Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11 retrospective: From the Twin Towers to Baghdad (2 of 2)

In my previous post on this topic, I discussed how the concept of terrorism as state-sponsored terrorism combined with American triumphalism to enable Dick Cheney and the Cheney-Bush Administration to embark on the disastrous course of preventive war in Iraq.

I quoted Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror (2002) on how the post-Cold War belief among the US public that the country "had never been more secure" because "the world had not seen such a dominant power since ancient Rome." That belief not only contributed to the shock of the 9/11 attacks. It also set the stage for a wild overestimation of the ability of the United States to conquer and remake countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay explain in America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (2003), even prior to the 9/11 attacks, George Bush and his foreign policy teams thought of foreign policy in "hegemonist" terms. They describe the particular variant of hegemonist thinking that dominated the Administration as including the following tenets:

  • "The United States lives in a dangerous world" that operates in a Hobbesian fashion; in practice this meant threat inflation, exaggeraing the dangers represented by nation-states like Russia and China.
  • "[S]elf-interested states are the key actors in world politics." This fit comfortably with the idea of terrorism as a problem of state-sponsored terrorism. "The assumption was that terrorists were the creatures of states, and they would wither without state support."
  • They saw military power as the "coin of the realm in a globalized world," i.e., they had a militarized approach to foreign policy. And a unilateralist one, as well. They believed that "if America leads, others will follow," as Daalder and Lindsay put it.
  • They scorned multilateral arrangements: "multilateral agreements and institutions are neither essential nor necessarily conducive to American interests."
  • They operated on the assumption of American exceptionalism: "the United States is a unique great power and others see it as such. ... What Washington wanted was what everyone wanted," as Daalder and Lindsay summarize that view on the Bush team's part.
Daalder and Lindsay:

[C]ritics argued that the Bush strategy suffered from considerable conceptual confusion, which had real policy consequences. Most important, it conflated the notion of preemptive and preventive war. Preemptive wars are initiated when another country is clearly about to attack. Israel's decision to go to war in June 1967 against its Arab neighbors is the classic example.

Preventive wars are launched by states against others before the state being attacked poses a real or imminent threat. "What made war inevitable," the ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, "was the growth in Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta." The purpose of initiating war in these circumstances is therefore to stop a threat before it can arise. Israel's strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 was one example of preventive war. Cheney's argument that Iraq needed to be struck before it acquired nuclear weapons was another. Much of the Bush rhetoric - including the justification for the Iraq War - was consistent with the notion of preventive war, not preemption. Yet, while preemptive wars have had a long-recognized standing in international law as a legitimate form of self-defense, preventive wars did not. Not surprisingly, a resort to preventive war in the case of Iraq would prove highly controversial.
The 9/11 attacks created the conditions in which the Cheney-Bush Administration could take those concepts to the destructive conclusions they did. How much of that the religious fanatic Osama bin Laden had hoped to produce, it's a reality that the United States has in the last 10 years has done far more damage to our international standing and destruction that Bin Laden had any rational expectation of doing. In that way, Dick Cheney and Osama bin Laden were the perfect partners for one another.

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