What a Difference a Day Made
More than thirteen months after the worst single foreign attack ever on American soil, one of the nation’s dirty little secrets is that 9-11 is by far and away the best thing that has happened to the George W. Bush White House. Only thirteen and a half months ago, Bush was on the defensive. His approval ratings were mediocre amidst considerable public doubt about the legitimacy of his “election,” his intellectual capabilities and the wisdom not to mention the fairness of his darkly regressive domestic agenda.
His foreign policy, falsely described as “isolationist” – Bush and his advisers hardly hoped to withdraw the US from its global engagements – was commonly said to be out of touch with contemporary global requirements.
But to paraphrase the onetime American jazz singer Dinah Washington, oh what a difference a day meant. The jetliner attacks of September 11, 2001 and the fear they unleashed have been a windfall for an administration whose essential mission is to deepen the inequality of wealth and power at home (in a nation that is already the most unequal in the industrialized world) and expand imperial power (of a nation that is already the most powerful global state in world history) abroad.
This is the unmentionable truth behind Bush’s revealing words, uttered just three days after the tragic events: “through the tears,” Bush told the American people, he saw “an opportunity.”
Opportunity, indeed! It’s not just that 9-11 provided Bush and his allies an occasion to marginalize and repress those who question his domestic agenda and the legitimacy of his presidency. The post 9-11 delight of the White House is also about the freedom the terrorists gave the Bush team to pursue longstanding and distinctly non-isolationist objectives abroad.
The Bush Doctrine
Consider the White House’s National Security Strategy of the United States, a document in which each presidential administration outlines its strategic plan to “defend” America. The Bush Plan, released last September, is the boldest and most explicitly imperial such version of the document yet to be produced.
To “protect the nation,” it formally announces a “new” international and military doctrine for the United States. The U.S. has decided, this doctrine proclaims, that no government or coalition will ever be permitted to challenge US supremacy.
Deterrence, the official policy of the US for more than 50 years, is irrelevant. In the new world order, vaguely defined as “free” and “democratic” by US elites, the US is determined to crush anyone who even dreams of trying to match its power. Embracing an openly aggressive foreign policy based on the idea that “the best defense is a good offense” and expressing brazen disregard for international law and opinion when such law and opinion do not suit American interests, the September 2002 Bush plan officially endorses pre-emptive assaults on perceived enemies. It sees America as the world’s self-appointed gendarme, uniquely qualified to launch “preventative” wars of its own choosing.
The National Security Strategy advances America’s right to attack other “sovereign” nations when foreign governments fail to meet their “sovereign responsibilities,” determined by the world’s super-state the United States. It favors unilateral US action over collective global security and multi-lateral efforts, counseling the US to engage only in short-term and shifting coalitions appropriate to changing needs in crisis situations. It endorses the unworkable, costly, and de-stabilizing Star Wars missile defense system, repudiating decades of nuclear arms control and suggesting to other nuclear states that the US is positioning itself for first strike capability. It is a blueprint for total US domination through unilateral action and military superiority. It is difficult to imagine a more nakedly Orwellian approach to world affairs.
A “Warmed Over” Strategy for World Dominance
Just as Orwellian is the White House’s claim (parroted in mainstream media accounts of America’s “post-9-11 foreign policy”) about the document’s inception, which it attributes to the September 2001 attacks. Those who bother to look can find many of the same ideas enunciated by the White House in September 2002 in a September 2000 report issued by the Project for a New American Century. The PNAC document advocated explicit imperial unilateralism, rejection of US reliance on collective security and coalitions, pre-emptive US military action where “necessary,” massive expansion of military expenditures and overseas bases, rejection of deterrence/ containment doctrine, the violation (wherever and whenever necessary) of uncooperative nation’s sovereign rights, and prevention of the emergence of any government or coalition of governments with the power to challenge US military supremacy.
The list of authors of this audacious document, published three months before the judicial coup that installed Bush, reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Bush foreign policy establishment. They include noted war monger Paul Wolfowitz (now deputy defense secretary), John Bolton (now undersecretary of state), Stephen Cambone (head of the Pentagon’s Office of Program, Analysis and Evlauation, Eliot Cohen (member of the Defense Policy Board), Devon Cross (member of the Defense Policy Board), Lewis Libby (chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney), and Don Zakheim (comptroller for the Defense Department).
