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 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

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.

This Issue

October 7, 2004