weaker opponents can get access
to outside resources to sustain this kind of cost-imposing resistance.
a state as weak and isolated as North Korea has been able to mount
a credible deterrent, in part by engaging in mutually valuable strategic
trade with Pakistan and other Middle Eastern states. The Bush Administration
itself stresses that Iraq bought components for the production of
weapons of mass destruction on the commercial market and fears that
no embargo can stop this. Iran is buying a nuclear reactor from Russia
that the United States views as posing risks of nuclear proliferation.
Palestinian suicide bombers successfully impose severe costs with
minimal resources. In the September 11 attack, Al- Qaeda famously
used its enemy's own resources.
In short, both historically and today, it seems hard to explain the
prevalence of the myths of empire in terms of objective strategic
analysis. So what, then, explains it?
historical cases, narrow interest groups that profited from imperial
expansion or military preparations hijacked strategic debates by controlling
the media or bankrolling imperial pressure groups. In imperial Japan,
for example, when a civilian strategic planning board pointed out
the implausibilities and contradictions in the militarists' worldview,
its experts were thanked for their trenchant analysis and then summarily
fired. In pre-World War I Germany, internal documents showing the
gaping holes in the offensive strategic plans of the army and navy
were kept secret, and civilians lacked the information or expertise
to criticize the military's public reasoning.
The directors of Krupp Steelworks subsidized the belligerent German
Navy League before 1914, and then in the 1920s monopolized the wire
services that brought nationalist-slanted news to Germany's smaller
cities and towns. These were precisely the constituencies that later
voted most heavily for Hitler.
In other cases, myths of empire were propounded by hard-pressed leaders
seeking to rally support by pointing a finger at real or imagined
enemies. For example, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a
series of unstable regimes found that they could increase their short-run
popularity by exaggerating the threat from monarchical neighboring
states and from aristocratic traitors to the Revolution. Napoleon
perfected this strategy of rule, transforming the republic of the
Rights of Man into an ever-expanding empire of popular nationalism.
Once the myths of empire gain widespread currency in a society, their
origins in political expediency are often forgotten. Members of the
second generation become true believers in the domino theory, big
stick diplomacy and the civilizing mission. Kaiser Wilhelm's ministers
were self-aware manipulators, but their audiences, including the generation
that formed the Nazi movement, believed in German nationalist ideology
with utmost conviction. In a process that Stephen Van Evera has called
"blowback", the myths of empire may become ingrained in
the psyche of the people and the institutions of their state.
Many skeptics about attacking Iraq suspect that similar domestic political
dynamics are at the root of the Bush doctrine of preventive war. In
particular, they think that the Iraq project echoes the plot of recent
fictions in which a foreign war is trumped up to win an election.
Some suggested that the day after the November 2002 election, the
drumbeat of war would miraculously slacken and then disappear. Such
rank cynicism deserved to be disappointed, and it was. Some members
of Bush's inner circle have been spoiling for a rematch with Iraq
for years, so clearly the convergence of its timing with the mid-term
congressional election was a coincidence. Nonetheless, it probably
did not hurt the hawks' cause in White House deliberations that the
Iraq issue succeeded in pushing the parlous state of the economy off
the front pages at a convenient moment.
A deeper reason for the prevalence of the myths of empire in contemporary
debates is the legacy of Cold War rhetoric in the tropes of American
strategic discourse. The Rumsfeld generation grew to political maturity
inculcated with the Munich analogy and the domino theory. It is true
that an opposite metaphor, the quagmire, is readily available for
skeptics to invoke as a result of the Vietnam experience. But after
the September 11 attack and the easy victory over the Taliban, the
American political audience is primed for Munich analogies and preventive
war, not for quagmire theories. Indeed, it is striking how many Senate
speeches on the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq began
with references to the effect of September 11 on the American psyche.
They did not necessarily argue that the Iraqi government is a terrorist
organization like Al-Qaeda. They simply noted the emotional reality
that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had left
Americans fearful and ready to fight back forcefully against threats
of many sorts. In this sense, America is psychologically primed to
accept the myths of empire. They "feel right"; but this
is no way to run a grand strategy.
A final reason why America is primed to accept the myths of empire
is simply the temptation of great power. As the German realist historian
Ludwig Dehio wrote about Germany's bid for a hegemonic position in
Europe, "since the supreme power stands in the solitude of its
supremacy, it must face daemonic temptations
of a special kind."17 More recently, Christopher
Layne has chronicled the tendency of unipolar hegemonic states since
the Spain of Philip II to succumb to the temptations of overstretch
and thereby to provoke the enmity of an opposing coalition.18
Today, the United
States is so strong compared to everyone else that almost any imaginable
military objective may seem achievable. This circumstance, supercharged
by the rhetoric of the myths of empire, makes the temptation of preventive
war almost irresistible.
warrants a skeptical attitude toward arguments that security can be
achieved through imperial expansion and preventive war. Moving beyond
mere skepticism, we may consider a general prescription, one that
might resonate with both liberals and realists alike.
