THE EMPIRE STRIKES FIRST? The National Security Strategy of the United States

Thursday, January 16, 2003

In September 2002, President Bush released the first National Security Strategy report of his administration. Crafted by the president, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and a team of experts both inside and outside government, the report lays out what some have called "the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in more than half a century." Proponents say that the National Security Strategy presents the case for the responsible and justified use of American power, but critics call it a dangerous "doctrine without limits." Who's right?

Recorded on Thursday, January 16, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the national security strategy of George W. Bush, grand vision or risky business?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the national security strategy of the United States. In 1986, Congress passed a law requiring the president to submit a report each year in which he outlines the nation's long-term foreign policy goals and the strategy for attaining them. Last fall, President Bush issued the first national security strategy of his administration, which was also the nation's first national security strategy since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. President Bush's document has its admirers, people who believe that it outlines a just and responsible way to deploy American power around the world. It also has its critics. One critic said the document outlines a doctrine without limits. Who's right?

Joining us, two guests: Peter Tarnoff is a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations who served as an Undersecretary of State in the Clinton Administration. Eliot Cohen is a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Secretary of Defense.

Title: We Are the Champions

Peter Robinson: Writing in the American Prospect, Stanley Hoffman, Harvard professor, said of the national security strategy of the United States, September 2002, that it is "a doctrine of global domination." Is it that, Peter?

Peter Tarnoff: I don't think it's domination but it's a doctrine of global involvement and proactivism which puts the United States not only on the issue of terrorism but on a whole range of issues really in the forefront of managing international relations.

Peter Robinson: Domination, Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: I think I would say triumphalist. The thing that struck me about it at the very beginning is the note of kind of Wilsonian triumph about it and I agree it means that the United States is going to be playing a very, very active role but there's a tremendous sense that we know what direction history's moving in. And we're going to push it along.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Thank you very much because you have nicely set up my next question. Let me quote President Bush's letter of transmittal, the cover, the thing you read first when you read this great document. Quoting President Bush, "The great struggles of the 20th century ended with a single, sustainable model for national success, freedom, democracy and free enterprise, the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom loving people across the globe." George W. Bush. Now let me try on for you another president, John Quincy Adams: "We are the friends of democracy everywhere but the custodians only of our own." Peter, whom do you prefer, Bush or Adams?

Peter Tarnoff: I prefer something in between the two because I think that we can no longer afford to be as isolationist as the Adams quote implies.

Peter Robinson: Is Adams saying we're the friends of democracy everywhere but the custodians only of our own purely as a reflection of the power realities of the time? He's President of the United States when it's a dinky little nation clinging to the eastern seaboard of this great continent. Or do you think if you could bring Adams to life today, he'd say the same thing? We mind our business. That's the American way of doing things.

Peter Tarnoff: I'm not sure that he would say the same thing but there are still some people in this country who would say the same thing. Let's remember that John Quincy Adams was closer to George Washington who did express in his final weeks in office, real concern about the United States becoming too involved in the rest of the world. So the concentration during these early years was quite understandably on building our country, expanding it, making it into a great democracy while 200 years later or 150 years later, it became necessary, of course, for the United States for its own preservation and security to play a role in the world.

Peter Robinson: Washington in his farewell address says let's avoid foreign entanglements. Adams, John Quincy Adams, says we do not go in search of monsters to destroy, that famous quotation. But were they simply reflecting the power realities of the time or laying down what they understood to be American principles?

Eliot Cohen: I think it was a little bit of both, although it's very largely the power realities. You know, they were well aware that the United States was a brand new experiment and they wanted to consolidate the stability and security of this new form of government here. They understood also that that was fragile. And you have to remember that John Quincy Adams was speaking at a time when the idea of foreign intervention in the United States was by no means unthinkable. In fact, it had happened in a variety of ways during the French Revolution. I think there was a larger issue though--what President Bush says does somehow speak to an enduring American view of the world and in some ways, we're all students of Woodrow Wilson. On the other hand, I think it's also a truth and it's why like Peter, I'm somewhere in between, that exercising that kind of role in the world comes at great cost. And those costs are, of course, you know, financial and they can be costs in terms of blood. They can be costs in terms of what kind of people we are, what kind of government we have.

