The Empire Strikes First

In a way, the news that the Bush administration is developing a new strategic doctrine that involves preemptive strikes against terrorists and states alleged to have chemical, biological or nuclear weapons could be viewed as simply formalizing what has been U.S. intervention doctrine for years now. After all, the United States did not require an attack on another nation to commence bombing in Bosnia or Kosovo. President Clinton launched missiles on an apparently abandoned terrorist camp in Afghanistan and on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan with little or no justification. The interventions in Haiti and Somalia were not preceded by so much as a hint of a threat against the United States proper.

Nonetheless, the news, as reported Monday in the Washington Post, that the Bush National Security Council is preparing a "National Security Strategy" document, expected this fall, that will include "preemption and "defensive intervention" as formal options (in addition to containment, deterrence and retaliation) is a significant, even monumentally important development. It ratifies what many of us have been saying for years now – that the United States has developed into a world empire rather than a government that claims jurisdiction over a particular national territory.

The United States, as I have discussed before, is a different kind of empire, as every empire has in some respects been different from those that have gone before. In the May 6 issue of The Weekly Standard, West Point history teacher Kimberly Kagan went on at some length to the effect that the American system should be called "hegemony," using the Greek word for "leader," rather than an empire like the old Roman Empire. The US doesn’t treat nations as formal protectorates, he argued, and the goal of America is peace and the protection of small states rather than the conquest of small states. The Romans extracted tribute while Americans send foreign aid.


Where these differences are accurate – in some cases they are manifestly inaccurate; through international organizations the US has most definitely sought to control the administrative policies of countries like Kosovo and Bosnia in ways that are the obverse of democratic – they strike me as distinctions without much of a difference.

The United States may not claim much territory outside the United States outright, but it maintains military garrisons in 65 different countries, including some like Italy and Germany that pose nothing resembling a threat to the United States. There’s no military or strategic reason for Okinawa to be a vast American military base and keeping it that way poisons relations between the United States and Japan, but there’s no serious move to draw back from that imperial outpost. What besides an imperial policy justifies all these military outposts that have nothing to do with homeland defense, and in some cases make homeland defense more difficult or complicated?

The American Empire is not like the Roman Empire or the British Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Parthian Empire in any number of significant ways. In what really counts, however – extending influence and even dominion over regions outside the nation’s boundaries – the Old Republic long ago became an empire, and in the late 20th century became something rather akin to a world empire. Given that the United States has sent troops and/or missiles to such geopolitically marginal areas as Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia and the pre-9/11 Afghanistan, what country is now viewed as outside the legitimate interests of the United States?

Kimberly Kagan says the US is interested in supporting and expanding freedom and democracy rather than its own imperial power. If anything, such an open-ended crusade gives wider latitude to the imperial impulse than mere extension of direct power. No country on earth has enough freedom to suit me. So presumably any country could become subject to the tender ministrations of expert US nation-builders. Unfortunately, the evidence that U.S.-led nation-building does much to promote freedom is scant at best.

Kimberly Kagan is almost right that "Most of the time America is a reluctant leader that needs to be persuaded to intervene." Certainly the American people have been generally (though not always) reluctant to pursue endless interventions and are notably skeptical about the capacity of foreign aid either to build prosperity or to serve American interests. But this country does not lack for leaders and theorists who see virtually no limit to the potential for intervention, leadership, military activity and the use of force to bring other countries into line.


According to the Post story, the Bush administration has been moving toward the doctrine of preemptive action as a formal option for some time. The "axis of evil" formulation in the State of the Union speech in January, naming Iran, Iraq and North Korea, was the beginning.

None of those countries currently poses either a direct or an indirect threat to the United States, although one can easily imagine Iraq under Saddam Hussein doing something confrontational if it acquired weapons of mass destruction. The countries are neither formally nor informally aligned, as one might expect of countries being grouped together into something called an "axis." Their rulers are certainly despotic and one might even call them evil. But essentially they are countries with nasty rulers that might or might not pose a genuine threat to the United States at some point in the future.

The commencement address and West Point supposedly articulated the doctrine with more clothing, when the president said "our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and defend our lives." As the Post story notes, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has done his bit to advance the notion that the changed post-9/11 environment might require a wee bit of aggression. Asked whether the government is contemplating sudden strikes against other countries with weapons of mass destruction recently, ha responded: "Why would anyone answer that question if they were contemplating it?"

This is hardly the first time in recent history that the idea of preemptive strikes has been pushed into the public eye. Back in the late 1960s William Buckley notably advocated a preemptive strike against mainland China’s nuclear capability, and got so notable a liberal as entertainer Steve Allen to consider the possibility that this might lead to less destruction and loss of life than simply allowing China to do as it wanted. But the government has always been reluctant to make such a doctrine part of formal policy. The civics-class illusion that this is a country that responds to aggression rather than initiating it was still considered worth maintaining, even up to the Gulf War undertaken by Bush I.


To make preemptive strikes part of formal military doctrine, however, is a larger step than is likely to be acknowledged widely. Not only might it be more complicated than proponents would like to admit, it is already destabilizing relations with putative allies in Europe. It would remove whatever small remnant of constitutionality remains when it comes to making war.

Congress hasn’t felt the need to declare war since World War II, although the US has been more or less constantly engaged militarily since then. But Congress has felt the need to lay hands of blessing on proposed military adventures and at least theoretically could veto them. Making preemptive strikes an official part of US strategic doctrine would make the president, whoever he or she is, even more a wielder of arbitrary, imperial power than is the case now.

Such a step would also remove any shred of moral underpinning to US foreign policy. US officials felt a need to fabricate the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam to create at least the formal justification that entrance into that conflict came only after aggression by the other side. Embracing preemption would mean that US officials are justified in attacking any country anywhere that might have weapons of mass destruction – or terrorists or whatever – without posing anything resembling an immediate threat. It could be abused easily and it is a doctrine of aggression rather than defense, democracy or liberty.

Let us hope there is at least a spirited debate on the doctrine of preemptive intervention before the United States ratifies the imperial impulse so completely.


On a (perhaps) marginally related subject, Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that Abdullah Al Mujahir, a US citizen who changed his name after converting to Islam while in prison, will be viewed as an "enemy combatant" and is being transferred from civilian to military custody. It is unclear whether he will be tried in a military tribunal.

This is an utterly gratuitous and unnecessary move toward militarization of society and the justice system. If the charges are true, that he was trying to develop and unleash a "dirty bomb," there is no reason civilian courts couldn’t handle his case. He is an American citizen. It is unclear whether military tribunals can be constitutionally used on an American citizen.

By making this move, Ashcroft is clearly tilting toward militarization of the justice system and the society. The fact that Mujahir is hardly a sympathetic character should not be used to prevent a thorough critique of this tendency to short-change or even subvert civilian due process in situations where the justification is marginal at best. It reveals a dangerous mind-set on the part of government leaders.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).