YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The End of Deterrence

President Bush's 'new' doctrine of preemptive action has been around for more than a decade.

September 22, 2002|CAROL BRIGHTMAN | Carol Brightman is the author of the biography "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World," and the editor of "Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy." E-mail:

WALPOLE, Maine — On Friday, in a national security document prepared for Congress, President Bush described more completely than ever before the cornerstone of his administration's overhaul of U.S. military strategy: that is, the strategic doctrine of preemptive action which underlies his drive to topple the regime in Baghdad.

Most Americans learned of this radical departure from traditional bipartisan policies of deterrence and containment (where you don't shoot people unless they threaten you directly) when President Bush told the graduating class at West Point in June that U.S. security requires "a military ... ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world," one that will "be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and ... our lives."

This new first-strike doctrine, however, far from being a response to Sept. 11, as many suppose, has been around for at least a decade, ever since defense planners began to toil and trouble over a post-Cold War strategy where opposing forces could no longer be held in check by mutually assured destruction and backroom deals between Moscow and Washington.

The strategy was spelled out for the first time in the "National Security Guideline" prepared for the Pentagon in 1991 by Paul D. Wolfowitz and Lewis "Scooter" Libby--today, respectively, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's No. 2 man and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. It was an oddly paranoid document, considering that the U.S. had just emerged triumphant from a 40-year contest with the "evil empire." The brand new "unipolar" world, it seemed, had become infinitely more perilous.

Our allies ("regional hegemons" in the document's lingo) were seen as "potential competitors" who had to be prevented from "aspiring to a larger regional or global role" than we assigned them. U.S. military intervention would become "a constant feature" of world affairs.

The U.S. would "retain preeminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends." A first-strike option, "preemption," was designed for potentially hostile states engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction--a strategy the president embraced this year.

One thinks of Secretary of State Dean Rusk's nightmare during the Vietnam years when he said: "The world is round. Only one-third of its people are asleep at any one time. The other two-thirds are awake and causing mischief somewhere." With North Vietnam's diplomatic and military victories over the United States, Rusk's world really had slipped its traces. In 1991, however, the U.S. was top banana.

So what explains the projection of force as the solution to every conflict, even potential conflicts? And the overweening contempt for dialogue--for "laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation," which the conservative writer Robert Kagan, in an essay in "Policy Review," calls the "tactics of the weak"? "[N]ow that the United States is powerful, it behaves as powerful nations do.... The 'unipolar moment,' " he asserts, "[has] made the United States more willing to use force abroad."

But surely Kagan, whose United States inhabits a "world where power is the ultimate determinant of national security and success," confuses force with power. As do Wolfowitz and the irrepressible Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of Defense under Reagan who now helps orchestrate the attack-Iraq campaign from his chairs at the Defense Policy Board and the American Enterprise Institute. "The string of Perles," insiders call these first-strike spokesmen--who include William Kristol, co-editor with Kagan of "Present Dangers," which argues for the missile defense shield and a massive military buildup, and New York Times columnist William Safire, who has leaped into the ring against Brent Scowcroft "and his leave-Saddam-alone acolytes."

True power, as Machiavelli and Confucius knew, asserts itself through countless channels, mostly pacific. On this score, Vietnam taught the U.S. a hard lesson, or tried to. "The amount of violence at the disposal of any given country," political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in 1969, "may soon not be a reliable indication of the country's strength or a reliable guarantee against destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power." She foresaw a "complete reversal in the relationship between power and violence, foreshadowing another reversal in the future relationship between small and great powers."

This reversal is very likely the nightmare that haunts today's defense ideologues--and the inspiration for the administration's assertion in its new policy statement that the U.S. must never again allow its military supremacy to be challenged as it was during the cold war.

Los Angeles Times Articles