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Empire, Anyone?


Both Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis argue in their new books that recurring cycles of American history do much to explain George Bush’s plans to reform the world. Both historians discuss the precedents for the so-called Bush doctrine—preemptive war, unilateralism, and American hegemony. Schlesinger observes the emergence of such a strategy with alarm. Gaddis, though critical of the Bush administration’s overblown rhetoric and mishandling of the occupation of Iraq, approves in principle of America’s military strategy in Iraq. It has, he says, produced “a modest improvement in American and global economic conditions,” as well as promoted “an intensified dialogue within the Arab world about political reform.” Under Bush II, America has emerged “as a more powerful and purposeful actor within the international system than it had been on September 11, 2001.” For this claim he presents no convincing evidence. Instead, he argues that Bush’s policies for installing an imperial presence in the Middle East have longstanding precedents in American history and are no more radical now than they were then.

He is right that the debate over preemptive war dates from the early years of the republic. With the end of the French alliance in 1800, the young nation had to defend itself without allies from real and potential threats to its safety. To do so, the American government acted unilaterally and, Gaddis writes, preemptively, removing the sources of danger whenever they existed. This led to a quest for continental hegemony and predominance in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere and eventually to an informal imperial policy abroad—one that he approves of.

A problem throughout Gaddis’s argument is that he blurs the distinction between preemption and prevention. I think Schlesinger is right to point out that a “preemptive war” refers to “a direct, immediate, specific threat that must be crushed at once,” a US attack, in the words of a Department of Defense manual, “initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent.” To have all but certain knowledge of enemy capacities and intentions requires excellent intelligence—no easy task when we consider the inaccuracy of US intelligence reports used to justify the Iraq war. Preventive war, on the other hand, refers to “potential, future, therefore speculative threats.”

The Bush administration’s shift from the cold war policy of containment and deterrence to preventive war was made clear, Schlesinger shows, when the President declared at West Point on June 1, 2002, that the United States must “take the battle to the enemy… and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” Later that summer he said again, “America must act against these terrible threats before they’re fully formed.” According to the former CIA director, George Tenet, his analysts “never said there was an imminent threat.” The war on Iraq was therefore a preventive war.

In the nineteenth century, however, when attacks could as often take the form of raids as of invasions, Gaddis believes that preemption and prevention often amounted to the same thing. For him, the Bush doctrine, which was devised to destroy terrorism whether or not it is state-sponsored, conflates the two terms, and justifiably so. In a recent dialogue with the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, for example, Gaddis said the United States is now experiencing “a level of vulnerability that Americans have not seen since they were living on the edge of a dangerous frontier 150 years ago.” Bush was therefore right

to announce a strategy which had never been totally absent from American history—the idea of preemption. That is, when sources of danger exist, the United States has the right to take them out. There was a long history of this kind of behavior in the nineteenth century.1

Gaddis draws a parallel between the British attack on Washington in 1814 and the terrorist strikes on September 11, 2001. In reaction to the shock of the British violation of US territory, Americans chose, as Bush did after September 11, to take “the offensive …by confronting, neutralizing, and if possible overwhelming the sources of danger rather than fleeing from them.” Ever since the War of 1812, Gaddis writes, for the United States “safety comes from enlarging, rather than from contracting, its sphere of responsibilities.”

To support this view of history, Gaddis recounts in some detail the preemptive attacks that followed the War of 1812. The lesson of that war was tested, he believes, when General Andrew Jackson in 1818 invaded Florida, which was then held by a weak Spanish government. Jackson’s goal was to subdue the marauding Creeks, Seminoles, and escaped slaves—but above all, to kill or capture the British military adventurers who had established themselves there. Jackson feared that unless he took preemptive action in Florida, the British would again threaten the United States.

Jackson’s invasion may well have exceeded his authority. President James Monroe denied that he had ever given Jackson approval for a preemptive strike. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, however, persuaded Monroe’s cabinet that the United States should not apologize for what happened, but rather take advantage of it and, as Gaddis puts it, claim “the right to act preemptively in such situations.”

Adams won his point, and Jackson was not punished for his attack. Because of this preemptive strategy Adams was able to force Spain to sell Florida to the United States. The Florida intervention thus gave him the excuse he needed to carry out American expansion in the name of security. For Gaddis, Adams is “the most influential American grand strategist of the nineteenth century.” The diplomatic principles he espoused “sound suspiciously relevant in the aftermath of September 11th: they were preemption, unilateralism, and hegemony.” Here Gaddis reveals plainly the historical fallacy that recurs throughout his book. Just because a rough analogy can be drawn between US preemption in 1818 and the attack on Iraq, that does not mean that either was justified.