Peter Robinson: Next, one element of the national security strategy that has gotten a great deal of attention, preemption.

Title: Are You Talkin' to Me?

Peter Robinson: Once again from President Bush's opening statement, "As a matter of common sense and self defense, America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed." I'd like to ask two questions, first of all whether that's just in and of itself, to attack before the threat is fully formed and then I'd like to ask whether that's a workable policy to enunciate for the President of the United States to enunciate because I have this whole notion of just war theory, you don't attack unless it's clearly in self defense. Is the United States enunciating a policy that leads us to take unjust actions?

Peter Tarnoff: Well, of course we would never take unjust actions knowingly or admitting we were taking unjust actions. But going back over the past 40-50 years during the Cold War, I think it's always been assumed by people in government that it might be necessary to act preemptively. There are many examples of this. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy in effect, acted preemptively by telling the Soviets before they activated these missiles that we would take them out if need be. It was worked out diplomatically to our satisfaction.

Peter Robinson: But he reserved the right to strike first.

Peter Tarnoff: He reserved the right and I think any president if asked or if pushed would say that ultimately his primary responsibility is the defense of the United States and he might have to act preemptively. A question which may get to your second point, Peter, is why make it as large an item in the strategy and in the rhetoric of the administration. What is the effect of that? And I think that while it may be helpful politically in the United States to mobilize opinion and get us fixated on the fact that there are real threats out there, I think the effect on adversaries and also on friends and allies is very mixed overseas.

Peter Robinson: Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. I mean I agree with the notion that, you know, any president would be willing to preempt under the right circumstances. You know, the Clinton Administration thought about a preemptive strike on North Korean Nuclear facilities in the early Nineties. And in a way you can say what Franklin Roosevelt did during the period leading up to World War II in terms of beginning to help the British out before a direct threat to the United States had materialized, was a certain kind of preemption. But, you know, the question is how visible do you want to make it? Actually, you know, if you look at the document, preemption is really buried in the middle of it and it's not stated terribly starkly. It is in that, of course, that introductory letter as well. But I also think there is, you know, again there's probably a price to be paid to some extent overseas for doing it. On the other hand, you know, when the United States makes it clear that it is ready to act on its own, it frequently does have an effect on the willingness of other countries to consider measures that they might not otherwise. And I think a good example…

Peter Robinson: What about the critic's arguments about the dangers of preemption?

Title: The Shadow Knows

Peter Robinson: The president says that these days the greatest threat to the nation lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology. So he's talking about terrorists. He also refers to; this is a quotation, "shadowy networks." Now Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus at Princeton writing in The Nation says, "Preemption validates striking first on the basis of shadowy intentions," note that the clever Falk picks up the president's own word, "alleged potential links to terrorist groups, supposed plans and projects and anticipations of possible future dangers. It is a doctrine without limits." Well that's enough rhetoric to float a balloon. But is he not onto something if the president himself admits that our enemies are now shadowy? The question is how do you know when they've reached the point at which a preemptive strike is necessary?

Eliot Cohen: Look, you know, again, if you look in the middle of the document where it talks about preemption, they're quite careful about saying not in all circumstances and, you know, it depends on who you're dealing with. But look, I mean, after September 11, it's very hard to say that there isn't a very real threat.

Peter Robinson: In effect, what they're doing is using the document itself aggressively by stating our willingness to take preemptive action. In this new world, the notion is they'll make the need for preemptive action less necessary. It's an aggressive document. Is that right?

Peter Tarnoff: Let's imagine the document being issued in December of last year rather than in September when something called North Korea had emerged. And in re-reading it over the past day or so, I tried to visualize how it might be changed. I think it would have been changed. I think that the assertion that governments that are harboring ill intentions against the United States have to be targeted quite as precisely as that document does would be attenuated considerably in a document that would be issued two or three months after this strategy paper we're talking about because in real life, what the administration is finding is that doctrine is one thing but when you're faced with a real threat, you have to assess whether preemption or deterrence or collective action makes sense. And what the administration has been doing over Korea is far from preemption. As a matter of fact, at every opportunity, administration spokespeople including the president himself, are denying that preemption is an option.

