Dominance and Its Dilemmas
The Bush administrations
Imperial Grand Strategy
The past year has been a
momentous one in world affairs. In the normal rhythm of political
life, the pattern was set in September of 2002, a month marked
by several important and closely related events. The most powerful
state in history announced a new National Security Strategy, asserting
that it will maintain global hegemony permanently: any challenge
will be blocked by force, the dimension in which the United States
reigns supreme. At the same time, war drums began to beat to mobilize
the population for an invasion of Iraq, which would be the
first test [of the doctrine], not the last, the New York
Times observed after the invasion, the petri dish in
which this experiment in pre-emptive policy grew.1
And the campaign opened for the midterm congressional elections,
which would determine whether the administration would be able
to carry forward its radical international and domestic agenda.
The basic principles of this new
imperial grand strategy, as it was aptly termed at
once by John Ikenberry, trace back to the early days of World
War II and have been reiterated frequently since. Even before
the United States entered the war, planners and analysts concluded
that in the postwar world it would seek to hold unquestioned
power, acting to ensure the limitation of any exercise
of sovereignty by states that might interfere with its global
designs. They outlined an integrated policy to achieve military
and economic supremacy for the United States in a Grand
Area to include at a minimum the Western Hemisphere, the
former British empire, and the Far East, later extended to as
much of Eurasia as possible when it became clear that Germany
would be defeated.2
Twenty years later, elder statesman
Dean Acheson instructed the American Society of International
Law that no legal issue arises when the United States
responds to a challenge to its power, position, and prestige.
He was referring specifically to Washingtons postBay
of Pigs economic warfare against Cuba, but he was surely aware
of Kennedys terrorist campaign aimed at regime change,
a significant factor in bringing the world close to nuclear war
only a few months earlier and a course of action that was resumed
immediately after the Cuban missile crisis was resolved.
A similar doctrine was invoked
by the Reagan administration when it rejected World Court jurisdiction
over its attack against Nicaragua. State Department Legal Adviser
Abraham Sofaer explained that most of the world cannot be
counted on to share our view and often opposes the
United States on important international questions. Accordingly,
we must reserve to ourselves the power to determine
which matters fall essentially within the domestic jurisdiction
of the United Statesin this case, the actions that
the Court condemned as the unlawful use of force against
Nicaragua; in lay terms, international terrorism.
Their successors have continued
to make it clear that the United States reserves the right to
act unilaterally when necessary, including unilateral
use of military power to defend such vital interests as
ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies
and strategic resources.3
Even this small sample illustrates
the narrowness of the planning spectrum. Nevertheless, the alarm
bells sounded in September 2002 were justified. Acheson and Sofaer
were describing policy guidelines, within elite circles.
Other cases may be regarded as worldly-wise reiterations of the
maxim of Thucydides that large nations do what they wish,
while small nations accept what they must. In contrast,
Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell and their associates are officially declaring
an even more extreme policy. They intend to be heard, and took
action at once to put the world on notice that they mean what
That is a significant difference.
The imperial grand strategy is
based on the assumption that the United States can gain full
spectrum dominance through military programs that dwarf
those of any potential coalition and that have useful side effects.
One is to socialize the costs and risks of the private economy
of the future, a traditional contribution of military spending
and the basis of much of the new economy. Another
is to contribute to a fiscal train wreck that will, it is presumed,
create powerful pressures to cut federal spending, and thus,
perhaps, enable the administration to accomplish its goal of rolling
back the New Deal,4 a description
of the Reagan program that is now being extended to far more ambitious
As the grand strategy
was announced on September 17, the administration abandoned
an international effort to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention
against germ warfare, advising allies that further discussions
would have to be delayed for four years.<12.000000>512.000000>
A month later, the U.N. Committee on Disarmament adopted a resolution
that called for stronger measures to prevent militarization of
space, recognizing this to be a grave danger for international
peace and security, and another that reaffirmed the
1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of poisonous gases and
bacteriological methods of warfare. Both passed unanimously,
with two abstentions, the United States and Israel. U.S. abstention
amounts to a veto: typically, a double veto, banning the events
from the news record and from history.
