A Grand Strategy of Transformation
President George W. Bush's national security strategy could represent the most sweeping shift in U.S. grand strategy since the beginning of the Cold War. But its success depends on the willingness of the rest of the world to welcome U.S. power with open arms.
It’s an interesting reflection on our democratic age that nations are now expected to publish their grand strategies before pursuing them. This practice would have surprised Metternich, Bismarck, and Lord Salisbury, though not Pericles. Concerned about not revealing too much, most great strategists in the past have preferred to concentrate on implementation, leaving explanation to historians. The first modern departure from this tradition came in 1947 when George F. Kennan revealed the rationale for containment in Foreign Affairs under the inadequately opaque pseudonym "Mr. X," but Kennan regretted the consequences and did not repeat the experiment. Not until the Nixon administration did official statements of national security strategy became routine. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Henry Kissinger’s "State of the World" reports were remarkably candid and comprehensive — so much so that they were widely regarded at the time as a clever form of disinformation. They did, though, revive the Periclean precedent that in a democracy even grand strategy is a matter for public discussion.
That precedent became law with the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which required the president to report regularly to Congress and the American people on national security strategy (NSS). The results since have been disappointing. The Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations all issued NSS reports, but these tended to be restatements of existing positions, cobbled together by committees, blandly worded, and quickly forgotten. None sparked significant public debate.
George W. Bush’s report on "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," released on September 17, 2002, has stirred controversy, though, and surely will continue to do so. For it’s not only the first strategy statement of a new administration; it’s also the first since the surprise attacks of September 11, 2001. Such attacks are fortunately rare in American history — the only analogies are the British burning of the White House and Capitol in 1814 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 — but they have one thing in common: they prepare the way for new grand strategies by showing that old ones have failed. The Bush NSS, therefore, merits a careful reading as a guide to what’s to come.
WHAT THE NSS SAYS
Beginnings, in such documents, tell you a lot. The Bush NSS, echoing the president’s speech at West Point on June 1, 2002, sets three tasks: "We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent." It’s worth comparing these goals with the three the Clinton administration put forth in its final NSS, released in December 1999: "To enhance America’s security. To bolster America’s economic prosperity. To promote democracy and human rights abroad."
The differences are revealing. The Bush objectives speak of defending, preserving, and extending peace; the Clinton statement seems simply to assume peace. Bush calls for cooperation among great powers; Clinton never uses that term. Bush specifies the encouragement of free and open societies on every continent; Clinton contents himself with "promoting" democracy and human rights "abroad." Even in these first few lines, then, the Bush NSS comes across as more forceful, more carefully crafted, and — unexpectedly — more multilateral than its immediate predecessor. It’s a tip-off that there’re interesting things going on here.
The first major innovation is Bush’s equation of terrorists with tyrants as sources of danger, an obvious outgrowth of September 11. American strategy in the past, he notes, has concentrated on defense against tyrants. Those adversaries required "great armies and great industrial capabilities" — resources only states could provide — to threaten U.S. interests. But now, "shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank." The strategies that won the Cold War — containment and deterrence — won’t work against such dangers, because those strategies assumed the existence of identifiable regimes led by identifiable leaders operating by identifiable means from identifiable territories. How, though, do you contain a shadow? How do you deter someone who’s prepared to commit suicide?
There’ve always been anarchists, assassins, and saboteurs operating without obvious sponsors, and many of them have risked their lives in doing so. Their actions have rarely shaken the stability of states or societies, however, because the number of victims they’ve targeted and the amount of physical damage they’ve caused have been relatively small. September 11 showed that terrorists can now inflict levels of destruction that only states wielding military power used to be able to accomplish. Weapons of mass destruction were the last resort for those possessing them during the Cold War, the NSS points out. "Today, our enemies see weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice." That elevates terrorists to the level of tyrants in Bush’s thinking, and that’s why he insists that preemption must be added to — though not necessarily in all situations replace — the tasks of containment and deterrence: "We cannot let our enemies strike first."
The NSS is careful to specify a legal basis for preemption: international law recognizes "that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack." There’s also a preference for preempting multilaterally: "The United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community." But "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country."
Preemption in turn requires hegemony. Although Bush speaks, in his letter of transmittal, of creating "a balance of power that favors human freedom" while forsaking "unilateral advantage," the body of the NSS 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 equaling, the power of the United States." The West Point speech put it more bluntly: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge." The president has at last approved, therefore, Paul Wolfowitz’s controversial recommendation to this effect, made in a 1992 "Defense Planning Guidance" draft subsequently leaked to the press and then disavowed by the first Bush administration. It’s no accident that Wolfowitz, as deputy secretary of defense, has been at the center of the new Bush administration’s strategic planning.
