Where's the Security in Bush's National Security Strategy?
Noam Chomsky
Delivered at the University of Florida, October 21, 2003
A year ago, September 2002, three events took place of quite unusual significance. They are likely to cast a long shadow over your lives and world affairs in general in the future.

The first, September 17th, was the declaration by the Bush administration of its national security strategy, which was pretty clear and straightforward, worth reading. It stated, in effect, that the United States (the administration at least) plans to dominate the world permanently, through the use of force if necessary-that's the one dimension in which the United States reigns supreme. And that they are committed to eliminating any potential challenge to their rule that they might detect. It's not an entirely novel program, either in US history or... there are some precedents that aren't nice to think about. But this was unusually brazen and it aroused a lot of concern.

The second event that took place just about the same time had to do with Iraq. The war drums began to beat about Iraq. The planned invasion, which was essentially announced then, was understood to be what's sometimes called an exemplary action. That is, an action taken to demonstrate dramatically that the security doctrine is intended very seriously and that it would be implemented at will without any credible pretext or without any international authorization.

That was loud and clear, and understood. The National Security Strategy itself barely mentions international law and institutions, and Washington immediately made it very clear to the United Nations Security Council that it could be relevant-that's the word that was used-by giving a stamp of approval-a meaningless stamp of approval to what the United States was going to do anyway-or else it could be a debating society, as Colin Powell, the administration moderate, emphasized.

Powell was sent shortly after to the meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. This is the group of people who the business press, with only a slight touch of irony, calls 'the masters of the universe': the corporate executives who paid $30,000 to get in to rub shoulders with the mighty, like them. It was a pretty bitter experience for him. It was extremely hostile, tremendous anger. [The issue of] Iraq dominated it. They were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. And these really are the people who pretty much own the world.

Powell announced to them that, in his words, "The United States has the sovereign right to use force, [and] when we feel strongly about something we will lead,"-and we will lead even if nobody is following us. It did not get a lot of applause. In fact, it was a remarkably hostile reaction, especially from such circles.

The third event, also in September, the campaign for the midterm congressional elections opened, and that's closely related. Karl Rove, maybe the most important man in Washington, the Republican campaign manager, had already the summer before emphasized to party activists that they have to steer away from social and political issues for the campaign (because administration policies are highly unpopular) and they have to emphasize the national security issues.

The fact that the [Bush Administration] social and economic policies are unpopular is not very surprising. They are designed in such a way as to harm the general population rather severely. But in particular, to transfer enormous costs and risks to coming generations: to you, your children, and so on. That's not much of a secret. For the elections, the campaign strategy just barely worked. The administration sneaked through with a very thin hold on power, tens of thousands of votes.

Actually, exit polls showed that voter preferences didn't change. So people continued to oppose the administration's social and economic policies. Preferences didn't change, but priorities shifted. Enough people huddled under the umbrella of power to defend them against the demonic enemy that had been constructed by government and media propaganda, which very quickly drove the United States completely off the spectrum of world opinion. Barely enough were frightened to put them through.

That illustrates the first of the dilemmas of dominance that I want to talk about. The United States does intend to dominate the world-permanently, by force, destroying any potential challenge. That's not so simple. The world is a hard place to dominate.

Actually, no predecessor has ever had such fantastic ambition, but in smaller domains it has been tried, and it's never been easy. One of the dilemmas is, how do you control the domestic population, what Alexander Hamilton called the Great Beast, you, which is constantly getting out of its cage.

You've got to control them somehow. That's particularly difficult when you happen to be committed passionately to policies that harm and endanger them, and they know it. All through history only one effective way has been found to overcome that problem, and that is to find a way to inspire fear. If you can frighten people, they may accept your rule, despite the harm you are doing to them and their objection to the policies.

All of this happens to be second nature to the people who are now at the helm in Washington. It's sometimes forgotten that this is their second shot at political power. They are mostly recycled from more reactionary elements of the Reagan/Bush I administration. It's amazing if you go through it point by point, and that is the way in which they held power for twelve years. I'll come back to that.

Let's go back to the first two major events of September 2002, all interlinked: the National Security Strategy and the planned invasion of Iraq. It was understood that the planned invasion aroused unprecedented opposition, not only in public opinion around the world-there's never been anything like it-but also in elite circles like the World Economic Forum and within the foreign policy elite at home.

Quite a surprising and unusual opposition. The reason was not just the invasion of Iraq, though there was plenty of opposition to that, but also the fact that it was understood to be just an illustration. An exemplary action to demonstrate that they meant the National Security Strategy.

