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Empire, Anyone?

screwed it up in Iraq. They violated a really fundamental principle. It’s the dog-and-car syndrome. Dogs spend a lot of time thinking about and chasing cars. But they don’t know what to do with a car when they actually catch one. It seems to me this, in a nutshell, is what happened to the Bush administration in Iraq.

After all his efforts to link America’s past to the goal of a US-led federalist world, Gaddis now seems to feel that the Bush administration has let him down.

But things are going badly in Iraq not simply because Bush screwed up the occupation; the entire US approach was flawed from the first, in large part because the US, by intervening preemptively, rejected the principle of international consensus. The French, the Germans, the Russians, and indeed most other nations wanted the UN inspectors to continue looking for the weapons of mass destruction that Bush cited as the main reason for going to war, and whose proven existence could have created a serious threat. Why didn’t the Bush administration allow the inspections to continue?

Here Gaddis provides only a cursory discussion of the actual sequence of events that led to it. Hans Blix, who headed the United Nations Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Committee (UNMOVIC), resumed weapons inspections in Iraq in September 2002, when Saddam Hussein, intimidated by the buildup of US forces in Kuwait, agreed to let the inspectors back into Iraq. In his book Disarming Iraq, Blix describes how his inspectors could not find any of the weapons the Americans alleged were there; but he cannot say exactly what had happened to them. Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, who defected in 1995, told his interrogators that he had ordered Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction destroyed in 1991. But because the Iraqis kept no adequate records, the inspectors could not confirm how they dis-appeared. Saddam Hussein, for his part, refused to see Blix and his colleague from the IAEA, Mohamed El-Baradei, until it was too late to stop Bush’s plans for the war. This seemed irrational on Saddam’s part. If he had been more willing to open up his country and to provide clear evidence of the destruction of weapons, he might possibly have avoided an attack, even by an American administration determined to invade. Did he fear that providing extensive information about destroyed weapons would reveal just how hollow his regime was? In any case, he did not interfere with the inspectors.

France and other nations suggested that more time was needed to allow Blix to continue. The United States refused. On March 17, 2003, two days before the coalition attacked, Washington asked Blix to withdraw his inspectors, after assuring the world that the weapons of mass destruction would soon be found. The sequence by which war was falsely justified shows the dangers of Gaddis’s loose conception of imperial American preemption.2

What we do know from Bush’s former treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, and from interviews with the President and members of his administration by Bob Woodward, among others, is that shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush was eager to go ahead with war against Iraq. On November 21, 2001, Bush asked Donald Rumsfeld, “What kind of war plan do you have for Iraq?”

Even when Brent Scowcroft, his father’s national security adviser, wrote in an Op-Ed piece that there was no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and advised against an American attack on Iraq, Bush pushed ahead. No matter what Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei said, or how unlikely it was that the Iraqi government had any connection to al-Qaeda, Bush was determined that Iraq would fall and that he would create there not only a major American base, but the first of a series of Middle Eastern democracies that would, by a process of transformation never explained, be more tolerant of the state of Israel.3 We still don’t know enough about the neoconservatives and their allies in the administration who irresponsibly promoted both this scheme and the war intended to carry it out. What is clear is that they made use of the same Wilsonian idea of democratic world order and the same conflation of empire and liberty that Gaddis tries to defend.


In his humane and powerful book, Arthur Schlesinger is deeply skeptical of the idea that “constitutional democracy” is the wave of the future. “The world got along without democracy until two centuries ago, and there is little evidence that constitutional democracy is likely to triumph in the century ahead.” The failures of democracy in the last century handed “the initiative to secular totalitarianism—communism, fascism, Nazism.” Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, “democracy finds itself challenged by religious fanatics.” The “democratic alternative” may be urgently needed, but the role of the United States should be to serve as an exemplar of democracy, not its crusader.

As an internationalist in the tradition of FDR, Truman, and Kennedy, Schlesinger thinks it is foolish for American leaders to act as though they were “omnipotent and omniscient.” On the other hand, he argues that it is fatuous to believe, as some internationalists do, that the US can simply hand over to the UN the difficulties it faces in its foreign relations. The UN cannot provide a substitute for the realist view that “the basic dynamics of international politics” is the “national interest and the search for stable balances of power.” In his criticism of Bush’s doctrine of preemption, Schlesinger insists that the US must still protect its vital interests. The UN and other international bodies “supply arenas where clashes of interest and power can be contained, refined, and harmonized,” and it is self-destructive not to make use of them.