Peter Robinson: So there's a little bit of swagger in this document that's already anachronistic.

Eliot Cohen: Well, I'm not sure I'd agree with that. I think the document leaves plenty of wiggle room to, you know, take the perfectly sensible course it seems to me on Korea that they've taken. I think the, you know, the purpose of this was it was not to introduce any particular innovation in American policy. It was to put people around the world on notice. I think by the way, it had another audience as well as that was a domestic governmental audience. It seems to me that the Bush Administration came in rightly or wrongly and I'm not sure which I think, with the view that until this point the government had gotten to be quite cautious in terms of what it was willing to do, thinking both the Defense Department but also the Intelligence community. And I think part of the audience of this document is a domestic audience saying we're now going to be much more out there doing things. And you know, where that's clearly visible I think is with the CIA where there have been all kinds of authorizations to do all kinds of things overseas that I think would have been unthinkable over the last 30 or 40 years.

Peter Robinson: From preemption to hegemony.

Title: Lifestyles of the Rich and Powerful

Peter Robinson: Historian John Lewis Gaddis, "Preemption in turn requires hegemony. The national security strategy makes it clear that our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing or even equaling the power of the United States." So the document implicitly commits us to remaining for some indeterminate period of time, the global superpower in the world.

Eliot Cohen: Actually, you know, I think you may have--it's a different phrase that really highlights that. It's a somewhat disingenuous phrase, the balance of power in favor of freedom. Of course, the whole point of that phrase--which they use a number of times--the whole point is it's an imbalance of power.

Peter Robinson: Right. A balance of power with our hands on the balance.

Eliot Cohen: Right. We've got our hands on the balance and it's all the way down. You know, preemption per se doesn't require hegemony. You know, the Israelis have preempted and they're not hegemons, whatever else they may be.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so Gaddis is on--Gaddis is strictly speaking mistaken but still onto something.

Eliot Cohen: But I think the broader point is right. And perhaps this is something of a departure. This does really commit the United States to being the world's dominant power.

Peter Robinson: Let me put a couple of test cases to the two of you then. Second World War ends. We station tens of thousands of troops in Europe to protect Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Soviet Union ceased to exist a decade ago, why shouldn't we bring those troops home? Peter?

Peter Tarnoff: Well, I think that as the first Bush Administration understood, as they were also ruminating about America's role in the world because they were present when the Cold War ended.

Peter Robinson: Right, the New World Order that they thought they were creating, yes.

Peter Tarnoff: The New World Order. But they understood that there had to be continuity of commitment from the United States. And though it was no longer necessary to defend Western Europe in a traditional sense and U.S. interests, by the way, against the Soviet Union, the idea of having an alliance of free peoples for political as well as military purposes served our interest because it connected us to Europe in a way that would not have existed if we had not been there at all.

Peter Robinson: Okay, Eliot, here's your test case. Gulf War, first Gulf War ends and we maintain a base in Saudi Arabia presumably to protect it principally against Iraq. Now the question would be why can't the Saudis defend themselves? Why shouldn't we close that base down and bring everybody home?

Eliot Cohen: If you tour a Saudi military installation, you quickly find out, you know, the people flying their airplanes are sometimes Saudis and the people maintaining the airplanes are most definitely not Saudis. The fact of the matter is what Saudi Arabia has is a military that is designed in part to look very good in those manuals that list everybody's order of battle. So, you know, you see all these modern airplanes.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Eliot Cohen: Whether they can actually do a lot with them is a very different matter. The fact is that, you know, the United States relied for a long time on Iran under the Shah to dominate the Persian Gulf once the British had withdrawn. Once that goes, there's really nobody else. And so the United States found itself sucked in. And I think that's important because, you know, that is frequently the way in which we end up playing an important role. There's nobody else.

Peter Robinson: So we get sucked in?

Eliot Cohen: …there's a vacuum and there we are. That's the reason why we're in Yugoslavia.

Peter Tarnoff: I'm not sure we get sucked in. I mean that would imply that, you know, we are either naïve or not calculating our interests. I think in these selected places around the globe, also in South Korea, we have a national interest in being present. And as long as there are governments there, Saudi Arabia, other places in the Gulf and in Europe who accept the notion that American power is helpful to them in the general context of a threat that they're facing, I think it's in our national interest to be there.