A few weeks later, the Space Command
released plans to go beyond U.S. control of space
for military purposes to ownership, which is to be
permanent, in accord with the Security Strategy. Ownership of
space is key to our nations military effectiveness,
permitting instant engagement anywhere in the world. . . .
A viable prompt global strike capability, whether nuclear or non-nuclear,
will allow the United States to rapidly strike high-payoff, difficult-to-defeat
targets from stand-off ranges and produce the desired effect . . .
[and] to provide warfighting commanders the ability to rapidly
deny, delay, deceive, disrupt, destroy, exploit and neutralize
targets in hours/minutes rather than weeks/days even when U.S.
and allied forces have a limited forward presence,6
thus reducing the need for overseas bases that regularly arouse
Similar plans had been outlined
in a May 2002 Pentagon planning document, partially leaked, which
called for a strategy of forward deterrence in which
missiles launched from space platforms would be able to carry
out almost instant unwarned attacks. Military analyst
William Arkin comments that no target on the planet or in
space would be immune to American attack. The U.S. could strike
without warning whenever and wherever a threat was perceived,
and it would be protected by missile defenses. Hypersonic
drones would monitor and disrupt targets. Surveillance systems
would provide the ability to track, record and analyze the
movement of every vehicle in a foreign city.7
The world is to be left at mercy of U.S. attack at will, without
warning or credible pretext. The plans have no remote historical
parallel. Even more fanciful ones are under development.
These moves reflect the disdain
of the administration for international law and institutions and
for arms control measures, dismissed with barely a word in the
National Security Strategy. They illustrate a commitment to an
extremist version of long-standing doctrine.
Since the mid-1940s, Washington
has regarded the Persian Gulf as a stupendous source of
strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world
historyin Eisenhowers words, the most
strategically important area of the world because of its
strategic position and resources. Control over the
region and its resources remains a policy imperative. After taking
over a core oil producer, and presumably acquiring its first reliable
military bases at the heart of the worlds major energy-producing
system, Washington will doubtless be happy to establish an Arab
façade, to borrow the term of the British during
their day in the sun. Formal democracy will be fine, but if history
and current practice are any guide, only if it is of the submissive
kind tolerated in Washingtons backyard.
To fail in this endeavor would
take real talent. Even under far less propitious circumstances,
military occupations have commonly been successful. It would be
hard not to improve on a decade of murderous sanctions that virtually
destroyed a society that was, furthermore, in the hands of a vicious
tyrant who ranked with others supported by the current incumbents
in Washington, including Romanias Ceausescu, to mention
only one of an impressive rogues gallery. Resistance in
Iraq would have no meaningful outside support, unlike in Nazi-occupied
Europe or Eastern Europe under the Russian yoke, to take recent
examples of unusually brutal states that nevertheless assembled
an ample array of collaborators and achieved substantial success
within their domains.
The new grand strategy authorizes
Washington to carry out preventive war. Whatever the
justifications for pre-emptive war may sometimes be, they do not
hold for preventive war, particularly as that concept is interpreted
by its current enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate
an invented or imagined threat, so that even the term preventive
is too charitable. Preventive war is, very simply, the supreme
crime condemned at Nuremberg.
That is widely understood. As the
United States invaded Iraq, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Bushs
grand strategy is alarmingly similar to the policy that
imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date which, as an
earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy.
FDR was right, he added, but today it is we Americans who
live in infamy. It is no surprise that the global
wave of sympathy that engulfed the United States after 9/11 has
given way to a global wave of hatred of American arrogance and
militarism and to the belief that Bush is a greater
threat to peace than Saddam Hussein.8
For the political leadership, mostly
recycled from more reactionary sectors of the ReaganBush
I administrations, the global wave of hatred is not
a particular problem. They want to be feared, not loved. They
understand as well as their establishment critics that their actions
increase the risk of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
(WMD) and terror. But that too is not a major problem. Higher
on the scale of priorities are the goals of establishing global
hegemony and implementing their domestic agenda: dismantling the
progressive achievements that have been won by popular struggle
over the past century and institutionalizing these radical changes
so that recovering them will be no easy task.
