Empire Strikes First
a way, the news that the Bush administration is developing a new strategic doctrine
that involves preemptive
strikes against terrorists and states alleged to have chemical, biological or
nuclear weapons could be viewed as simply formalizing what has been U.S. intervention
doctrine for years now. After all, the United States did not require an attack
on another nation to commence bombing in Bosnia or Kosovo. President Clinton launched
missiles on an apparently abandoned terrorist camp in Afghanistan and on a pharmaceutical
factory in Sudan with little or no justification. The interventions in Haiti and
Somalia were not preceded by so much as a hint of a threat against the United
the news, as reported Monday in the Washington Post, that the Bush National
Security Council is preparing a "National Security Strategy" document,
expected this fall, that will include "preemption and "defensive intervention"
as formal options (in addition to containment, deterrence and retaliation) is
a significant, even monumentally important development. It ratifies what many
of us have been saying for years now that the United States has developed
into a world empire rather than a government that claims jurisdiction over a particular
The United States,
as I have discussed before, is a different kind of empire, as every empire has
in some respects been different from those that have gone before. In the May 6
issue of The Weekly Standard, West Point history teacher Kimberly Kagan
went on at some length to the effect that the American system should be called
"hegemony," using the Greek word for "leader," rather than
an empire like the old Roman Empire. The US doesn't treat nations as formal protectorates,
he argued, and the goal of America is peace and the protection of small states
rather than the conquest of small states. The Romans extracted tribute while Americans
send foreign aid.
WITHOUT MUCH DIFFERENCE
these differences are accurate in some cases they are manifestly inaccurate;
through international organizations the US has most definitely sought to control
the administrative policies of countries like Kosovo and Bosnia in ways that are
the obverse of democratic they strike me as distinctions without much of
United States may not claim much territory outside the United States outright,
but it maintains military garrisons in 65 different countries, including some
like Italy and Germany that pose nothing resembling a threat to the United States.
There's no military or strategic reason for Okinawa to be a vast American military
base and keeping it that way poisons relations between the United States and Japan,
but there's no serious move to draw back from that imperial outpost. What besides
an imperial policy justifies all these military outposts that have nothing to
do with homeland defense, and in some cases make homeland defense more difficult
American Empire is not like the Roman Empire or the British Empire or the Austro-Hungarian
Empire or the Parthian Empire in any number of significant ways. In what really
counts, however extending influence and even dominion over regions outside
the nation's boundaries the Old Republic long ago became an empire, and
in the late 20th century became something rather akin to a world empire.
Given that the United States has sent troops and/or missiles to such geopolitically
marginal areas as Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and the pre-9/11 Afghanistan, what country
is now viewed as outside the legitimate interests of the United States?
Kagan says the US is interested in supporting and expanding freedom and democracy
rather than its own imperial power. If anything, such an open-ended crusade gives
wider latitude to the imperial impulse than mere extension of direct power. No
country on earth has enough freedom to suit me. So presumably any country could
become subject to the tender ministrations of expert US nation-builders. Unfortunately,
the evidence that U.S.-led nation-building does much to promote freedom is scant
Kagan is almost right that "Most of the time America is a reluctant leader
that needs to be persuaded to intervene." Certainly the American people have
been generally (though not always) reluctant to pursue endless interventions and
are notably skeptical about the capacity of foreign aid either to build prosperity
or to serve American interests. But this country does not lack for leaders and
theorists who see virtually no limit to the potential for intervention, leadership,
military activity and the use of force to bring other countries into line.
to the Post story, the Bush administration has been moving toward the doctrine
of preemptive action as a formal option for some time. The "axis of evil"
formulation in the State of the Union speech in January, naming Iran, Iraq and
North Korea, was the beginning.
of those countries currently poses either a direct or an indirect threat to the
United States, although one can easily imagine Iraq under Saddam Hussein doing
something confrontational if it acquired weapons of mass destruction. The countries
are neither formally nor informally aligned, as one might expect of countries
being grouped together into something called an "axis." Their rulers
are certainly despotic and one might even call them evil. But essentially they
are countries with nasty rulers that might or might not pose a genuine threat
to the United States at some point in the future.
commencement address and West Point supposedly articulated the doctrine with more
clothing, when the president said "our security will require all Americans
to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary
to defend our liberty and defend our lives." As the Post story notes, Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has done his bit to advance the notion that the changed
post-9/11 environment might require a wee bit of aggression. Asked whether the
government is contemplating sudden strikes against other countries with weapons
of mass destruction recently, ha responded: "Why would anyone answer that
question if they were contemplating it?"
is hardly the first time in recent history that the idea of preemptive strikes
has been pushed into the public eye. Back in the late 1960s William Buckley notably
advocated a preemptive strike against mainland China's nuclear capability, and
got so notable a liberal as entertainer Steve Allen to consider the possibility
that this might lead to less destruction and loss of life than simply allowing
China to do as it wanted. But the government has always been reluctant to make
such a doctrine part of formal policy. The civics-class illusion that this is
a country that responds to aggression rather than initiating it was still considered
worth maintaining, even up to the Gulf War undertaken by Bush I.
make preemptive strikes part of formal military doctrine, however, is a larger
step than is likely to be acknowledged widely. Not only might it be more complicated
than proponents would like to admit, it is already destabilizing relations with
putative allies in Europe. It would remove whatever small remnant of constitutionality
remains when it comes to making war.
hasn't felt the need to declare war since World War II, although the US has been
more or less constantly engaged militarily since then. But Congress has felt the
need to lay hands of blessing on proposed military adventures and at least theoretically
could veto them. Making preemptive strikes an official part of US strategic doctrine
would make the president, whoever he or she is, even more a wielder of arbitrary,
imperial power than is the case now.
a step would also remove any shred of moral underpinning to US foreign policy.
US officials felt a need to fabricate the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam to
create at least the formal justification that entrance into that conflict came
only after aggression by the other side. Embracing preemption would mean that
US officials are justified in attacking any country anywhere that might have weapons
of mass destruction or terrorists or whatever without posing anything
resembling an immediate threat. It could be abused easily and it is a doctrine
of aggression rather than defense, democracy or liberty.
us hope there is at least a spirited debate on the doctrine of preemptive intervention
before the United States ratifies the imperial impulse so completely.
a (perhaps) marginally related subject, Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced
that Abdullah Al Mujahir, a US citizen who changed his name after converting to
Islam while in prison, will be viewed as an "enemy combatant" and is
being transferred from civilian to military custody. It is unclear whether he
will be tried in a military tribunal.
is an utterly gratuitous and unnecessary move toward militarization of society
and the justice system. If the charges are true, that he was trying to develop
and unleash a "dirty bomb," there is no reason civilian courts couldn't
handle his case. He is an American citizen. It is unclear whether military tribunals
can be constitutionally used on an American citizen.
making this move, Ashcroft is clearly tilting toward militarization of the justice
system and the society. The fact that Mujahir is hardly a sympathetic character
should not be used to prevent a thorough critique of this tendency to short-change
or even subvert civilian due process in situations where the justification is
marginal at best. It reveals a dangerous mind-set on the part of government leaders.
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