The same criticism applies to Gaddis’s account of the years following the Florida intervention. In 1845, he writes, the Polk administration annexed the independent state of Texas, arguing, among other reasons, that the British or French would take it over if the Americans didn’t. Polk used the same argument, Gaddis writes, “to welcome—some historians say to provoke—the war with Mexico that soon followed.” This allowed him to annex California, which, he argued, might have been vulnerable to conquest by Europeans, especially the British. A similarly speculative rationale for enlarging the union as a way of seeking “security” was used to take over present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Continental expansion was then over, and while future administrations coveted Canada, they also knew that by the mid-century they had little to fear from the north.

Still, the idea of preemption did not disappear. Gaddis recalls that the McKinley administration justified the Spanish-American War after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor, and soon after occupied the Philippines largely because the administration feared that other powerful states with navies in the Pacific, namely Germany or Japan, would take possession of them. During the next two decades, he continues, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson used similar arguments for preemptive interventions in Venezuela, the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico. At the Paris peace conference after World War I, Woodrow Wilson believed that the League of Nations, led by the United States, should act collectively to resist aggression wherever it took place. For Wilson, American responsibility now became global.

From this brief tour of history—in which both the human costs of intervention and alternatives to it are hardly considered—Gaddis contends that American presidents beginning with John Quincy Adams believed that enlarging security would first come through continental expansion, then through hemispheric hegemony, and finally through Wilsonian efforts to democratize the world by means of American leadership. This quest for security more often than not required preemptive military action by the United States and it helped create an empire. In his conversation with Paul Kennedy, Gaddis has “no problem whatever with the proposition that the United States has an empire.” It is, in his view, “as American as apple pie”—as if this were by itself a justification for the killing of many thousands.

Gaddis makes much of Thomas Jefferson’s notion that the process of expanding the American “empire of liberty” necessarily contained within it the conviction that “empire and liberty are indeed compatible.” He does not mention that the US occupation of the Philippines, for example, resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Filipinos, whether from killing by US forces or from other causes, as well as the repression of the liberties of many others. Today, Gaddis suggests, “imperial solutions” in the Middle East “may be at least as likely as the democratic ones the Bush administration says it’s seeking,” and for him the two legitimately go together. He thus wants to link the “empire of liberty” that Jefferson once sought to the Bush project of establishing democracy in the Middle East, with Iraq as a showpiece that will demonstrate to its neighbors the virtues of liberal constitutionalism and help to stabilize the region. As Gaddis sees it, Bush’s strategy is a return to America’s way of enlarging its security through expansion.

Gaddis realizes that the Bush administration’s insistence that preemption, defined in the National Security Strategy document of September 17, 2002, is central to American grand strategy, alarms other nations, particularly its European allies. Still, he argues, other states have not formed an anti-American coalition against excessive US power, because “great powers actually prefer management of the international system by a single hegemon as long as it’s a relatively benign one.” Here he conveniently fails to consider the actual behavior of some of America’s allies. When the current Spanish government withdrew its forces from Iraq it was not indicating a preference for US management.

But what excites Gaddis most and causes him to overlook such specific objections to US policy is the large ambition of Bush’s effort to “spread democracy everywhere.” He proposes that we should now seek “to make the world safe for [a Hamiltonian model of] federalism.” Quoting Lincoln, he declares that it is “surely accurate” that the United States is “the last best hope of earth.” Even if democracy comes slowly to the rest of the world, it is America’s task to “keep hope alive,” while also remembering that “you can’t sustain hegemony without consent.”

What Gaddis fails to recognize is that our decision to fight an unjustified war in Iraq, our unwillingness to send in enough troops and resources to create a secure Afghanistan, and our staggering blunders in the occupation of Iraq have fatally undermined any notion that most of the world, including our oldest and closest allies, will consent to our hegemony. We are now feared and despised, rather than admired.

In his recent conversation with Paul Kennedy, Gaddis admits that he is angry with the Bush administration, of which he has been one of the leading academic defenders. Bush, he says, responded “creatively” to the terror-ist attacks of September 11 “with a serious reconsideration of American strategy,” but then the administration leaders

  1. 1

    See the conversation between Gaddis and Paul Kennedy in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 2004, p. 23.

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