Peter Robinson: Okay, but…

Eliot Cohen: By the way, I agree that it's in our national interest and I don't think we're being naïve in making these commitments. On the other hand, I think there's a, you know, there's a certain logic in the world that exists simply by virtue of the fact that we are such an enormous power in so many different ways so that the logic kind of takes us in there almost whether we'd like to be there or not. And I think Yugoslavia is a really good example.

Peter Robinson: Here's what I want to get at. Pat Buchanan writes a book, which is a bestseller called, all you need to know is the title, A Republic Not an Empire, in which he says this is just fundamentally un-American. Bring them all home. Let the rest of the world take care of itself. It's in the Europeans' interest that they should defend themselves after all. We don't need to be there. What you both seem to be saying is we are the dominant power in the world and the realities force us to participate in realpolitik in places as far flung as South Korea and the Middle East--and that's just the reality. You both agree with that?

Peter Tarnoff: Yes, I do agree with it but insofar as it's in our interest to enhance ourselves with these governments around the world, not everywhere but selectively. Politically and economically having a force presence and a military relationship in these parts of the world not only brings stability but enhances our other interests. If we had no troops in Europe or in many other places, we would not have the political influence and political credibility that's important.

Eliot Cohen: I would just add to that that it's in our interests and it's a wise and prudent thing to do, it's going to come with costs in a variety of ways. And, you know, we saw some of those in South Korea where it's quite clear there a lot of South Koreans were not terribly happy to have a whole bunch of American soldiers stationed there.

Peter Robinson: Eliot brings us to our next topic, the consequences of American dominance.

Title: We Are the World

Peter Robinson: If we are both irresistibly and because we have an administration that wants to use the opportunity, the dominant power in the world, how will the rest of the world react? I'll give you two models. The first is Napoleonic Europe. Napoleon storms across Europe. It takes his opponents a fumbling decade or two to pull themselves together but ultimately the British and the Russians and the German states put together a coalition in opposition to Napoleon and finally the British and the Prussians get him at Waterloo. That is to say, a major hegemon in effect, calls into being his own opposition, Napoleonic Europe. Second model, the great Roman peace of many centuries in which the Romans impose order on the Mediterranean world, there are constant skirmishes on the borders and so forth but by and large, century after century rolls by and no great opponent or coalition of opponents arises. What do you foresee?

Eliot Cohen: Well, I'd say neither because first the United States is in a way much more powerful even than Napoleon was. We really tower over the rest of the world not just militarily but economically even in some ways culturally. And we're not like Rome either because the Romans were really single-minded in their pursuit of power. And by and large, the United States tends not to be. I think we can expect a lot of resentment and hostility and envy.

Peter Tarnoff: The other difference between the present situation and the historical examples that you gave, Peter, is that if any of these governments said to the United States, we don't want you here anymore, we'd come back.

Peter Robinson: Right. So we're nicer guys than the Romans were?

Peter Tarnoff: Well, I think we're dealing in a different world where it's consensus, it's agreement. Sometimes we're in a country and the country believes that our troops are too visible so we pull them out or move them or scale down their presence. It's a constant interaction between our government and the government that are hosting our armed forces.

Peter Robinson: But neither of you sees a grand coalition arising to offset us. The Europeans getting together with the Chinese or…

Eliot Cohen: No, actually one of the things that's been kind of interesting in ways that it hasn't happened, for a while people were speculating that the Russians and the Chinese, you know, would come together against the United States. That doesn't really seem to be likely to happen. On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who really do wish us ill and you can imagine us being confronted by people. And it's also important to remember that it's possible to be a dangerous opponent even with slender resources. You know, the Japanese only had about, I think, ten or fifteen percent of our gross national product in 1941 and they gave the United States a run for its money.

Peter Robinson: Last topic, what does the national security strategy imply about our policy for the Middle East?

Title: Another Fine Mesopotamia You've Gotten Us Into

Peter Robinson: John Lewis Gaddis one more time: "If we can topple this tyrant, Saddam Hussein, we can set in motion a process that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East thereby eliminating the principal breeding ground for terrorism. If I'm right about this," says Gaddis, "then the national security strategy is truly a grand strategy, a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East." Is that in the document or in the plans of the Bush Administration?

