Five years ago, President Bush enunciated the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. Atrocious as it is, it only extends earlier U.S. thinking and foreign interventions.
We have been here before. After World War II, major U.S. politicians and officials contemplated preventive strikes and full-scale atomic war against the Soviet Union. They urged this in private and in public in no uncertain terms. Harold Stassen, perennial candidate, made his strongest showing in 1948 at the very time when he favored preventive war. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson was a war hawk. A secretary of the navy under Truman (Francis P. Matthews) called for preventive war publicly. Bernard Baruch wanted total mobilization. Fortunately, opinion was divided among our leaders, with some favoring preventive war and others against it. No first strike was launched, but talk of atomic first strikes persisted during the Cold War.
Neither does the Bush Doctrine stop with this Republican administration. Congress has heartily endorsed it and funded it. The Democratic leadership supports it. Hillary Clinton, the current front-runner in the Democratic Party by a wide margin, supports it. Obama timidly brought her support up in public. But he really touched only tangentially at the Bush Doctrine. He did not go for its heart or her jugular. He couldn’t because he himself earlier had left open the option of missile strikes against Iran. He too supports it. Furthermore, he could not clearly and strongly hang Hillary out to dry on her pronounced support of U.S. war-making because he is the front-runner to be her vice-presidential nominee.
What did Obama get for even a tiny display of nerve and deviancy from the establishment line anyway? The very moment he criticized her (in late July) and said he would actually converse with the bad guys in foreign nations, he began losing serious ground to Hillary. Hillary counterattacked, making Obama seem weak. That was it for him. His Intrade probability swiftly dropped from its high of near 40% to 20%. It’s now 13%. That was the end of his presidential campaign.
You see, the American public is schizophrenic on war. Public opinion hates defeat but it also hates weakness, and its faith in government itself hardly ever dims, no matter what tribulations it experiences. The public supports wars, at least for a while. And then it takes a break before supporting the next one.
American public opinion is often volatile in the polls. In the post-WWII era, there was broad public support for taking care of the Commies then and there. General Patton was not a lone voice. Legislators in both parties urged Truman to act. By 1953, after experiencing the disappointing outcome of the Korean War, public opinion had turned sharply against that war. But these swings in sentiment mean little. They mask an underlying and persistent trust in government. Beaten and bruised, or perhaps browbeaten and intimidated, the spouse stays in the marriage until one or the other drops dead. The public likes strong leaders. The leader can go every which way on an issue, but maintain public confidence by remaining strong.
A pre-emptive war is a war that is launched when one sees the whites of the enemy’s eyes bearing down. It is a first strike when there is certainty that the enemy is about to attack. And if this is so, no one much cares who fires the actual first shot. The war is inevitable anyway at that point.
A preventive war is something else again. It is an outright war of aggression launched when there is no imminent threat whatever. The justification is that an attack will surely come. Its occurrence is floating in the distant future somewhere. A preventive action now is supposed to forestall greater losses later. Their occurrence is also floating in the future somewhere. The Bush Doctrine makes preventive war the official policy of this nation. Iraq was attacked under this doctrine. I suppose Afghanistan comes under a clause or a variant.
Preventive war is a very iffy deal. Everything is in the eye of the beholder. The attack presumes that the other guy would have attacked, that no other diplomatic or other acts would have worked to prevent that outcome, and that the war itself is the best course to prevent greater losses. Meanwhile the bird in the hand is no picnic. Launching a war to prevent a war makes the war 100% certain and makes losses 100% certain. It opens up a big can of worms. It is a very strange and contradictory idea to launch a war to prevent a war. Japan did this when it attacked Pearl Harbor. This was not a prize-winning idea.
In addition, preventive war, being a war of aggression, is downright evil. The Bush Doctrine is an extraordinary public pronouncement of an evil policy. And yet it is also simply an extension of past doctrines that have involved the U.S. in global wars and global interventions. We therefore have to question strongly the roots of American foreign policy in general.
Americans usually think it’s a good idea to follow their government, more or less blindly, into one war after another. Reasons of interest and advantage are always abundantly produced and publicized. The country’s leaders never shy away from making the case for war. But beware! There is a slew of countervailing factors: (1) The government is a biased source of information. It gains from war by becoming larger and gaining power. (2) The government has lied and manipulated us into war. (3) The government glorifies war. (4) The long-term costs of war far outweigh the short-term costs. Politicians stress the benefits and downplay the costs. (5) Wars often go on for very long periods of time. Subsequent wars are often instigated because of the unsatisfactory outcomes of earlier wars. Even after they are supposed to have ended, the costs of war go on and on. (6) The other side is rational and may have genuine issues with us. The other side may not want war. Our own actions may be bringing on war. (7) War is hell for those directly in it and affected by it.
For all these reasons and more, the burden of proof is on the government in wanting war. The proof should be very convincing. It should be so convincing that Congress can declare war unambiguously for clear objectives that every man and woman on the street can understand. And everyone should understand the reason for the war.
Preventive war cannot possibly pass these criteria. It cannot possibly win our approval. Perhaps pre-emptive war can, under some dire circumstances, but not preventive war.
Will the leading politicians of both parties please step forward and repudiate the Bush Doctrine? If they do not, they bring themselves under a cloud of guilt. They implicate all of us in this guilt.
The causes of American foreign policy go deep. There is America’s history of expansionism. There is the fact of American power. There is the militarization of the economy and nation. There is utopian idealism, often with religious roots. There is insecurity.
Frankly, none of these matter if they are merely to be paraded as excuses for our behavior. Motivations do not excuse a long procession of evil acts. For decades, we have had ample revelations of CIA intrusions and government malfeasance. We have observed numerous occasions of lying and covering up of lies that go back decades. We have observed numerous slipshod ventures and ventures gone wrong. Far too many of us are content to imagine that we are in World War IV, facing a battle to the death with Islam.
We are responsible for such wild ideas. We are responsible for what we think and how we act. We badly need to clean up our act. The least our leaders can do is to repudiate a doctrine whose cumulative effects, if the most rabid supporters had their way, would surpass the Final Solution.
I do not expect such a repudiation. Neither do I expect the public to demand it. We are witnessing why it is that democracy does not work and how it transforms into tyranny. The supine acceptance of the Bush Doctrine is one of many sure signs of this maturing transformation.
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.