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Professor Carolyn EisenbergImperial Crisis and Domestic Dissent
American Historical Association Convention
Washington DC
January 10, 2004
Professor Carolyn Eisenberg

My assignment for this panel is to put the Bush policies -in particular the doctrine of "preemption" and the war in Iraq -in historical perspective. Among Left commentators about American foreign policy, one can observe a certain paradox. On the one hand, there is a powerful sense that we are at an exceptionally dangerous moment in history, that the Bush Administration is taking this country on a new and alarming route. On the other hand, there is an acute awareness that American imperialism and militarism are longstanding features of our national identity. How do we reconcile these two attitudes?

In my talk today, I want to address three related problems:

1/ Does the doctrine of "preemption" and in the war in Iraq constitute a departure from previous practice?

2/ In what way does an analysis of past American policy illuminate the particular decisions of the Bush Administration?

3/ And finally, what are the implications of such analysis for a contemporary resistance movement?

I. The Bush doctrine of "preemption" became officials news in September 2002, when the White House released a document, entitled "The National Security Strategy of the United States," While this paper contained a host of platitudes and recommendations, the most noteworthy passage was the following:

"Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of the innocents…The overlap between states that sponsor terrorism and those that pursue WMD compels us to action…The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction-and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."(Italics added).

What gave this made this document so significant was that it seemed linked to a linked a specific plan: an intention to wage war in Iraq, and if that proved successful to threaten and then implement similar attacks elsewhere.

Since the issuance of the statement, many mainstream foreign policy pundits have lamented the departure from previous norms. In such accounts, US policy during the Cold War was characterized by concepts of "deterrence" and "containment." In the good old days, the United States relied on diplomacy, cooperated with allies, observed international law and deferred to international institutions.

Yet as revisionist historians have long explained, the terms "containment" and "deterrence" are ideological constructs, which neatly masked an aggressive foreign policy in the language of national defense. In actuality American interventions around the globe -whether in the form of covert operations against foreign governments or the deployment of half a million troops to Southeast Asia - was something quite different than "containment."

This still leaves the question of whether there is anything new about the Bush approach. We should note at the outset, that the term "preemption" is also misleading. For the policy that the Administration is advocating is something different than "preemptive war." In international law, "preemptive war" refers to a very specific situation where one nation is confronted by an imminent attack from another. In such circumstances, there is a recognized right to strike first.

In that narrow sense, the Bush Administration can reasonably claim that preemption is a longstanding American policy. This has always been apparent in the nuclear field, where the United States has developed an arsenal of "first strike" weapons that could be used if a Soviet attack was deemed likely.

However, the doctrine of "preemption" advanced by the White House refers to something else: namely the right of the United to attack another country, when there is no "imminent threat," but simply the possibility that at some unspecified time that country might become dangerous.

This isn't so new either. Since the inception of the Cold War and even before, the United States government had dispatched troops to other countries, when there was no likelihood that they were preparing an assault on us. The cases of Grenada, Panama, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia spring immediately to mind. This practice did not originate with George Bush Jr.

Yet I still think there is a difference. The Bush Administration decision to publicly assert the American right to invade other countries reflects the priority it places on such activity. This is an administration that views war- making as a policy of choice.

And in this respect they are departing from their Cold War predecessors. For while U.S. policy has long been militaristic--in that it has relied on superior military power to produce a positive international climate- actual invasions and occupation of major foreign nations, has been the least favored option.

Even the most ambitious American military project--- the long war in Vietnam- was not a conscious decision, but a result of incremental actions that narrowed the options of American policy-makers over time. If John F. Kennedy had foreseen that U.S. intervention in Vietnam would grow into a full-scale military commitment, it is doubtful that he would have proceded.

What is frightening and different about the Bush team is that they do not want to limit themselves to quick military strikes at weak countries such as Panama or Grenada. They are prepared to go to war (and occupy) major countries of which Iraq was only the first. In this case the medium is the message. The real significance of the 2002 National Security Strategy is its public nature. For what the Bush Administration is doing is conditioning the American people to a period of sustained warfare. In this purpose, they have already achieved considerable success.

