How Really New Is the New Bush National Security Strategy?

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Nichols is the Chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.

Last month, the Bush Administration issued "The National Security Strategy of the United States," a document required by law and produced in every presidential administration. The reaction to this report has been, in some quarters, extremely negative: critics argue it is little more than a blueprint for the arrogant establishment of an American Empire by force.

And indeed, "The National Security Strategy of the United States" is a forceful document. Gone is the rhetoric of the Cold War, in which America's goal was to contain Soviet communism and to keep the peace; the Bush report instead speaks of the need to gain victory over U.S. enemies:

America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few. We must defeat these threats to our Nation, allies, and friends.

It also dispenses with overarching commitments to multilateralism, promising that America will act alone if necessary:

While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country.

And there is an explicit commitment as well to military supremacy:

The United States must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy-whether a state or non-state actor-to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or our friends. We will maintain the forces sufficient to support our obligations, and to defend freedom. Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.

Even more jarring is the warning that the United States will no longer wait to be struck first, but will actively preempt enemies before they can strike:

We must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends…. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

The question is: how much of this is really new or dramatic?

Perhaps the most important change in this document is that, unlike previous iterations, it actually conforms to many of the assumptions long held by many in the national security establishment. In other words, it actually says what policymakers think and actually wish to do. This is a welcome change; the national security strategy documents issued by the Clinton Administration, for example, were quite detailed, but they imputed a far greater coherence in foreign and defense policies than actually existed, and they were not particularly useful for divining the direction of the administration on such matters. The Bush document, by contrast, eschews detail, choosing instead to present basic principles and broad outlines for action. In this, it is a more honest report than many that preceded it.

It is not, however, a radical document. The commitment to military supremacy, for example, is not new. While it is true that the United States was for most of the Cold War locked into a position of rough nuclear parity and conventional inferiority vis a vis the Soviet Union, this was matter of necessity rather than choice. It was essentially impossible for the United States and NATO to match the Soviet war machine pound for pound, and it would have been unwise to try. The level of nuclear weapons on both sides were so high-in the tens of thousands-that further competition to gain a marginal edge was pointless. (No one was going to win a nuclear war with a few hundred extra warheads on either side.)

But for most of the Cold War, America did in fact try to bring its scientific prowess to bear on maintaining a qualitative superiority over the USSR, seeking to neutralize Soviet numbers with innovate programs and strategies like the Strategic Defense Initiative or the Rogers' Plan (a NATO plan aimed at bogging down a Soviet offensive in Europe by striking deeply and accurately at Soviet rear echelons and command and control centers). Elsewhere, our strategy was to maintain an ability to fight the Soviets in Europe while taking on another major contingency in some other part of the world, a fairly ambitious stance that would not be out of place in the Bush strategy, a posture sometimes referred to as the "1 ½ wars" strategy.

In the 1980s, however, the Reagan Administration made clear that it was not willing to settle for the situation it inherited from the Nixon and Ford years, and pushed the ambitious weapons buildup begun by Jimmy Carter. The goal, according to Caspar Weinberger's testimony to Congress, was to achieve unarguable military superiority over the Soviet Union-in effect making America the most powerful state on earth. Reagan's revision of previous strategy was dubbed by its detractors the "3 ½ war" alternative, an unfair characterization that nonetheless had a small element of truth to it.

The fact of the matter is that American leaders have rarely been willing to accept a position of military inferiority; what is different now, however, is that it is apparently no longer considered inappropriate to say so.

The sidestepping of multilateralism, too, is not a fundamental revision of U.S. strategy. The Bush document nods to the importance of allies and regional friends, but makes clear that America must be prepared to defend her own interests without help. But this is not so different from the recent or even distant past: during the preparations for the first Gulf War in 1990, the administration of the current president's father sent a direct message to the world community about America's commitment to act in Iraq: "Together if we can, alone if we must."

The list of places that America has acted without the imprimatur or help of the international community is a long one, and stretches back to Harry Truman's injection of U.S. forces into Korea before a U.N. mandate. (That the U.N. joined the fray was expected, but Truman acted first.) In Vietnam, despite help from countries such as Australia and South Korea, the United States decided to go it essentially alone, in the face of growing and withering criticism from the international community. Even in less dramatic circumstances, the U.S., like other nations, has backed away from international institutions when it suits American purposes, such as Reagan's refusal to accept the judgment of the World Court over the mining of Nicaragua's harbors. (To some extent, it could be argued that the new Bush report is not radical or new, but a return to Reaganism.)

Again, the issue is not the substance of the Bush unilateral strategy itself, but rather that the document enunciates it at all. The American commitment to multilateralism has been a staple of declaratory U.S. foreign policy, but in practice the Americans have, as the need arises, gone their own way.

The one area where the Bush strategy breaks new ground is the issue of preemption. But in a sense, Bush's explicit commitment to preemption only reflects a general American impulse that was held in check by the existence of the Soviet Union. It is instructive to recall that the first serious plan to deal with the Cuban missiles in 1962 was a strike and invasion, designed to neutralize the missiles before they were active. In other parts of the world, the U.S. took action, sometimes covert, to abort the coming to power of regimes inimical to U.S. interests.

It would have been difficult, however, to commit the United States to a policy of preemption for two reasons. First, it would have forced the Soviet Union to react, perhaps by espousing a similar doctrine, and would have raised the level of military tension between the superpowers. But second, and more important, is the fact that such a policy was, on the whole, not needed. Smaller powers were kept in check by their Soviet and American patrons, and a country like Iraq (then a Soviet client) would not have been allowed by Moscow to develop an independent nuclear force, nor to threaten its use.

It should also be borne in mind that preemption was a constant theme in debates over American nuclear strategy. Should the U.S. launch a first strike if preparations for a Soviet launch are confirmed? Or should we wait until Soviet weapons were confirmed to be in the air, the so-called "launch on warning" approach? Or should we wait until we're actually being struck, and then retaliate ("launch under attack")?

The idea of preemption, both against hostile regimes and against a nuclear enemy are not new. The emergence of preemption in the Bush strategy, then, is not a radical change, but rather the logical outcome of the circumstances that govern international life in the 21st century. Without the restraint imposed on smaller and more unpredictable entities by the bipolar Cold War situation, preemption against small nuclear arsenals in the hands of madman becomes an almost inescapable conclusion that almost any administration probably would have reached.

In sum, then, the Bush administration's national security strategy is the result of an evolution in American thinking, firmly rooted in previous practice if not in previous rhetoric. It is a remarkable document for its bluntness and honestly, but not necessarily in its prescriptions.


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