That is what really aroused the fears. After the war was over, that was also acknowledged in the mainstream media. The New York Times after the war pointed out correctly that Iraq is the first test case of the National Security doctrine, not the last. "The Iraq invasion was the petri dish in which this experiment in preemptive policy grew." And that is precisely what was understood in advance and accounts for a lot of the enormous opposition.

The term 'preemptive' strategy is incorrect. It's one that is commonly used, but you should steer away from it. The notion of preemption actually means something in international law. And preemptive strikes are at the border of legitimacy. For those of you who pay attention to things like the United Nations Charter, the supreme law of the land, there is one article, Article 51, the one article which permits the use of force in self-defense against armed attack, which is understood very narrowly to mean ongoing or imminent attack (instant, overwhelming, no time to deliberate). Under those circumstances, it's at the borders of legitimacy to take preemptive action. But that's not what's discussed in the National Security Strategy.

If it had been, nobody would have paid any attention, because that's traditional international law. A more accurate description used by more careful commentators is 'preventive war,' or 'anticipatory self-defense.' That's the phrase you can read in the international legal journals. Those are inaccurate too.

There's nothing preventive, and no self-defense was anticipated in the case of Iraq. It's a much broader doctrine. Actually, it's just the use of force against any invented or imagined threat, and there's a name for that. In fact, a name was given to it at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi war criminals. It was called the 'Supreme Crime,' namely aggression. Every other crime is secondary to that. And that's the doctrine that was announced, the Supreme Crime of Nuremberg. And that was understood as well, right in the mainstream.

The harshest criticism of the war that I came across, much of it was right in the mainstream. For example, Arthur Schlesinger, well known, highly respected American historian, Kennedy advisor, I'm sure you know about him. As the bombing began, he wrote that the United States is now following the policy of Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor, and he recalled President Roosevelt's description of the Pearl Harbor bombing as "a date that will live in infamy." And Roosevelt was correct, Schlesinger said, but today it is Americans who live in infamy following the aggressive policy of Imperial Japan. It's a pretty strong criticism; you don't come across that kind of thing often.

And it's not inaccurate.

The National Security Strategy itself aroused many shudders around the world, including the foreign policy elite at home. In the very next issue of the main establishment journal Foreign Affairs, a well-known international relations specialist had an article about what he called the 'new imperial grand strategy,' which he argued posed great dangers to the world, and to the population of the United States. Many other very conservative, mainstream specialists joined him in pointing out what was in fact obvious, that the imperial grand strategy was very likely to increase the threats of terror and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction simply as a deterrent against US aggression.

When you announce openly and clearly that you intend to attack by military force anybody who you think might be a potential threat, they don't just sit there and say, "Fine, destroy us." They react, and nobody could dream of comparing with the United States in military force-already the US outspends most of the rest of the world put together and is technologically far more advanced and is pouring money into it at a rate that has no relation to any conceivable military danger and that no one else is coming close to-but that doesn't mean they just roll over. They turn to the weapons of the weak. And there are weapons of the weak, like weapons of mass destruction, which are not that hard to construct these days, unfortunately, and terror, which is also a weapon of the weak. And they turn to that either out of revenge or simply for deterrent. That was predicted, and it's happening.

The same was true of the Iraq war. Again, it was pointed out right away by intelligence agencies, including the CIA, Britain and others, and also by a host of independent analysts, it was predicted that the Iraq invasion would be likely to stimulate worldwide terror, and also the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and that apparently happened, not surprisingly. After the invasion, the same sources-intelligence agencies and specialists-have been reporting that in their words the Iraq invasion was a huge setback for the war on terror, led to a sharp spike in recruitment for terrorist organizations, Al Qaeda-style organizations. In fact, as they pointed out, the United States has succeeded in turning Iraq into a haven for terrorists for the first time. It was horrible in all sorts of ways but was not involved in international terrorism before, and now it is a center of it. So that's an achievement...

The same is true of proliferation. Specialists on North Korea and Iran immediately pointed out what again is obvious, that this was a message to them to develop weapons of mass destruction simply as a deterrent against the announced threat that the bully on the block is coming after them whenever he feels like it. That is another of the dilemmas of dominance. Violence and the threat of violence may intimidate many people but not everyone.

