Preventive War


Imperial Grand Strategy – Elite Concerns (pg. 39)

Within establishment circles, there has been considerable concerns that “America’s imperial ambition” is a serious threat even to its own population. Their alarm reached new heights as the Bush administration declared itself to be a “revisionist state” that intends to rule the world permanently, becoming, some felt, “a menace to itself and to mankind” under the leadership of “radical nationalists” aiming for “unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority.” Many others within the mainstream spectrum have been appalled by the adventurism and arrogance of the radical nationalists who have regained the power they wielded through the 1980s, but now operate with fewer external constraints.

The concerns are not entirely new. During the Clinton years, the prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington observed that for much of the world the US is “becoming the rogue superpower, [considered] the single greatest external threat to their societies.” Robert Jervis, then president of the American Political Science Association, warned that “in the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States.” Like others, they anticipated that coalitions might arise to counterbalance the rogue superpower, with threatening implications.

Several leading figures of the foreign policy elite have pointed out that the potential targets of America’s imperial ambition are not likely to simply await destruction. They “know that the United States can be held at bay only by deterrence,” Kenneth Waltz has written, and that “weapons of mass destruction are the only means to deter the United States.” Washington’s policies are therefore leading to the proliferation of WMD, Waltz concludes, tendencies accelerated by its commitment to dismantle international mechanisms to control the resort to violence. These warnings were reiterated as Bush prepared to attack Iraq: one consequence, according to Steven Miller, is that others “are likely to draw the conclusion that weapons of mass destruction are necessary to deter American intervention.” Another well-known specialist warned that the “general strategy of preventive war” is likely to provide others with “overwhelming incentives to wield weapons of terror and mass destruction” as a deterrent to “the unbrideled use of American power.” Many have noted the likely impetus to Iranian nuclear weapons programs. And “there is no question that the lesson that the North Koreans have learned from Iraq is that it needs a nuclear deterrent,” Selig Harrison commented.

As the year 2002 drew to a close, Washington was teaching an ugly lesson to the world: if you want to defend yourself from us, you had better mimic North Korea and pose a credible military threat, in this case, conventional: artillary aimed at Seoul and at US troops near DMZ. We will enthusiastically march on to attack Iraq, because we know that it is devistated and defenseless; but North Korea, though an even worse tyranny and vastly more dangerous, is not an appropriate target as long as it can cause plenty of harm. The lesson could hardly be more vivid.

Still another concern is the “second superpower,” public opinion. Not only was the “revisionism” of the political leadership without precident; so too was the opposition to it. Comparisons are often drawn to Vietnam. The common query “What happened to the tradition of protest and dissent?” makes clear how effectively the historical record has been cleansed and how little sense there is, in many circles, of the changes in public consciousness over the past four decades. An accurate comparison is revealing: In 1962, public protest was nonexistent, despite the announcement that year that the Kennedy administration was sending the US Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, as well as initiating plans to drive millions of people into what ammounted to concentration camps and launching chemical warfare programs to destroy food crops and ground cover. Protest did not reach any meaningful level until years later, after hundreds of thousands of US troops had been dispatched, densely populated areas had been demolished by saturation bombing, and the aggression had spread to the rest of Indochina. By the time protest became significant, the bitterly anticommunist military historian and Indochina specialist Bernard Fall had warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction” as “the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”

In 2002, fourty years later, in striking contrast, there was largescale, committed, and principled popular protest before the war had been officially launched. Absent the fear and illusion about Iraq that were unique to the US, prewar opposition would probably have reached much the same levels as elsewhere. That reflects a steady increase over these years in unwillingness to tolerate aggression and atrocities, one of many such changes.

The leadership is well aware of these developments. By 1968, fear of the public was so serious that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to consider whether “sufficient forces would be available for civil disorder control” if more troops were sent to Vietnam. The Department of Defense feared that further troop deployments ran the risk of “provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” The Reagan administration at first tried to follow Kennedy’s South Vietnam model in Central America but backed down in the face of an unanticipated public reaction that threatened to undermine more important components of the policy agenda, turning instead to clandestine terror — clandestine in the sense that it could be more or less concealed from the general public. When Bush I took office in 1989, public reaction was again very much on the agenda. Incoming administrations typically commission a review of the world situation from the intelligence agencies. These reviews are secret, but in 1989 a passage was leaked concerning “cases where the US confronts much weaker enemies.” The analysts advised that the US must “defeat them decisively and rapidly.” Any other outcome would be “embarrassing” and might “undercut political support,” understood to be thin.

We are no longer in the 1960s, when the population would tolerate a murderous and destructive war for years without visible protest. The activist movements of the past forty years have had a significant civilizing effect in many domains. By now, the only way to attack a much weaker enemy is to construct a propaganda offensive depicting it as an imminent threat or perhaps engaged in genocide, with confidence that the military campaign will scarcely resemble an actual war.

Take a look around. People see the world as they experience it.