Distinguishing between preemptive and preventive war, Schlesinger refutes Condoleezza Rice’s observation at a White House press conference last spring that Daniel Webster “actually wrote a very famous defense of anticipatory self-defense.” Not so. As secretary of state, Webster said in 1841 that a preemptive military action could be justified only if the prospective attacker made clear “a necessity of self-defense, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” Bush’s National Security Strategy document of September 17 was much more permissive than Webster’s statement in setting the conditions for a US invasion. The war on Iraq was not a preemptive strike, but rather a conventional attack on a sovereign state.

Schlesinger quotes Henry Kissinger’s remark that “it is not in the American national interest to establish preemption as a universal principle available to every nation.” But to reserve that principle for the United States alone, Schlesinger warns, “is to make our nation the world’s judge, jury, and executioner.” This is not what the Founders intended. Schlesinger cites The Federalist 63, which states that “independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy…in doubtful cases…the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.” This is precisely the principle Gaddis disregards in his attempt to stretch the notion of the “empire of liberty” so that it will apply outside the North American continent.

The price of ignoring Federalist 63 is suggested by the survey by the Pew Research Center, released in March 2004, showing an astonishing shift in French and German attitudes toward the United States during the past two years. In France, 63 percent of those polled had a positive attitude toward America in the summer of 2002; this dropped to 37 percent by March 2004. In Germany, a 61 percent favorable rating fell to 38 percent—and all this before the horrors of the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib were revealed.4

For Schlesinger, the author of The Imperial Presidency, written in the latter days of the Nixon administration, the Constitution “envisages a strong presidency within an equally strong system of accountability.” When the president uses his executive powers over the armed forces and over the intelligence agencies without being accountable to the public and to the other branches of government, the result, all too often, has been an imperial presidency. This is not surprising, since Congress, the judiciary, the press, as well as voters often lack confidence in the information made available to them, and hence in their own judgment. They assume that the executive branch has the knowledge to act wisely in defending the nation from foreign threats. Nor is it surprising that the powers of the presidency grew most rapidly during the second half of the twentieth century, when World War II was followed by the cold war, an apparently perpetual threat to American well-being.

The result was to prolong the emergency powers that the president assumed in wartime. Hamilton, Schlesinger recalls, wrote in Federalist 8, “It is of the nature of war to increase the executive at the expense of the legislative authority.” He quotes the views of the constitutional scholar Abraham D. Sofaer in his book War, Foreign Affairs, and Constitutional Power: The Origins, which points out that early presidents

deliberately selected venturesome agents, deliberately kept their missions secret, deliberately gave them vague instructions, deliberately failed either to approve or to disapprove their constitutionally questionable plans, and deliberately denied Congress the information to determine whether aggressive acts were authorized—all precisely because the presidents wanted their men in the field to do things they knew lay beyond their constitutional right to command.
But at no time, writes Sofaer of this early period, “did the executive claim ‘inherent’ power to initiate military actions.” While the early presidents usurped power, Schlesinger writes, “usurpation creates no constitutional precedents. It is the assertion of inherent powers that…creates precedents for the future.”

Whether they knew it or not, Schlesinger suggests, both Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt acted according to John Locke’s doctrine that special powers can derive from the law of self-preservation; palpable emergencies and threats to the country can justify actions that go beyond congressional authorization. During the Civil War, Lincoln enlarged the army and navy beyond their authorized strength, suspended habeas corpus, and spent unappropriated federal funds. Roosevelt dispatched troops to Iceland, set up a convoy system, and issued a “shoot-on-sight” order to the navy, thus essentially waging an undeclared war in the North Atlantic. Nonetheless, Schlesinger reminds us, “neither president based his action on claims of inherent power.” Both expected that, as FDR put it, “when the war is won, the powers under which I act automatically revert to the people—to whom they belong.”