It's likely to incite others to revenge or to deterrence-just rational deterrence-and as I said, they will turn to the weapons of the weak, which are terror and weapons of mass destruction, which are very likely to come together pretty soon. Those are pretty grim prospects. If you want to know how grim the prospects are, you should read the high level reports of terrorist threats to the United States. There have been quite a few of them. The most recent is the Gary Hart, Warren Rudman (Hart/Rudman Report), of the Council on Foreign Relations, which is virtually a cookbook for terrorists: horrendous terrorist acts, many of which I suppose people like us could carry out if we put our minds to it. They are likely to happen, and they are likely to combine weapons of mass destruction and terror in the near future.

So actions taken to incite both of those threats are essentially a prescription for suicide. In fact, there was an article in Foreign Affairs, again the main establishment journal, right before the Iraq war with that as its title, from a well-known specialist on deterrence. That's very likely, and it was known incidentally long before 9/11. Right through the 1990's there were technical studies coming out and high level reports pointing out that, especially with modern technology, the powerful have lost their near-total monopoly on violence. They retain an overwhelming preponderance of violence, but not a monopoly. And that difference in a contemporary world is quite substantial.

This was certainly known by 1993. It's kind of surprising that it seems to have been forgotten, but in 1993 there was an attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, with much more ambitious plans, and it came very close to succeeding. With a little better planning, according to the building engineers it could have killed tens of thousands of people in the World Trade Center alone, and they found the people who carried it out. Some of them were in the United States under CIA protection and had been trained by the CIA and its associates in the 1980's-which means by the people in office right now-as part of their own global planning.

That was 1993; incidentally, just at the same time, Clinton was flying Afghani jihadis, Al Qaeda style terrorists from Afghanistan, along with Hizbollah fighters, to the Balkans to fight on the United States side in the Balkan civil war. C-130s were carrying them over, along with arms, at the same time that the World Trade Center was virtually blown up by the same people. There's nothing secret about this. This is newspaper headlines. We're not talking about secret documents. So yes, this has been in the air for along time, and in fact if you really think seriously about it, as horrible as 9/11 was, it didn't change risk assessments. The risk assessments stay approximately the same, because it was understood that these are possibilities, and the fact that known possibilities are in fact consummated (came close eight years earlier, this time succeeded) doesn't really change the risks. It maybe makes them a lot more dramatic, but they're there and now they're increased.

Increased pretty consciously, as a result of policies since. The word 'consciously' is worth stressing. The administration planners understand very well-they're not foolish. They understand just as well as the intelligence agencies and the intelligence reports they read and the critics that they read. They understand just as well that the actions that they are undertaking are likely to increase the threat to security of Americans and of the world and a great long-term threat. They don't want that outcome; it just doesn't matter very much.

It's a question of priorities. And there are other priorities that are higher, such as the priority of maintaining global hegemony, and maintaining a hold on domestic political power so that they can carry out an extremely radical, reactionary, domestic program. Basically, an attempt to roll back the progressive legislation of the past century. Those are high priority. To guarantee those, it's worth taking a chance that you might destroy the American people and blow up the world.

There is nothing novel in history about that. The scale may be beyond the normal, but there are plenty of similar examples in our own recent history and many others. If there was time, I'd go through a few; they're very enlightening. In order to achieve these high priorities, it's necessary that we go back to the first dilemma, how do you control the domestic population. For one thing, you've got to keep them from thinking about these things.

That's point number one.

There are mechanisms for doing that. The ideological institutions: media, schools, universities, others which sort of keep you from thinking about the things that ought to be at the forefront of your attention. But how does Karl Rove expect to be able to carry it off?

Right now the immediate problem is making it through the 2004 election, so you've got another four years to try. Let's go back to May 1st of this year. Recall the very carefully staged spectacle on May 1st that shamed the United States in the eyes of the world, made it an object of complete ridicule in the world, but was taken pretty seriously here. At least, people tried to take it seriously. That was the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier extravaganza where they sort of arranged for the president to land in combat gear on the aircraft carrier that was carefully placed so you got the right television images and so on. It's pretty hard not to laugh, but fortunately we have self-control among commentators, and they didn't laugh. He gave what was called a victory speech, announcing the victory in Iraq. The front-page story in the New York Times described it as (I'll come back to this phrase) "a powerful Reaganesque finale" to the war in Iraq. There's a meaning to that phrase, I'll return to it. The rest of the world was appalled or regarded it as ridiculous, but it was taken seriously here. There were more astute observers. The Wall Street Journal reported the same event, and they told the truth about it. It's not the announcement of victory in Iraq; it's the opening of the year 2004 election campaign, which is going to be built on national security themes. That was an astute and accurate comment. That's good reporting.