II. Why has this happened? What has produced this fresh enthusiasm for invasions?

In probing this matter, I want to introduce offer some general propositions about the way American policy evolved during the Cold War.

Among many revisionist writers, it is a truism that in this period the United States behaved in an imperialistic fashion and that this was rooted in the domestic political economy of the United States. Put simply American capitalism generated a preference for constant interventions. Hence the growth of our outsized military was the inevitable accompaniment of an ambitious international agenda.

As for the competition with the Soviet Union, this was often described as a mask for other objectives, or as the unfortunate bi-product of America's need to control the global economy. When put in this frame, American "militarism" appears as less cause than effect. It is the means by which the United States government protects corporate interests abroad. This yielded a certain weird optimism about the future. For if the goal of American military might is to protect profit, then there is a kind of rational "hidden hand," and nothing too dangerous can happen, at least not to Americans. I think this outlook explains the general complacency among Left academics about the nuclear arms race--a complacency that existed up until Ronald Reagan's Presidency, the emergence of a European peace movement and historian Edward Thompson's challenge to colleagues in America to pay greater attention.

From a theoretical standpoint, I want to argue that contrary to this revisionist paradigm that American militarism in its Cold War incarnation was never exclusively a device for protecting profit. It grew out of the specific circumstance existing at the end of the Second World War and was the means by which American officials could best enhance the power of the nation-state, while establishing a global economic framework for capitalism.

This might seem like a theoretical nitpick. However, by incorporating this view, we can more easily recognize that over the course of a half-century "American militarism" has become an important phenomenon in its own right. It does not appear as simply a consequence of economic interests, but actually shapes the way in which the U.S. government makes decisions in the international field.

To clarify the point, I want to mention four specific features of Cold War America, which we have inherited. All are quite familiar. My purpose in itemizing them is to note their impact on how foreign policy is created.

1/ The first is the tremendous centralization of power in the White House. American Presidents and their small circle of advisors have an enormous ability to shape events. Of special importance is their power to intimidate the media and to control the information going to the public.

2/ The second is the existence of a category of "national security" experts. Revisionist have rightfully noted the corporate roots of such folk (whether that be Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles or Dick Cheney), However, once these individuals assume the government mantle -and even in their private capacity- they are not simply thinking in the fashion of business leaders. For these peoples are nationalists, as well as capitalists. Their prescriptions reflect a concern for the power of the nation-state, along with the prerogatives of capital. Moreover, they are immersed in a culture, in which the instruments of war, the threat of war, the conduct of war, indeed the prospect of a nuclear engagement are daily fare.

3/ Then there is the "military-industrial complex," acknowledged by Eisenhower decades ago. It is much bigger now. There is a vast network of private companies, and governmental bureaucracies, employing millions of Americans, whose main activity involves war preparation. This is hardly a novel observation. But to borrow a crucial point from Edward Thompson: the existence of these structures influences decisions.

4/ The fourth and most consequential feature is this: when a major power, such as the United States, relies so heavily on military strength it make the world a more dangerous place. For this very emphasis on violence and coercion creates international enemies, and stimulates a desire for weapons and redress.

These factors can help us to understand why the collapse of the Soviet Union did not lead the to disarmament by the United States. Indeed from the standpoint of American policy-makers the great danger of the Soviet surrender was that it would eliminate the rationale for our whole military apparatus.

Some of you may remember when the Berlin Wall came down that George Bush Sr. forgot to smile. That was because he wasn't very happy. What would justify the continuation of NATO, if the wall disappeared, if in fact Germany was reunited? It was the special contribution of Condoleeza Rice working for the first Bush to convince Gorbachev to permit a reunified Germany to remain inside the NATO framework.

I would also suggest that a similar concern inspired senior Bush to go hurtling into the first Gulf War I. It is not surprising that an American President would want the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Yet as was evident in 1991, Bush was absolutely determined to do this in a military way, willfully sabotaging any chance of diplomacy.