Liberals might want to review a recent
book by G. John Ikenberry, After Victory, which tells
the story of attempts by the victors in global power contests to establish
a stable post-conflict international order.19 Ikenberry
democracies are particularly well suited to succeed in this because
the transparency of their political institutions makes them trustworthy
bargaining partners in the eyes of weaker states. As a result, strong
and weak states are able to commit themselves to an international
constitution that serves the interests of both. Realists should study
this book, too, because it explains why even the strongest of powers
has an incentive to lead through consensus rather than raw coercion.
Bush's National Security Advisor,
former Stanford political science professor and provost Condoleezza
Rice, has recently advanced a much different view of the interplay
of power-political realism and democratic idealism. (Once you have
been a professor of international relations, it is evidently hard
to get these debates out of your blood.) She argues that realism and
idealism should not be seen as alternatives: a realistic sense of
power politics should be used in the service of ideals. Who could
possibly disagree? But contrary to what she and Bush once argued on
the campaign trail about humility and a judicious sense of limits,
Rice now believes that America's vast military power should be used
preventively to spread democratic ideals. She has also said, speaking
in New York this past October, that the aim of the Bush strategy is
"to dissuade any potential adversary from pursuing a military
build-up in the hope of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the
United States and our allies." Today, no combination of adversaries
can hope to equal America's power under any circumstances. However,
if they fear the unbridled use of America's power, they may perceive
overwhelming incentives to wield weapons of terror and mass destruction
to deter America's offensive tactics of self-defense. Indeed, the
history of the myths of empire suggests that a general strategy of
preventive war is likely to bring about precisely the outcome
Bush and Rice wish to avert.
Empire, Power Balances and Preventive War
To speak now of the true temper of empire, it is a thing
rare and hard to keep; for both temper, and distemper, consist
of contraries. . . . The difficulties in princes' business are
many and great; but the greatest difficulty, is often in their
own mind. For it is common with princes (saith Tacitus) to will
contradictories, Sunt plerumque regum voluntates vehementes,
et inter se contrariae. For it is the solecism of
power, to think to command the end, and yet not
to endure the mean. . . .
For their neighbors; there can no general rule be given (for
occasions are so variable), save one, which ever holdeth, which
is, that princes do keep due sentinel, that none of their neighbors
do ever grow so (by increase of territory, by embracing of trade,
by approaches, or the like), as they become more able to annoy
them, than they were. And this is generally the work of standing
counsels, to foresee and to hinder it. During that triumvirate
of kings, King Henry the Eighth of England, Francis the First
King of France, and Charles the Fifth Emperor, there was such
a watch kept, that none of the three could win a palm of ground,
but the other two would straightways balance it, either by confederation,
or, if need were, by a war; and would not in any wise take up
peace at interest. . . .
Neither is the opinion of some of the Schoolmen, to be received,
that a war cannot justly be made, but upon a precedent
injury or provocation. For there is no question, but a just
fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is
a lawful cause of a war. . . .
Office of the President, National Security Strategy
of the United States [hereafter NSS], September 2002.
Office of the President, National Strategy to
Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, December 2002.
See my Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and
International Ambition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,
1991). I used the term "empire" in the general sense of
a powerful state that uses force to expand its influence abroad
beyond the point at which the costs of expansion begin to rise sharply.
Quoted in my Ideology of the Offensive: Military
Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca,
Cornell University Press, 1984), p. 113.
Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca,
Cornell University Press, 2000).
Gordon Craig, Germany: 1866–1945 (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 24–25; and Gerhard Ritter, The
Sword and the Scepter: The Problem of Militarism in Germany,
vol. 1 (Coral Gables,
FL: University of Miami Press, 1969), p. 245, quoting Bismarck's
Reichstag speech of February 6, 1888.
Quoted in Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development
of Germany: The Period of Unification, 1815–1871 (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 90.
Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee,
September 18–9, 2002.
Speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
March 31, 1949.
Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee,
September 18–9, 2002.
Rumsfeld quoted in the New York Times,
October 4, 2002.
See Charles Kupchan, The Vulnerability of Empire
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
Clinton quoted by Rumsfeld, Testimony before the
House Armed Services Committee, September 18–9, 2002.
"A Righteous Faith for a Just and Durable
Peace", October 1942, Dulles Papers, quoted in Ronald Pruessen,
John Foster Dulles: The Road to Power (New York: Free
Press, 1982), p. 200.
Rice, "Promoting the National Interest",
Foreign Affairs (January/February 2000), p. 61.
16. New York Times, September 26, 2002.
See also John
J. Mearsheimer, "Hearts and Minds", The National
Interest (Fall 2002), p. 15.
Dehio, Germany and World Politics in the Twentieth
Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967 ), p. 15.
Layne, "The Unipolar Illusion: Why New
Will Rise", International Security (Spring 1993).
See Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions,
Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Ikenberry,
"Getting Hegemony Right", The National Interest
Snyder is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International
Relations at the Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University,
and the author of From
Voting to Violence: Democratization and Nationalist Conflict
with permission © The National Interest, No. 71 (Spring 2003),