One of the reasons for reading the business press. They have an audience that has to have a tolerable sense of reality, so they often say things straight. Karl Rove, the campaign manager made the same point, actually. He said that the next presidential campaign will have to be based on the theme of victory in the battle of Iraq, not the war. He stressed the world 'battle.' It's a battle in a war, which must continue, namely, the war on terror. If you read the speech that Bush proclaimed on the aircraft carrier, after he got his helmet off or whatever, he declared, in his words, "a victory in the war on terror, by removing an ally of Al Qaeda."

Notice that it's immaterial that there is no evidence whatsoever of any connection between Saddam Hussein and his bitter enemy Osama bin Laden. The idea of a connection is dismissed with considerable ridicule by specialists on the topic, including the intelligence agencies, but it's a higher truth, so it doesn't matter whether there's any evidence. It's also irrelevant that the only known connection between Iraq and the war on terror is that the invasion of Iraq increased the threat of terror, and may create a link that did not previously exist. But it just doesn't make any difference. These are higher truths, and so it continues.

A couple of weeks ago in his weekly presidential radio address, Bush declared that "the world is safer today, because our coalition ended a regime that cultivated ties to terror, while it built weapons of mass destruction." Now, Bush's speechwriters and his minders know perfectly well that these are complete fabrications, but why should it matter. If you repeat it often enough and loudly enough it becomes truth.

There's predecessors for that too who we might not want to remember.

Again, how do Rove and the rest of them hope to get away with it? Let's look back to September again, September 2002, the last election campaign. Right away, there was an onslaught of government media propaganda, which had an immediate effect. Within a couple of weeks, polls showed that about sixty percent of the population in the United States regarded Iraq as an imminent threat to the United States. Pretty soon majorities came to believe that Iraq was responsible for 9/11, was planning further atrocities, and these beliefs correlated very closely with support for the war.

Which is not surprising. I mean if I believed that, I'd support the war too; it makes sense. As I mentioned, this completely drove the US totally off the spectrum of world opinion. Nobody shared these beliefs. In the region, for example, Saddam Hussein was despised in the countries that he invaded like Kuwait and Iran. They'd be happy to tear him limb from limb, but they weren't afraid of him, because it was known that Iraq was the weakest country in the region. It had been devastated by wars, and then ten years of murderous US sanctions.

The country barely held together. It was completely defenseless, which is why the Pentagon was willing to attack it.

It was known that its military expenditures were about a third of Kuwait, which has ten percent of its population, and way below the other regional powers, including the regional superpower, which is essentially an offshore US military base, Israel, which is far and away above anyone else. So they hated Saddam Hussein, but they weren't afraid of him. In fact, for years they had been trying, along with others to reintegrate Iraq back into the regional system, over the very strong objections of the United States. But the United States was driven off the spectrum of world opinion, and that gave barely enough support to be able to carry off the war.

In the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists-which is a pretty tame journal, they don't get very wild-after this their editor, Linda Rothstein, wrote pretty accurately that "the charges dangled in front of the media failed the laugh test, but the more ridiculous they were, the more the media strove to make whole-hearted swallowing of them a test of patriotism." That's pretty accurate.

In October, a couple of weeks after the campaign began, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the president to use force because of the threat to the security of the United States posed by the government of Iraq. The press was kind enough not to remind us that the congressional authorization reiterated a declaration by Ronald Reagan in 1985, when he called a national emergency in the United States, renewed annually, because of the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States posed by Nicaragua, which was only two days driving time from Texas. That passed the laugh test too, somehow. Not elsewhere, but here.

And that's the same people remember, and only one of a number of examples like that. One occurred every year or two, which is exactly how they held power. It's interesting to look back on it. It's also interesting that the record is not reviewed, because it tells you exactly what's going on. They are following the same script, the same people, not surprising, but you have to think a little to find it out. Well, let's go back to the Abraham Lincoln and the "powerful Reaganesque finale."

What was the New York Times referring to? They were referring to the declaration by the brave cowboy that "the United States is," in his words, "standing tall" after having conquered the nutmeg capital of the world, Grenada. Six thousand US special forces succeeded in overcoming the resistance of a couple dozen middle aged construction workers, killing a couple dozen of each other in the course of it, and winning eight thousand medals incidentally. After that, Reagan announced that we were "standing tall."

That was the "powerful Reaganesque finale" that was duplicated on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. I don't know if the reporters were being ironic. You'll have to ask them. But it passed the laugh test.

And it worked. It worked for twelve years. At the end of the twelve years, Reagan ended up being the most unpopular living ex-president, ranking barely above Nixon and far below the others. But it worked. They were able to hold power for twelve years, by regularly pushing the panic button. That's the script, and we're watching it again.