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Letter From Ground Zero: September 5, 2002 | The Nation

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Letter From Ground Zero: September 5, 2002

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A year that began (if we count by the new calendar whose Day One is September 11, 2001) with an attack on the United States by a terrorist group consisting mostly of Saudi Arabians headquartered in Afghanistan has ended with preparations for an attack by the United States on Iraq, a country that had no demonstrated involvement in September 11. The path from point A a year ago to point B now has been lengthy and circuitous. Along the way, a radically new conception of America's role in the world has been advanced by the Bush Administration. It has claimed nothing less than a right and a duty of the United States to assert military dominance--a Pax Americana--over the entire earth. Discussion along the way has been muted, but now a debate has begun. Its subject, however, has been not so much whether the United States should wage war on Iraq as whether it should wage the debate on the war, or--what is only a little bolder--whether the United States should first meet certain conditions (find allies, explain itself to Congress, win the support of the American public, make plans for Iraq's political future) and only then wage the war. The debate proceeds backward from the conclusion to the arguments for it. The witnesses before the recent hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, all favored "regime change" in Iraq; they disagreed only on how to go about it. This deliberately vague and slippery propaganda phrase blurs critical policy distinctions, creating an impression of consensus where none may really exist. At the hearings, the most hawkish witness was retired Lieut. Gen. Thomas McInerney, who advocated "blitz warfare" using "the Global Strike Task Force and Naval Strike Forces composed of over 1,000 land and sea-based aircraft plus a wide array of air and sea-launched cruise missiles" to launch "the most massive precision air campaign in history, achieving rapid dominance in the first seventy-two hours of combat, focused on regime-change targets." The most dovish was perhaps Morton Halperin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who for now wanted no more than stricter enforcement of the regime of sanctions against Iraq.

A few voices--mostly Republican--have gone as far as to ask whether the war itself is a good idea. Even this question, however, cannot be adequately addressed without consideration of the Administration's larger assertion of the right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion. The case for or against the war against Iraq stands or falls on the wisdom of this claim.

The Administration did not present its policy directly or all at once. It advanced it gradually and stealthily, as if each expansion of US ambitions were merely an appendage to or necessary consequence of what is in fact only one of the policy's secondary aspects--the "war on terrorism." The first step in the process was the wording of that phrase. Almost all previous campaigns against terrorists had been defined not as wars but as police campaigns. By calling this campaign a "war," the Administration summoned the immense American military machine into action. And by identifying the target generically as "terrorism" rather than naming a specific foe, such as the Al Qaeda network, the Administration licensed military operations, covert as well as overt, anywhere in the world.

The second step was the decision to overthrow a government--the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Difficult as it is to remember now, there was a debate within the Administration itself as to whether elimination of the Taliban was advisable. Soon after September 11, President Bush stated in his speech to Congress that he would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." The immediate question was whether he meant that the United States would assault not only the Al Qaeda network that had mounted the attack but also the Afghan regime. The curious fact is that the Administration never did announce that overthrow of the regime was its policy. If anything, it seemed to disavow the aim. When, just two days after the attack began, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz stated that the aim of US policy should be "ending states who sponsor terrorism," Secretary of State Colin Powell went out of his way to disagree, stating that "ending terrorism is where I would like to leave it, and let Mr. Wolfowitz speak for himself." Shortly, the President appeared to back up Powell. After seeming briefly to hint agreement with Wolfowitz by commenting that he would "ask for the cooperation of citizens within Afghanistan who may be tired of having the Taliban in place," Bush sent out his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, to state unequivocally that American policy "is not designed to replace one regime with another regime." The debate was settled not by an announcement or explanation to the public but simply by the deed itself. The anaesthetic phrase "regime change" had not been launched, but the fact of it had become a reality. The United States was now officially in the business of overthrowing governments by military force.

The next step was to expand the definition of the war on terrorism to include stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The occasion was Bush's State of the Union speech, in which he named Iran, Iraq and North Korea, all of which are known to have or to have had programs to build weapons of mass destruction, as an "axis of evil." "The United States of America," he announced, "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Nuclear proliferation has been a feature of the nuclear age since its beginning. Attempts to stop it--the policy of nonproliferation--have been an explicit goal of every Administration. However, the United States had always restricted itself to diplomatic and political means. For example, in the 1940s there was no pre-emptive strike against the nuclear-weapons program of Stalin, a dictator who had overseen the murder of tens of millions of his own citizens. The greatest success of the political approach has been the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which 182 nations have agreed not to build nuclear arsenals. Now, however, nonproliferation has become a military undertaking. In a radical escalation, the war on terror had become--or been used to disguise--a war on weapons of mass destruction. No acknowledgment was made that the decision reversed several decades of policy. No argument was made that military means were superior to the diplomatic and political means that had always been employed in the past.

The main elements of the new policy were now in place: The United States asserted the right to use its unchallengeable military might, including its Global Strike Task Force, to overthrow governments by force if, in its view, they either harbored terrorists or attempted to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Vice President Cheney estimates the former category at some sixty nations. No definitive enumeration of the latter has been given, but the potential is great, inasmuch as there are many dozens of countries capable of building weapons of mass destruction should they choose to do so.

It remained to make a fuller declaration of the new policy. The statement came in the President's speech to the graduating class at West Point in June. The days of American reliance on "deterrence" and "containment," he said, were over. Now the United States must "be ready for pre-emptive action." He also said, "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless." In short, the United States will establish, preserve and make free use of an absolute military supremacy over every other nation on earth. As Richard Falk has observed in these pages, this policy discards several centuries of both American tradition and international law. Even Henry Kissinger has called the new approach "revolutionary," explaining that "regime change as a goal for military intervention challenges the international system established by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia."

The Administration has been no more forthcoming on this specific plan than it has on the more general policies. There is no assurance so far that the public will be told whether or when the Administration has decided to attack Iraq before the bombs begin to fall. At an appearance before a gathering of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, Rumsfeld said, "The President has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq." According to the Times, Rumsfeld added with a characteristic coy chuckle, "He's thinking about it."

A debate about the war, if the nation decides to have one, will be in vain if it does not address the wider revolution in policy of which the war is an expression. Will other nations claim for themselves the right of pre-emptive overthrow of hostile regimes? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons actually be prevented by military force? Are negotiations and treaties worthless for this purpose? Will American superiority be so great that other arms races fade away? Will such action provoke the very military challenges, from terrorists and others, that it is meant to prevent? Should the United States aim at preserving military dominance over the earth for the indefinite future? Is such dominance possible? If it is possible, do the people of the United States want it? If the attempt is made, can the United States remain a democracy? Can the United States act as military guarantor of a world that rejects and hates its protector? George Bush is thinking about it. Are we?

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