It is not enough for a hegemonic
power to declare an official policy. It must establish it as a
new norm of international law by exemplary action.
Distinguished commentators may then explain that law is a flexible,
living instrument, ensuring that the new norm is available as
a guide to action. It is understood that only those with the guns
can establish norms and modify international law.
The selected target must meet several
conditions. It must be defenseless, important enough to be worth
the trouble, and an imminent threat to our survival and ulitimate
evil nature. Iraq qualified on all counts. The first two conditions
are obvious. For the third, it suffices to repeat the orations
of Bush, Blair, and their colleagues: The dictator is assembling
the worlds most dangerous weapons [in order to] dominate,
intimidate or attack; and he has already used them
on whole villages leaving thousands of his own citizens dead,
blind or transfigured. . . . If this is not evil
then evil has no meaning.
President Bushs eloquent
denunciation surely rings true. And those who contributed to enhancing
evil should certainly not enjoy impunity: among them, the speaker
of these lofty words, his current associates, and those who joined
them in the years when they were supporting the man of ultimate
evil long after he had committed these terrible crimes and won
the war with Iran, with decisive U.S. help. We must continue to
support him, the Bush I administration explained, because of our
duty to help U.S. exporters.
It is impressive to see how easy
it is for political leaders, while recounting the monsters
worst crimes, to suppress the crucial words with our help,
because we dont care about such matters. Support shifted
to denunciation as soon as their Iraqi friend committed his first
authentic crime: disobeying (or perhaps misunderstanding) orders
by invading Kuwait. Punishment was severefor his subjects.
The tyrant escaped unscathed, and his grip on the tortured population
was further strengthened by the sanctions regime then imposed
by his former allies.
easy to suppress are the reasons why Washington returned to supporting
Saddam immediately after the Gulf War as he crushed rebellions
that might have overthrown him. The chief diplomatic correspondent
of the New York Times explained that the best of
all worlds for Washington would be an iron-fisted
Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein, but since that goal
seems unattainable, we must be satisfied with the second best.
The rebels failed because Washington and its allies held that
whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West
and the region a better hope for his countrys stability
than did those who have suffered his repression.9
All of this is suppressed in the commentary on the mass graves
of the victims of Saddams U.S.authorized paroxysm
of terror, crimes that are now offered as justification for the
war on moral grounds.10
It was all known in 1991 but ignored for reasons of state: successful
rebellion would have left Iraq in the hands of Iraqis. 0.000000>0.500000>0.750000>
Within the United States, a reluctant
domestic population had to be whipped into a proper war fever,
another traditional problem. From early September 2002, grim warnings
were issued about the threat Saddam posed to the United States
and about his links to al Qaeda, with broad hints that he was
involved in the 9/11 attacks. Many of the charges dangled
in front of [the media] failed the laugh test, the editor
of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Linda Rothstein,
commented, but the more ridiculous [they were], the more
the media strove to make wholehearted swallowing of them a test
As has often happened in the past,
the propaganda assault had at least short-term effects. Within
weeks, a majority of Americans came to regard Saddam Hussein as
an imminent threat to the United States. Soon almost half believed
that Iraq was behind the 9/11 terror. Support for the war correlated
with these beliefs. The propaganda campaign proved just enough
to give the administration a bare majority in the midterm elections,
as voters put aside their immediate concerns and huddled under
the umbrella of power in fear of the demonic enemy.
Despite its narrow successes, the
intensive propaganda campaign left the public unswayed in more
fundamental respects. Most continue to prefer U.N. rather than
U.S. leadership in international crises, and by two to one prefer
that the U.N., rather than the United States, should direct reconstruction
When the occupying
army failed to discover WMD, the administrations stance
shifted from absolute certainty that Iraq possessed
WMD to the position that the accusations were justified
by the discovery of equipment that potentially could be used to
produce weapons. Senior officials suggested a refinement
in the concept of preventive war that entitles the United States
to attack a country that has deadly weapons in mass quantities.
