America and the Con

While I was reading about the history of the Hart-Rudman national security commission (sometimes also known as Hart-Gingrich or the Hart-Rudman-Gingrich), I ran into an interesting Weekly Standard article (Issue 35, May 29, 2000) by Tom Donnelley. Donnelly was deputy executive director of the Project for the New American Century at the time. This is the same organization that has tried to make a case for the President’s search for WMD in Iraq as late as April 2005, so bear with me. (Note: for a more realistic conservative’s view of the WMD debate, check out the book “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration”)

Donnelly called his article in 2000 “Newt Gingrich’s Last Boondoggle” and he gave a fascinating look at the beliefs of the group that ultimately pressured the President into invading Iraq. Note that this article was published before Bush took the reigns of the country by an order of a conservative federal Supreme Court, so the reasoning expressed in the article illustrates why/how Bush could have began his term buoyed by the lofty dream of absolute US hegemony.

For example, Donnelly very harshly criticizes Hart and Rudman for arguing “that American strategy must ‘compose a balance’ between the goals of freedom and stability.” Donnelly suggests that trying to strike such a balance in the world would be meaningless as the concepts of right and wrong can be easily judged by America and the resulting policy would be one of struggle against evil, not some kind of compromise:

But in a world where so many nations remain ruled by dictators, liberty and stability are often at odds. How, for example, is the United States to “compose a balance”? between liberty and stability in China? If stability reigns, so will the Chinese Communists. If America works to advance freedom in China, there will almost certainly be turmoil.

Make no mistake about it. That is a policy of destabilization meant to allow control of a country’s future by whomever is strong and big enough to fill the vacuum. It is the same means-justify-the-end argument used throughout the Cold War, coupled with the idea that it is far better to err on the side of right-wing economics than go for something undefined in the middle that might be susceptible to the left. Donnelley was arguing that the Cold War did not really end; it just changed a little and there was an adversary with a different flag. Thus his reasoning was probably that the US would be foolish to miss their opportunity to take a seat at the head of the table and assert themselves again as a moral authority through some kind of deontological ethics. He then indicates that no compromise or collaboration with other countries is necessary when you have the kind of superiority demonstrated by the success in cold war conflicts:

The report disavows the habits of leadership, power, and principle that unexpectedly won the Cold War. Alas for Hart and Rudman, these strategic habits may be hard to break—and since they made America into history’s “sole superpower,”? some will wonder why they need breaking.”

It is almost as though if you have been right once, you will be right again no matter what the situation. However, while the US might have “won” a superpower conflict when the primary adversary stood down, that does not translate directly into unquestionable control of the remaining geopolitical affairs. This is the crux of the mistake made by think-tanks like Project for the New American Century. The situation was not like one of the Rocky movies where a heroic fighter beats the odds is left standing in a ring over the dispirited opposition. Quite the contrary, while one particular risk became lessened other high-risk security issues became more critical; threats and vulnerabilities changed so the overall risk equation shifted but still needed to be heeded. Even Tom Clancy’s writing was tapping into this philosophy by the late 1990s (Rainbow Six, Rogue Spear), which reflected that the military establishment itself could see engagements ahead would require a more indigenous, sophisticated and delicately balanced response than that of giant missle defense systems and Big Red One rolling over and occupying vast expanses of foreign territory. Goodbye John Wayne, hello Mr. Bond (or Alpha team), you might say.

The risk algorithms of national security and international relations were clearly evolving in a way that many, including Hart-Rudman, could see. So, by the summer of 2001, intelligence and anti-terrorism experts were literally yelling into the ears of the Bush Administration that Hart-Rudman’s recommendation of “a finer calculus of benefits and burdens” really would be necessary. Richard Clarke’s “roll back” presentation suggested a strategy for the US to strike right at the heart of al Qaeda training camps and put the terrorist group on warning in February 2001. Yet the Bush Administration walked away from the table announcing they were going to handle things the old-fashioned way, on their own timeline and without interference.

It really boiled down to the desire for a new policy founded on a concept of shared balance and co-existence versus the old policy of total elimination. Nuance versus hubris. Many suggest that the elimination policy group was bolstered by the events during the Reagan administration that led to the unexpected change in the policy of the USSR. But this “proof” of the policy had more to do with timing and admission of failure rather than the success of any direct assault or overwhelmingly powerful US strategy. Some could say that the US outspent the Soviets, but even that was hard to prove. It was like the countries were drag-racing and the US won because the other car ran out of gas or had a mechanical failure, but the Reagan administration walked away believing they were the better driver. Thus an elimination policy group formed and believed that unilateral leadership based on superior moral ground (like Kant’s categorical imperative) had won a war during their watch. Moreover, they believed that this success needed to be further capitalized upon or lost forever. Some were so caught up in this dream-like state that they were offended by any suggestion of uncertainty about the state of US supremecy. Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney, found the reality of geopolitical issues so threatening that she simply resigned from the commission in protest:

Cheney was unhappy with the suggestion that American power was bound to decline: “Emerging powers will increasingly constrain U.S. options regionally and limit its strategic influence. As a result, we will remain limited in our ability to impose our will. . . .”?

The irony is almost too thick to avoid. The ex-Regan administration member Cheney resigned because she could not deal with reality. The only alternative, impose her view on those who recognized the new security risks ahead, must have been unsuccessful and so she quit the team. It is only logical that she and her husband from that point onward were planning to deep-six the recommendations of the final report and knew what to do when it was handed to the Bush Administration in 2001. Incidentally, during the 9/11 events she was reported to have turned down the offical debreifing from the anti-terror task force so she could hear the reports from CNN.

At the end of the day it was an uncompromisingly myopic stance of the Bush Administration coupled with the inability to process information about the real and present dangers to the country that arguably precipitated the ease with which al Qaeda staged their attack on 9/11 — Osama’s minions did not fit the image of what the Bush Administration, and the Cheney couple in particular, were willing or able to accept as a credible threat. They therefore not only fumbled the job of understanding risk, but they ignored and actively distanced themselves from the voices that tried to raise alarm before disaster struck. Like a heavy-weight fighter brushing off idea that bar-room punches of a welter-weight were of any concern, the Bush Administration didn’t understand that the inauspicious new adversaries not only had motive, but the means to do serious and lasting damage.

In conclusion, and unfortunately for the US, a series of ill-conceived security decisions by the Bush Administration were made based on a tired and romantic view of a world that probably never really existed. Six years later the world is left to hope that the Bush Administration has started to realize, as Gorbachev once did, that the value concept of a giant conventional superpower could be long past its shelf date. The idea of imposing unilateral will by generating endless turmoil abroad today does in fact exhaust a powerful nation, even America, and can actually end up eroding the base of power and undermining relationships. It was easy to see how this policy would lead to a quagmire of undesireable and taxing battles on multiple fronts where success would come only by lowering expectations. Do the American leaders today have the strength to admit the mistake and swallow their pride? Unlikley. And so the real danger now is that leaders, facing the exhaustion of their nation, may forgoe the high road of true democracy by becoming accountable and instead choose the path of desperation — quick fixes intended to create the illusion of success at any cost, without regard for the true damage they may cause to their country and its freedoms.

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