The Original “Post-Cold War” Blueprint
This document in turn owes an openly acknowledged debt to a still older blueprint, drafted in 1992. Nine years prior to September 2001, when, American elites disingenuously insist, “everything changed,” Wolfowitz, a then-obscure strategist working for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, drafted a then-shocking policy paper titled “Defense Planning Guidance.” Among other things, this key strategy paper advocated total US global domination and the prevention of the emergence of any rivals to American supremacy.
It made no mention of collective or multilateral action, calling only for occasional fleeting American exploitation of ad-hoc coalitions that do not last beyond immediate crises in which US interests are threatened – a perfect description of the Bush administration’s immediate response to 9-11. It included preemptive military action in its list of options for the US to consider in its efforts to “prevent the re-emergence of a new [post-Soviet] rival.”
Leaked to the New York Times, Wolfowitz’s paper was withdrawn because of the widespread criticism its explicit imperial chauvinism elicited. The Pentagon dismissed it as a “low-level draft” and made the false claim that Cheney had never read it.
No such withdrawals are required in the wake of 9-11. As David Armstrong of the National Security News Service has recently noted in Harpers’ Magazine, mainstream commentators focusing only on the supposedly defensive and “new” pre-emption component of the Bush Doctrine have missed the rich imperial consistency between the latest national security blueprint and the original “post-Cold War” planning of Cheney and Wolfowitz:
Reaction to the latest edition of the Plan has, thus far, focused on pre-emption. Commentators parrot the administration’s line, portraying the concept of preemptory strikes as a “new” strategy aimed at combating terrorism…Preemption [however]…is just part of the Plan, and the Plan is hardly new. It is a warmed-over version of the strategy Cheney and his co-authors rolled out in 1992 as the answer to the end of the Cold War.
Then the goal was global dominance and it met with bad reviews. Now it is the answer to terrorism. The emphasis is on preemption, and the reviews are generally enthusiastic. Through all of this, the dominance motif remains, though largely undetected.
New Tragedies on the Horizon: The Limits of Power
Nothing, however, is more blinding than imperial arrogance. The socialization process and inherent ideological codes of ruling-class membership atop an imperial state do not permit U.S. policymakers to grasp the limits of their power and the unintended consequences of their actions. Consistent with a long record of US foreign policy failure reflecting a naÃ¯ve faith in the long-term effectiveness of military “fixes,” the implementation of the Bush Doctrine in (of greatest immediate significance) Iraq promises to generate a large number of catastrophic consequences. Those consequences may well include a new wave of terror attacks on non-policymaking Americans at home and abroad.
It is impossible to derive satisfaction from the likelihood that the Bush Doctrine will not succeed because the playing out of the likely failures carry grave consequences for ordinary people abroad and now – in an age when technology and globalization permit previously unimaginable horrific attacks on the “homeland” – at home.
As the distinguished radical historian Gabriel Kolko notes in his recent book Another Century of War? (NY: The New Press, 2002), America’s historical reliance on weapons and force has long “exacerbated or created far more problems for the United States than it has solved [Vietnam is only the classic example]. After September 11,” Kolko observes, “there can be no doubt that arms have not brought security to America. It is not only in the world’s interest that America adapt to the realities of the twenty-first century. What is new is that it is now, more than ever, in the interest of the American people themselves.
It is imperative that the United States acknowledge the limits of its power – limits that are inherent in its own military illusions and in the very nature of a world that is far too big and complex for any county to even dream of managing.”
For this to happen, the American people must, as in the past, disrupt the normal top-down flow of policymaking in the eye of the imperial, world-systemic hurricane. They must challenge the power of an arrogant, narcissistic policymaking “elite” that values the expansion of US military and economic power more than the security of its own population. They must confront dangerous, disingenuous rulers who see opportunity in our tears and who create the context for yet more tragedy abroad and at home through the ceaseless power- and profit-mad pursuit of total global domination.
Paul Street is a social policy researcher, freelance writer, and American historian in Chicago, Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.