The revision suggests instead that the administration will
act against a hostile regime that has nothing more than the intent
and ability to develop [WMD].12
The bars for resort to force are significantly lowered. This modification
of the doctrine of preventive war may prove to be
the most significant consequence of the collapse of the declared
argument for the invasion.
Perhaps the most spectacular propaganda
achievement was the lauding of the presidents vision
to bring democracy to the Middle East in the midst of a display
of hatred and contempt for democracy for which no precedent comes
to mind. One illustration was the distinction between Old and
New Europe, the former reviled, the latter hailed for its courage.
The criterion was sharp: Old Europe consists of governments that
took the same position as the vast majority of their populations;
the heroes of New Europe followed orders from Crawford, Texas,
disregarding an even larger majority in most cases. Political
commentators ranted about disobedient Old Europe and its psychic
maladies while Congress descended to low comedy.
At the liberal end of the spectrum,
Richard Holbrooke stressed the very important point
that the population of the eight original members of New Europe
is larger than that of Old Europe, which proves that France and
Germany are isolated. So it does, if we reject the
radical left heresy that the public might have some role in a
democracy. Thomas Friedman urged that France be removed from permanent
membership on the Security Council because it is in kindergarten
and does not play well with others. It follows that
the population of New Europe must still be in nursery school,
judging by polls.13
Anger at Old Europe has much deeper
roots than contempt for democracy. The United States has always
regarded European unification with some ambivalence because Europe
might become an independent force in world affairs. Thus senior
diplomat David Bruce was a leading advocate for European unification
in the Kennedy years, urging Washington to treat a uniting
Europe as an equal partnerbut following Americas
lead. He saw dangers if Europe struck off on
its own, seeking to play a role independent of the United States.14
In his Year of Europe address 30 years ago, Henry
Kissinger advised Europeans to keep to their regional responsibilities
within the overall framework of order managed by the
United States. Europe must not pursue its own independent course
based on its Franco-German industrial and financial heartland.
In the tripolar world that was
taking shape at that time, these concerns extend to Asia as well.
Northeast Asia is now the worlds most dynamic economic region,
accounting for almost 30 percent of global GDP (far more than
the United States does) and holding about half of global foreign
exchange reserves. It is a potentially integrated region with
advanced industrial economies and ample resources. All of this
raises the threat that it, too, might flirt with challenging the
overall framework of order, which the United States is to manage
permanently, by force if necessary, Washington has declared.
Violence is a powerful instrument
of control, as history demonstrates. But the dilemmas of dominance
are not slight.<
professor of linguistics at MIT, is author most recently of Understanding
East Illusions, and Hegemony
or Survival (forthcoming).
David Sanger and Steven Weisman, New York Times, 10 April
Memorandum of the War and Peace Studies Project of the Council on
Foreign Relations, with State Department participation, 19 October
1940. Laurence Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust
(Monthly Review Press, 1977), 130ff.
Dean Acheson, American Society of International Law Proceedings
13, 14 (1963); Abraham Sofaer, U.S. Department of State Current
Policy 769 (December 1985); President Bill Clinton, address
to the U.N., 1993; Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Annual Report,
Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right
Turn (Hill and Wang, 1986). On Clintons contribution see
Michael Meeropol, Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed
the Reagan Revolution (University of Michigan Press, 2000; updated
Peter Slevin, Washington Post, 19 September 2002.
Air Force Space Command Strategic Master Plan (SMP) FY04 and
Beyond, 5 November 2002.
William Arkin, Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2002; Michael Sniffen,
Associated Press, 1 July 2003.
Angeles Times, 23 March 2003.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 7 June 1991. Alan Cowell,
New York Times, 11 April 1991.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 4 June 2003.
Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), University of
Maryland, 1822 April 2003.
Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 1 June 2003. Guy Dinmore and
James Harding, Financial Times, 34 May 2003.
Lee Michael Katz, National Journal, 8 February 2003. Friedman,
New York Times, 9 February 2003.
Frank Costigliola, Political Science Quarterly (Spring 1995).
© 2003 by Noam Chomsky. All
rights reserved. Portions of this essay appeared in Le Monde
diplomatique, August 2003.
Originally published in the October/November
2003 issue of Boston Review