In September 2002, the White House issued a document, bearing the President’s signature, which set the nation on a revolutionary path in world affairs. For the first time in its history, the United States is to assume and maintain military preeminence worldwide, inferentially by force if necessary. “The National Security Strategy” has received far less attention in the public and the media than its potential significance warrants. The administration has not identified the author, but press reports credit Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz with a central role in its formulation. Some sources report that he sponsored an earlier version during the Clinton administration, but that it was quietly withdrawn when a leak provoked an adverse reaction.
How can one review a prolix policy statement that was issued under a covering letter from the President of the United States, but which has been dismissed by one cool-headed political scientist (Stanley Hoffman) as “breathtakingly unrealistic”? We are contending with thirty-one grandiloquent pages that oscillate between blatant propaganda and off-the-wall policy innovation.
Stepping around the more sententious platitudes (“this nation is. . . fierce when stirred to anger”- Presidential quote, page 5), we can dismiss many of the document’s asseverations as inoperative sops to American or foreign opinion. The President’s plug for encouraging democracy in China and Russia is fine as far as it goes; a straightforward account of policy-in-being should recognize, however, that there are situations in which Washington favors pliable autocrats over obstreperous democracies. A bow to the Declaration of Independence (page 3) contradicts contemporary endeavors to effect regime change at the point of a gun.
Injunctions to “use our foreign aid to promote freedom” (page 4) and “improve the effectiveness of the World Bank” (page 22) need to be balanced with acknowledgement of America’s zealous participation in the hallowed practice of deploying influence in international institutions in the interest of parochial objectives.
Page 5 of the Strategy essays to make short work of the issue of “terrorism,” but evades brutal reality: “no concession to terrorist demands” as a mantra overlooks instances like the abrupt withdrawal of marines from Beirut in 1984 as an unavowed consequence of the deadly bombing of their headquarters. The assertion that “no cause justifies terror” takes us out on thin ice, given the Allies’ carpet bombings in World War Two and the current declaration of intent to subject Iraq to an attack that will inspire “shock and awe.”
America’s espousal of an independent Palestine (page 9) is belied by its failure to block the steady expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied territory and by its acquiescence in Prime Minister Sharon’s campaign to complete the immolation of the Oslo Accord by marginalizing elected Palestinian leadership. Even as Sharon proceeds to reoccupy areas ceded under Oslo to local Palestinian control, the document incorporates (page 10) a pro forma endorsement of the Principle of Israeli withdrawal,
Gestures toward coordination with allies (pages 16, 25, 26) and reliance on diplomacy (page 30) follow up the admission in the covering letter that “no nation can build a safer, better world alone.” But sobriety gives way to hubris with the declarations that “we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense” (page 6) and that the United States will be prepared “to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require.” Every country is unique in character; the United States may be the only one that claims to be unique in that it has global responsibility.
All pretense of objectivity is swept aside by the document’s undercurrent of double standard. Denunciation of states that “display no regard for international law” (page 14) is overridden by dismissal of ICC jurisdiction over the United States (page 31). Hyperallersic to admitting the possibility of defects in its foreign policy, the administration ascribes anti-Americanism to a nebulous hatred harbored by evil elements for “the United States and everything for which it stands” (page 14). In tacit admission that this inflexibility risks subjecting Americans to perpetual foreign subversion, the document seeks to put this issue away with one incoherent phrase, to wit, “minimizing the effects of WMD use.” In accusing “our enemies” of seeing “weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice,” the document skips over the relevant fact that the only country to have used such a weapon, as defined in the current sense, is the United States itself. (Past use of chemical and biological weapons has not incorporated WMD delivery systems.)
The document reflects the administration’s affection for categorizing weaker adversaries as terrorists or rogue states (page 13). This tactic is not only clumsy diplomacy, it is unrealistic. There are no absolutes in this world. Pakistan grants us access to Afghanistan, but coddles Islamists and sells nuclear materiel to North Korea. Is that nation “good” or “evil”? Pakistan is reluctant to vote with us in the Security Council on Iraq. Are they with us or against us?
Halfway through (page 15), the document gets down to the brass tacks of a radical departure in national security strategy. The statement “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries” is reinforced (page 29) by “the United States will require bases…within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia” and must develop “advanced remote sensors, long-range strike capabilities, and transformed maneuver and expeditionary forces.”
But the coup de theatre is reserved for page 30: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing… the power of the United States.” By this implicit assumption of the right to preempt at will, the administration undertakes to convert an unknown number of political rivals into military antagonists. There was a time when we confined our armed reactions to allies’ appeals or direct attack. Now we are to commit expeditionary forces on spec.
As if the parallel to the ill-fated Crusades of the Middle Ages is not explicit enough, page 31 concludes with an allusion to “a battle for the future of the Muslim world” in presumption that their future is as much our business as theirs. From this point it would be only a step to ask how our oil got under their sand.
Awesome responsibilities carry awesome price tags. Israel is condemned by circumstance to the prospect of incessant war. The Bush administration, on the other hand, seems determined to take on this same destiny by choice.
The text of “The National Security Strategy” is available in pdf form and in html at www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html.