Peter Tarnoff: Well, I think Gaddis is right to the extent that there is a suggestion of that. I think in some quarters in the Bush Administration, people really do believe that if you can democratize Iraq in itself a large order, if you can democratize Iraq, there will be a movement towards opening up societies in the Middle East which could even lead to a democratization of the Palestinian authority which could then lead to an easier time between Israelis and Palestinians. I think that is vastly overblown. And I think it's taking too much in this document to say that it goes this far.

Eliot Cohen: I think there's some thinking along those lines in the Bush Administration and I'm more sympathetic to it than Peter is.

Peter Robinson: You don't consider it wildly impractical?

Eliot Cohen: You know, I think if say we look back on the first Gulf War, you can see that the road to Oslo, to some kind of Arab-Israeli accommodation did lead through Kuwait. I think there is something to be said for the idea of if you can create a more decent sort of regime in Iraq, that there could be some favorable repercussions in the Middle East. There's something to be said for having a Jordan have a better neighbor, Syria have a better neighbor, from our point of view and so on. So I think there's something there but that's not in the national security strategy. In fact, the national security strategy--actually one of the things it dances around is the Muslim world. And in some ways, if I had to fault it, this might sound perverse; I would almost fault it for not being blunt enough about confronting really two large issues. One is, I would say, the Arab crisis which is in some ways, what I think led in the deepest sense to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, a crisis of an entire culture and a group of societies. And I think then, you know, the other thing is China as a rising power. Now there's a little bit more discussion about China in the national security strategy but it's damped down and I think that's being politic which is fine but the truth is that as China rises, which I think is pretty much inevitable, it's going to be a challenge in many ways.

Peter Robinson: Is it possible for this democracy to grapple with the Muslim world, a billion Muslims, five hundred million of them living in the Middle East roughly speaking while refusing to speak about it as a problem in some way?

Eliot Cohen: I think that's a tremendous challenge we are not really willing to talk about. And I think that--there again, I'd go back to the idea of triumphalism. You know, I'm not sure exactly how well we're going to be able to shape the Muslim world or even to intervene in that internal fight. I don't think we have much choice about doing it. I'm not quite as optimistic perhaps as some of my friends in the Bush Administration may be.

Peter Robinson: It's television so we have to wrap it up. Last question, I give you Gaddis one last time. He's quotable. "The Bush national security strategy could be the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half a century." Second World War ends; the grand strategy is containment of the Soviet Union. We pursue it for half a century. Is this another such important and historical restatement of American grand strategy, Peter?

Peter Tarnoff: I'm not sure. What struck me in the President's letter even before he gets to the question of war on terror is the expansive role that he sees in the United States and the world, bringing countries into a position where they can enjoy freedom and free markets and democracy. So there's a very expansionist view of what America's almost moral role is in the world. To me the answer to Gaddis' question will depend on what practical consequences this has.

Peter Robinson: Check in again in a decade?

Peter Tarnoff: That's right. In other words, it's one thing to have the rhetoric. All administrations do it to a certain extent but it's too early to tell whether there is a Bush doctrine that is comparable to let's say what happened in the late 1940's when the United States redefined in dramatic fashion its role on the world.

Peter Robinson: Eliot?

Eliot Cohen: I think what is important and what may be lasting is really something about the Republican Party. You know, there really have been two strands of the Republican Party. One is this brand which is and to some extent, Wilsonian actually even though Wilson was a Democrat. That is to say, a branch of the Republican Party that looks at American values, that sees those values as being part of American national interests and thereby I must say has a lot in common with the center to the right of the Democratic Party. There's another tradition, which is the realpolitik if you will, Henry Kissinger/Brent Scowcroft/James Baker wing of the party. And something tells me that those folks may be decisively losing out. I'm not sure that that school will ever have the kind of weight that it used to have. And I think there you might have a departure.

Peter Robinson: Is George W. Bush more like his father George H. W. Bush or more like his father's predecessor, Ronald Reagan?

Eliot Cohen: He's much more like Ronald Reagan.

Peter Robinson: Eliot Cohen, Peter Tarnoff, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thank you for joining us.