How, though, will the rest of the world respond to American hegemony? That gets us to another innovation in the Bush strategy, which is its emphasis on cooperation among the great powers. There’s a striking contrast here with Clinton’s focus on justice for small powers. The argument also seems at odds, at first glance, with maintaining military strength beyond challenge, for don’t the weak always unite to oppose the strong? In theory, yes, but in practice and in history, not necessarily. Here the Bush team seems to have absorbed some pretty sophisticated political science, for one of the issues that discipline has been wrestling with recently is why there’s still no anti-American coalition despite the overwhelming dominance of the United States since the end of the Cold War.
Bush suggested two explanations in his West Point speech, both of which most political scientists — not all — would find plausible. The first is that other great powers prefer management of the international system by a single hegemon as long as it’s a relatively benign one. When there’s only one superpower, there’s no point for anyone else to try to compete with it in military capabilities. International conflict shifts to trade rivalries and other relatively minor quarrels, none of them worth fighting about. Compared with what great powers have done to one another in the past, this state of affairs is no bad thing.
U.S. hegemony is also acceptable because it’s linked with certain values that all states and cultures — if not all terrorists and tyrants — share. As the NSS puts it: "No people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police." It’s this association of power with universal principles, Bush argues, that will cause other great powers to go along with whatever the United States has to do to preempt terrorists and tyrants, even if it does so alone. For, as was the case through most of the Cold War, there’s something worse out there than American hegemony.
The final innovation in the Bush strategy deals with the longer term issue of removing the causes of terrorism and tyranny. Here, again, the president’s thinking parallels an emerging consensus within the academic community. For it’s becoming clear now that poverty wasn’t what caused a group of middle-class and reasonably well-educated Middle Easterners to fly three airplanes into buildings and another into the ground. It was, rather, resentments growing out of the absence of representative institutions in their own societies, so that the only outlet for political dissidence was religious fanaticism.
Hence, Bush insists, the ultimate goal of U.S. strategy must be to spread democracy everywhere. The United States must finish the job that Woodrow Wilson started. The world, quite literally, must be made safe for democracy, even those parts of it, like the Middle East, that have so far resisted that tendency. Terrorism — and by implication the authoritarianism that breeds it — must become as obsolete as slavery, piracy, or genocide: "behavior that no respectable government can condone or support and that all must oppose."
The Bush NSS, therefore, differs in several ways from its recent predecessors. First, it’s proactive. It rejects the Clinton administration’s assumption that since the movement toward democracy and market economics had become irreversible in the post–Cold War era, all the United States had to do was "engage" with the rest of the world to "enlarge" those processes. Second, its parts for the most part interconnect. There’s a coherence in the Bush strategy that the Clinton national security team — notable for its simultaneous cultivation and humiliation of Russia — never achieved. Third, Bush’s analysis of how hegemony works and what causes terrorism is in tune with serious academic thinking, despite the fact that many academics haven’t noticed this yet. Fourth, the Bush administration, unlike several of its predecessors, sees no contradiction between power and principles. It is, in this sense, thoroughly Wilsonian. Finally, the new strategy is candid. This administration speaks plainly, at times eloquently, with no attempt to be polite or diplomatic or "nuanced." What you hear and what you read is pretty much what you can expect to get.
WHAT THE NSS DOESN’T SAY
There are, however, some things that you won’t hear or read, probably by design. The Bush NSS has, if not a hidden agenda, then at least one the administration isn’t advertising. It has to do with why the administration regards tyrants, in the post–September 11 world, as at least as dangerous as terrorists.
Bush tried to explain the connection in his January 2002 State of the Union address when he warned of an "axis of evil" made up of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The phrase confused more than it clarified, though, since Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Kim Jong Il are hardly the only tyrants around, nor are their ties to one another evident. Nor was it clear why containment and deterrence would not work against these tyrants, since they’re all more into survival than suicide. Their lifestyles tend more toward palaces than caves.
Both the West Point speech and the NSS are silent on the "axis of evil." The phrase, it now appears, reflected overzealous speechwriting rather than careful thought. It was an ill-advised effort to make the president sound, simultaneously, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and it’s now been given a quiet burial. This administration corrects its errors, even if it doesn’t admit them.
That, though, raises a more important question: Why, having buried the "axis of evil," is Bush still so keen on burying Saddam Hussein? Especially since the effort to do so might provoke him into using the weapons of last resort that he’s so far not used? It patronizes the administration to seek explanations in filial obligation. Despite his comment that this is "a guy that tried to kill my dad," George W. Bush is no Hamlet, agonizing over how to meet a tormented parental ghost’s demands for revenge. Shakespeare might still help, though, if you shift the analogy to Henry V. That monarch understood the psychological value of victory — of defeating an adversary sufficiently thoroughly that you shatter the confidence of others, so that they’ll roll over themselves before you have to roll over them.
