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Michael Burns, The University of Birmingham
Burns is the director of the new documentary, Preventive Warriors, on
the National Security Strategy of 2002.
In September of 2002 the Bush Administration released its National
Security Strategy. Unlike most government documents, the National
Security Strategy was widely reported on in the US and abroad because
of what it set out to do. The document’s key thesis, forming the
core of what’s been labelled the Bush Doctrine, was that threats to
the US and its allies are so great and so unique historically that the
only way to defeat them and disrupt their efforts is to attack them
and their state sponsors before they have attacked us.
In essence, whether you agree with the Strategy or not, it sets
aside international legal engagement standards and prescribes
preventive warfare against rogue states in which potential threats are
destroyed before they have fully formed.
In the wake of its release Georgetown Professor John Ikenberry wrote in
the October issue of Foreign Affairs, “At the extreme, these notions
form a neo-imperial vision in which the United States arrogates to
itself the global role of setting standards, determining threats,
using force, and meting out justice. It is a vision in which
sovereignty becomes more absolute for America even as it becomes more
conditional for countries that challenge Washington's standards of
internal and external behaviour… In one sense, such conditional
sovereignty is not new. What is new and provocative in this notion
today, however, is the Bush administration's inclination to apply [its
power] on a global basis, leaving to itself the authority to determine
when sovereign rights have been forfeited, and doing so on an
This fall will mark the second year anniversary of the National Security
Strategy (barring an unlikely updating from the Bush Administration).
Though much has been written and asked about the document,
perhaps the most basic question it prompts deserves re-asking.
Given that any national security strategy, including the NSS of
2002, is ostensibly designed to deal with threats and thereby increase
security, the question is, has it in fact accomplished its most
fundamental, stated goal? Has
it made the United States, and by extension, the world, a safer place?
On May 27th in London, Amnesty International released its
annual report on human rights around the world.
They noted that in prosecuting its war against terrorism the US
has proven “bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle” and that
“sacrificing human rights in the name of security at home, turning a
blind eye to abuse abroad, and using pre-emptive military force where
and when it chooses have neither increased security nor ensured
AI concluded that the US has “lost its moral high ground and
its ability to lead on peace and human rights” around the world
given the fact that “not since the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights was adopted [56 years ago] has there been such a sustained
attack on its values and principles.”
If ones believe that peoples’ attitudes toward the United States
government have anything to do with their being more or less terrorism
against the US or its allies, then the numbers on that front since the
release of the NSS look equally as discouraging. According to the Pew
Research Centre, international discontent with America and its
policies has intensified around the world rather than diminished post
9/11. Taking just traditionally allied populations in Europe, over the
last three years favourable ratings of the US have gone from 78% to 25
in Germany, 76 to 34 in Italy, 50 to 14 in Spain, 86 to 50 in Poland,
and 52 to 12 in Turkey, one of the top recipients of US foreign aid.
And those are the allies. One can only imagine the digit
results in populations hostile to the US.
Of course in asking whether the world is safer since the release of the
National Security Strategy you’d have to discuss the war in Iraq:
the first major test of the Bush Administration’s preventive war
policy. In mid-June a
group of former US officials, twenty-six former diplomats and military
officials, including both Republican and Democratic appointees of
former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, issued an open
statement criticizing Bush’s war in Iraq and for attempting to undo
fifty plus years of post-war diplomatic relationships.
William Harrop, a former ambassador to Israel under the
previous Bush administration, said, “We just came to agreement that
this administration was really endangering the United States.”
But there is more to write about Iraq than just this.
The country has been turned into a terrorist centre, with
dozens killed weekly, twenty-one followed by over one hundred in just
two consecutive days the week of this writing.
And that’s a terrorist centre, horrendous atrocities of the
dictator aside, which no one (including revisionist columnists) can
try to pretend existed previously under Saddam Hussein.
And when it comes to the spreading of dangerous weapons, as
Chalmers Johnson articulates, the world is just recognizing that what
was wrong with Saddam Hussein was not that he had weapons of mass
destruction, but that he didn’t have them.
It’s a frightening lesson for the world to learn, one that
stimulates overt and covert proliferation of WMDs as countries race to
immune themselves from US attack, and one that has the polar opposite
effect of making the US or any country safer.
And lastly, CNN reported on June 11th that the April US State
Department Report “Patterns of Global Terrorism” which declared a
decline in terrorism in 2003 was wrong and based on faulty data.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that the people
who tabulated the report apparently did not look at the entire year
and did not include attacks that should have been defined as acts of
terrorism. The corrected
report, he added, will show a “sharp increase in acts of worldwide
terrorism over the previous year.”