The idea that the president had inherent powers took hold with the coming of the cold war. Truman, responding to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, sent US forces into battle without authorization from Congress; he was urged to do so by the then Senate majority leader, a Democrat, Scott Lucas. When Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon bombed and sent troops into Cambodia, neither believed that Congress had to give him explicit authorization to do so.5

Though there was a congressional reaction against Nixon’s use of emergency powers against political opponents and his covert intervention in Cambodia, the war-making powers of the presidency were not seriously constrained. Reagan in Grenada and George H.W. Bush in Panama and Iraq insisted on the executive’s constitutional authority to use Ameri-can forces to defend vital American interests. Clearly the power of the “imperial presidency” has been reinforced by the Islamic terrorism that has been gathering strength since the 1990s. But what is often ignored is that by the end of the cold war the apparatus of an informal American empire was already in place, with its bases circling the globe; neither Bush senior nor Bill Clinton seriously diminished it.

George W. Bush’s assertion of the inherent powers of the presidency to act unilaterally, his determination to use preventive strikes and preventive wars against presumed threats to the nation, are all characteristic of an imperial president. He has come to see himself, as Schlesinger describes him, “in messianic terms as the appointed savior of the world whose unpredictable dangers call for rapid and incessant deployment of men, arms, and decisions behind a wall of secrecy.”
Despite America’s dominant position in the world, its use of unilateral military force risks the disastrous human and political consequences we have seen in Iraq. Schlesinger believes, and we have to hope he is not being overly optimistic, that if the US aspires to a “world empire,” it will be “undone by its own domestic politics and its own humane, pluralistic, and tolerant ideas.” If, as seems likely, the imperial presidency of the Bush administration fails to achieve its goals of creating a stable and democratic society in Iraq, he writes, “democracy’s singular virtue—its capacity for self-correction—will one day swing into action.”

As a historian, Schlesinger is wary of dubious historical analogies. In Iraq, for example, “Cheney and Rumsfeld confidently predicted that the American invaders would be welcomed as liberators, not resented as occupiers, pelted with flowers, not bombs.” But Iraq in 2003 was not liberated France in 1944; nor can the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 serve as a model for imposing liberal democracy in Iraq. This has not prevented the US from trying to impose its own protégés on Iraq, as if it were postwar Germany.

Nonetheless, strategic failure and violent day-to-day bungling have their consequences, and American history suggests that such ill-conceived adventures as the Iraq war and occupation could lead the US to turn away from imperial aspirations. It seems likely that neo-Wilsonian ambitions to impose an American model of democracy on a global scale will be deflated and that there may be a return to the prudential realism that characterized most of the policies of FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. Such an approach, reflecting a desire, in Dean Acheson’s words, “to limit objectives, to get ourselves away from the search for the absolute,” also implies that in pursuing national interests American leaders must seek allies among other governments and peoples who see those interests as coinciding with their own and who are willing to collaborate with the US in the growing numbers of international institutions, governmental and nongovernmental.6

Still, dangerous consequences could result from a debacle in Iraq. In the Vietnam War, Washington claimed a peripheral revolutionary movement endangered its vital interests; but Vietnam was never a major threat to the US, and our humiliating withdrawal from that country did not mean the collapse of American power. Iraq, however, is in the heart of the Middle East, a region where oil resources, political instability, and the worsening Arab–Israeli conflict all require that the US become involved to protect its interests. American forces may be needed, for example, to guarantee a settlement between Israel and its neighbors. Should the US, appalled by the disasters of its occupation of Iraq, disenchanted by the messianic rhetoric about remaking the world, withdraw into isolationism, the result could be all the more harmful to itself and its allies.

  1. 2

    See the excellent analysis by Brian Urquhart of Hans Blix’s book in The New York Review, March 25, 2004.

  2. 3

    See Brian Urquhart’s review of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack in The New York Review, June 10, 2004; see also his review of Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, by Richard A. Clarke, and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, Staff Statements Nos. 1–8, in The New York Review, May 13, 2004.

  3. 4

    See The Economist, June 5, 2004, p. 23.

  4. 5

    To be sure, Congress did provide an overwhelming but highly ambiguous authorization for Johnson to act as he did in Vietnam through the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution, based on misleading information.

  5. 6

    See Anne Marie Slaughter, The New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2004).

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