For Henry, the demonstration was Agincourt, the famous victory over the French in 1415. The Bush administration got a taste of Agincourt with its victory over the Taliban at the end of 2001, to which the Afghans responded by gleefully shaving their beards, shedding their burkas, and cheering the infidels — even to the point of lending them horses from which they laser-marked bomb targets. Suddenly, it seemed, American values were transportable, even to the remotest and most alien parts of the earth. The vision that opened up was not one of the clash among civilizations we’d been led to expect, but rather, as the NSS puts it, a clash "inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world."
How, though, to maintain the momentum, given that the Taliban is no more and that al Qaeda isn’t likely to present itself as a conspicuous target? This, I think, is where Saddam Hussein comes in: Iraq is the most feasible place where we can strike the next blow. If we can topple this tyrant, if we can repeat the Afghan Agincourt on the banks of the Euphrates, then we can accomplish a great deal. We can complete the task the Gulf War left unfinished. We can destroy whatever weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein may have accumulated since. We can end whatever support he’s providing for terrorists elsewhere, notably those who act against Israel. We can liberate the Iraqi people. We can ensure an ample supply of inexpensive oil. 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. And, as President Bush did say publicly in a powerful speech to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, we can save that organization from the irrelevance into which it will otherwise descend if its resolutions continue to be contemptuously disregarded.
If I’m right about this, then it’s a truly grand strategy. What appears at first glance to be a lack of clarity about who’s deterrable and who’s not turns out, upon closer examination, to be a plan for transforming the entire Muslim Middle East: for bringing it, once and for all, into the modern world. There’s been nothing like this in boldness, sweep, and vision since Americans took it upon themselves, more than half a century ago, to democratize Germany and Japan, thus setting in motion processes that stopped short of only a few places on earth, one of which was the Muslim Middle East.
CAN IT WORK?
The honest answer is that no one knows. We’ve had examples in the past of carefully crafted strategies failing: most conspicuously, the Nixon-Kissinger attempt, during the early 1970s, to bring the Soviet Union within the international system of satisfied states. We’ve had examples of carelessly improvised strategies succeeding: The Clinton administration accomplished this feat in Kosovo in 1999. The greatest theorist of strategy, Carl von Clausewitz, repeatedly emphasized the role of chance, which can at times defeat the best of designs and at other times hand victory to the worst of them. For this reason, he insisted, theory can never really predict what’s going to happen.
Does this mean, though, that there’s nothing we can say? That all we can do is cross our fingers, hope for the best, and wait for the historians to tell us why whatever happened was bound to happen? I don’t think so, for reasons that relate, rather mundanely, to transportation. Before airplanes take off — and, these days, before trains leave their terminals — the mechanics responsible for them look for cracks, whether in the wings, the tail, the landing gear, or on the Acela the yaw dampers. These reveal the stresses produced while moving the vehicle from where it is to where it needs to go. If undetected, they can lead to disaster. That’s why inspections — checking for cracks — are routine in the transportation business. I wonder if they ought not to be in the strategy business as well. The potential stresses I see in the Bush grand strategy — the possible sources of cracks — are as follows:
Multitasking: Critics as unaccustomed to agreeing with one another as Brent Scowcroft and Al Gore have warned against diversion from the war on terrorism if the United States takes on Saddam Hussein. The principle involved here — deal with one enemy at a time — is a sound one. But plenty of successful strategies have violated it. An obvious example is Roosevelt’s decision to fight simultaneous wars against Germany and Japan between 1941 and 1945. Another is Kennan’s strategy of containment, which worked by deterring the Soviet Union while reviving democracy and capitalism in Western Europe and Japan. The explanation, in both instances, was that these were wars on different fronts against the same enemy: authoritarianism and the conditions that produced it.
The Bush administration sees its war against terrorists and tyrants in much the same way. The problem is not that Saddam Hussein is actively supporting al Qaeda, however much the Bush team would like to prove that. It’s rather that authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East support terrorism indirectly by continuing to produce generations of underemployed, unrepresented, and therefore radicalizable young people from whom Osama bin Laden and others like him draw their recruits.
Bush has, to be sure, enlisted authoritarian allies in his war against terrorism — for the moment. So did Roosevelt when he welcomed the Soviet Union’s help in the war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. But the Bush strategy has long-term as well as immediate implications, and these do not assume indefinite reliance on regimes like those that currently run Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Reliance on Yasir Arafat has already ended.