Despite the failure of the National Security Strategy to live up to its
name and increase security around the world or even decrease the
likelihood of terrorist attacks against the US and its allies, its
proponents are not dissuaded. Although
they ceaselessly conflate pre-emption, prevention, and unilateralism
despite the important differences among the three, the president’s
backers argue that the Bush Doctrine is far from abandoned.
As Project for the New American Century’s Gary Schmitt wrote
last month in the Los Angles Times, “That going to war in Iraq has
proved more difficult than anticipated does not change the underlying
realities that gave rise to the Bush Administration’s decision to
give pre-emption a more prominent status is US statecraft.
Do we think the potential consequences of terrorists getting
their hands on weapons of mass destruction are any less significant?
Are we more confident that rouge states… would never conspire
with terrorist to carry out an operation against our allies or us, the
Great Satan, with such weapons? These
questions are not going away, and thus pre-emption as an option will
not go away either.”
Others see the situation differently.
Council on Foreign Relations members wrote last month, “Not
being a man given to analysing his missteps, Bush will not publicly
bury the pre-emption doctrine he unveiled only two years ago.
But all doctrines must eventually be measured against
experience. And for that
reason, Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption is, for all intents and
Whether it is dead or not, or whether it is wise or not, given the
overstretch of American troops around the world, the fact of the
matter is that given America’s hyper-power status in the world, the
US can attack preventively and most likely will again.
Right now, the political costs of doing so seem too high given
that the war in Iraq was based on lies as well as the fact that
President Bush’s poll numbers are not promising.
But the next preventive war may not be carried within the same
phantom menace context as the last one.
It might come in the wake of a very real threat, perhaps even a
major 9/11 calibre terrorist attack which the Administration could try
to link to a country they’ve targeted.
Under these very possible circumstances, the preventive war
doctrine might not be as dead as it seems.
Moreover, as a new style of US foreign policy may be ushered in
come November, the substance of US willingness to use unilateral force
remains, as John Kerry’s advisors, including Samuel Berger in this
month’s leading establishment journal, never fail to make clear.
Indeed, this year’s choices go beyond the two candidates poised to
dominate the political landscape this fall.
The choices and challenges ahead are significant.
Americans will have to decide whether or not they want to live
in a country that considers itself one nation among many that should
be subjected to the same rules that it applies to others.
They will also have to decide whether they will condone a
national security policy roundly condemned by public and professional
groups around the world for failing to even accomplish its most basic
goal. Those outside of
America will have to decide how to continue to discover modes of
internal and external pressure on (and alternative power centres vis-à-vis)
an America once again approaching them for support in the midst of the
chaos of the Iraqi experiment.
Another way of framing the choices ahead, whether one is an American or
not, is this, in the words of Noam Chomsky:
“For the second anniversary [of the release of the National Security
Strategy] and beyond, we basically have two choices.
We can march forward with confidence that the global enforcer
will drive evil from the world, much as the president's speechwriters
declare, plagiarizing ancient epics and children's tales.
Or we can subject the doctrines of the proclaimed grand new era
to scrutiny, drawing rational conclusions, perhaps gaining some sense
of the emerging reality,” and in the process explore alternative
models for how to survive as a species, let alone exist peacefully, in
today’s dangerous world.
 John Ikenberry, “America’s Imperial Ambition”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2002.
 “Amnesty International blasts US ‘war on terror’”, The Daily Star, 27 May 2004, available at: <www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=2&article_id=4513>.
“America's Image Further Erodes,
Europeans Want Weaker Ties: But Post-War Iraq Will Be Better Off,
Most Say”, The Pew
Research Center, 18 March 2003,available at: <http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=175>.
 “State Department retracts terrorism assertion”, CNN.com, 10 June 2004, available at: <http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/06/10/powell.terror.report/>.
James M. Lindsay and Ivo H. Daalder, “Shooting First: The
preemptive-war doctrine has met an early death in Iraq”, Los
Angeles Times, 30 May 2004, available at: < http://www.cfr.org/pub7066/james_m_lindsay_ivo_h_daalder/shooting_first_the_preemptivewar_doctrine_has_met_an_early_death_in_iraq.php>.
 See Samuel Berger, “A Democratic Foreign Policy”, Foreign Policy, May/June 2004.