Empire, Anyone?

Arthur Schlesinger
Arthur Schlesinger; drawing by David Levine


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…

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