The welcome: These plans depend critically, however, on our being welcomed in Baghdad if we invade, as we were in Kabul. If we aren’t, the whole strategy collapses, because it’s premised on the belief that ordinary Iraqis will prefer an American occupation over the current conditions in which they live. There’s no evidence that the Bush administration is planning the kind of military commitments the United States made in either of the two world wars, or even in Korea and Vietnam. This strategy relies on getting cheered, not shot at.
Who’s to say, for certain, that this will or won’t happen? A year ago, Afghanistan seemed the least likely place in which invaders could expect cheers, and yet they got them. It would be foolish to conclude from this experience, though, that it will occur everywhere. John F. Kennedy learned that lesson when, recalling successful interventions in Iran and Guatemala, he authorized the failed Bay of Pigs landings in Cuba. The trouble with Agincourts — even those that happen in Afghanistan — is the arrogance they can encourage, along with the illusion that victory itself is enough and that no follow-up is required. It’s worth remembering that, despite Henry V, the French never became English.
Maintaining the moral high ground: It’s difficult to quantify the importance of this , but why should we need to? Just war theory has been around since St. Augustine. Our own Declaration of Independence invoked a decent respect for the opinions of humankind. Richard Overy’s fine history of World War II devotes an entire chapter to the Allies’ triumph in what he calls "the moral contest." Kennedy rejected a surprise attack against Soviet missiles in Cuba because he feared losing the moral advantage: Pearl Harbor analogies were enough to sink plans for preemption in a much more dangerous crisis than Americans face now. The Bush NSS acknowledges the multiplier effects of multilateralism: "no nation can build a safer, better world alone." These can hardly be gained through unilateral action unless that action itself commands multilateral support.
The Bush team assumes we’ll have the moral high ground, and hence multilateral support, if we’re cheered and not shot at when we go into Baghdad and other similar places. No doubt they’re right about that. They’re seeking U.N. authorization for such a move and may well get it. Certainly, they’ll have the consent of the U.S. Congress. For there lies behind their strategy an incontestable moral claim: that in some situations preemption is preferable to doing nothing. Who would not have preempted Hitler or Milosevic or Mohammed Atta, if given the chance?
Will Iraq seem such a situation, though, if we’re not cheered in Baghdad? Can we count on multilateral support if things go badly? Here the Bush administration has not been thinking ahead. It’s been dividing its own moral multipliers through its tendency to behave, on an array of multilateral issues ranging from the Kyoto Protocol to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the International Criminal Court, like a sullen, pouting, oblivious, and overmuscled teenager. As a result, it’s depleted the reservoir of support from allies it ought to have in place before embarking on such a high-risk strategy.
There are, to be sure, valid objections to these and other initiatives the administration doesn’t like. But it’s made too few efforts to use diplomacy — by which I mean tact — to express these complaints. Nor has it tried to change a domestic political culture that too often relishes having the United States stand defiantly alone. The Truman administration understood that the success of containment abroad required countering isolationism at home. The Bush administration hasn’t yet made that connection between domestic politics and grand strategy. That’s its biggest failure of leadership so far.
The Bush strategy depends ultimately on not standing defiantly alone — just the opposite, indeed, for it claims to be pursuing values that, as the NSS puts it, are "true for every person, in every society." So this crack especially needs fixing before this vehicle departs for its intended destination. A nation that sets itself up as an example to the world in most things will not achieve that purpose by telling the rest of the world, in some things, to shove it.
WHAT IT MEANS
Despite these problems, the Bush strategy is right on target with respect to the new circumstances confronting the United States and its allies in the wake of September 11. It was sufficient, throughout the Cold War, to contain without seeking to reform authoritarian regimes: we left it to the Soviet Union to reform itself. The most important conclusion of the Bush NSS is that this Cold War assumption no longer holds. The intersection of radicalism with technology the world witnessed on that terrible morning means that the persistence of authoritarianism anywhere can breed resentments that can provoke terrorism that can do us grievous harm. There is a compellingly realistic reason now to complete the idealistic task Woodrow Wilson began more than eight decades ago: the world must be made safe for democracy, because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world.
The Bush NSS report could be, therefore, the most important reformulation of U.S. grand strategy in over half a century. The risks are great — though probably no more than those confronting the architects of containment as the Cold War began. The pitfalls are plentiful — there are cracks to attend to before this vehicle departs for its intended destination. There’s certainly no guarantee of success — but as Clausewitz would have pointed out, there never is in anything that’s worth doing.
We’ll probably never know for sure what bin Laden and his gang hoped to achieve with the horrors they perpetrated on September 11, 2001. One thing seems clear, though: it can hardly have been to produce this document, and the new grand strategy of transformation that is contained within it.