It is against this background that I want to turn now to the recent war and occupation of Iraq .

To understand the Bush Administration's decision-making, we need to go beyond the politics of oil. Clearly Bush officials are concerned about oil: they are interested in controlling the supply inside Iraq and by establishing fresh bases there, widening their control over the entire Gulf region.

However, until 9/11 neither of these aspirations was of sufficient weight to motivate an American invasion. When, for example, Council on Foreign Relations study groups explored the matter in 1998, they were no less interested in oil, but they expressed no desire for an invasions.

Of course the neo-cons are different from the centrists at the Council of Foreign Relations. And as many commentators have noted , top officials in the Bush Administration - notably Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and Under-Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz were calling for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein long before the planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This surely casts into doubt the sincerity of the Administration's claim that its actions are motivated by the new threat of "terrorism."

Yet we should be cautious in leaping from here to the conclusion that this war "is all about oil." In thinking about the neo-cons, I thinks its useful to recognize that their oil strategy is encompassed in a wider view, as is their commitment to Sharon's party in Israel. For these are ideological extremists with a vision of a new world order, that is articulated with considerable clarity in the papers of the Project for a New American Century.

It is a vision of a world in which the United States, as the one remaining superpower, has the opportunity to use its military power in new ways and to create an international order in which the America government will be permanently dominant and in which their version of "free market capitalism" can be extended. In their outlook, the seizure of Iraq is not an end in itself, but a bold first step in a larger military plan.

Furthermore in understanding Administration policy, it is not sufficient to focus on the specific objectives of the Cheney-Rumseld group. Although this group occupied high positions from the first days of the Bush Presidency, until September 11 there was little prospect that their Iraq wishes would be heeded. Under Colin Powell's leadership, US policy was moving in the opposite direction--towards a liberalization and specific targeting of the economic sanctions.

September 11 did change things. It made a convert of the Commdander-in-Chief, who signed on to a project of war and "state-building" that he would never have embraced. It turned some mainstream members of the foreign policy elite--the name of Henry Kissinger comes to mind- into enthusiasts for a high-risk adventure. It transformed a normally malleable Congress into putty, it reduced a conformist media into servility and it made a terrified American public an easy mark for outandish propaganda.

There are many reasons for these developments. But a crucial one is this: as of September 10, the United States was a country "wired for war." This had been the case for decades. However, since Pearl Harbor, there had not been an attack on our shores. Given the American propensity to threaten or use military power in a wide range of situations, and the careless assumption that our military advantage would prevent any attack on our vital interests, it was a foregone conclusion that the response to 9/ll would be war. How long it would continue, would reflect the strategic predilections of those in the White House. In this, we have not been lucky.

We are not at the tail end of the Iraqi campaign -as many of us would like to think- but at the beginning of a whole new era of military confrontation. If the Bush Administration has its way, we will be expanding our armed forces in the second term, whether through the draft or some other means. And the danger will grow. The policies the US government is now pursuing in Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq have already fueled a fresh cycle of violence that will be difficult to stop, even with a President who is eager to apply the brakes.

III. So what are the prospects for resistance? I leave that to Staughton.

However, I want to close with these reflections.

First, we need to resist. US foreign policy has always exacted a fearful price from people around the world and it has long been dangerous to our own populace. It is more menacing now.

Second, some administrations are more reckless and irresponsible than others, and some Presidents are dumber. At present we are in the hands of right-wing ideologues, who are truly ignorant about the rest of the world and are subject to grandiose delusions about what military force can achieve.

And finally, historians urgently need to educate the public. In every possible venue, we need to put the subject of "militarism" as well as "free market" orthodoxy up for debate.

Ironically, my generation of radical historians was galvanized by the Vietnam war, which nurtured a belief that scholarship and teaching could nurture a critical sensibility that would reverberate throughout our society. Yet while many constructive changes have taken place in our discipline, it is on this very topic- the American role in the world- that we have been least voluble and least effective.

That educational task is still before us. I hope we can meet it.