New Statesman, 14 November 2003

One man's world

George Bush's men have made the imperial grand strategy explicit. But the belief that the US is above international law began long before this president. By Noam Chomsky

High on the global agenda by autumn 2002 was the declared intention of the most powerful state in history to maintain its hegemony through the threat or use of military force, the dimension of power in which it reigns supreme. In the official rhetoric of the National Security Strategy, released in September 2002: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States."

One well-known international affairs specialist, John Ikenberry, has described the declaration as a "grand strategy [that] begins with a fundamental commitment to maintaining a unipolar world in which the United States has no peer competitor", a condition that is to be "permanent [so] that no state or coalition could ever challenge [the US] as global leader, protector and enforcer". The "approach renders international norms of self-defence - enshrined by Article 51 of the UN Charter - almost meaningless".

The imperial grand strategy asserts the right of the US to undertake "preventive war" at will. Preventive, please note, not pre-emptive. Pre-emptive war might fall within the framework of international law. Thus if the US had detected Russian bombers approaching from Grenada in 1983, with the clear intent to bomb, then, under a reasonable interpretation of the UN Charter, a pre-emptive attack destroying the planes and perhaps their Grenadian base would have been justifiable. (Cuba, Nicaragua and many others could have exercised the same right for many years while under attack from the US, though the weak would need to be insane to implement their rights.) But the justifications for pre-emptive war do not hold for preventive war, particularly as that idea is interpreted by its current enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate an imagined or invented threat, so that even the term preventive is too charitable.

As Arthur Schlesinger, the former adviser to President Kennedy, observed, George W Bush's "policy of 'anticipatory self-defence' [against Iraq] is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbor, on a date which, as an earlier American president said it would, lives in infamy . . . today, it is we Americans who live in infamy". Schlesinger added that even in friendly countries the public regards Bush "as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein". Some international law specialists compare the invasion of Iraq to the "crimes against the peace" for which Nazi leaders were indicted at Nuremberg.

Some defenders of the strategy recognise that it runs roughshod over international law but see no problem in that. The whole framework of international law is just "hot air", the legal scholar Michael Glennon writes. "The grand attempt to subject the rule of force to the rule of law", he argues, should be deposited in the dustbin of history. How so? According to Glennon, Washington "made it clear that it intends to do all it can to maintain its pre-eminence", then announced that it would ignore the UN Security Council over Iraq and declared more broadly that "it would no longer be bound by the [UN] Charter's rules governing the use of force". QED. Accordingly, the rules have "collapsed" and "the entire edifice came crashing down".

The enlightened leader is also free to change the rules at will. When the military forces that now occupy Iraq failed to discover weapons of mass destruction, the administration's stance shifted from "absolute certainty" that Iraq possessed WMDs on a scale that required immediate military action to the assertion that American accusations had been "justified by the discovery of equipment that potentially could be used to produce weapons". Senior officials suggested a refinement in the controversial concept of a "preventive war" so that, as writers for the Financial Times have put it, the US can "act against a hostile regime that has nothing more than the intent and ability to develop [WMDs]". Since virtually any country has the potential and ability to produce WMDs, the refined version of the grand strategy grants Washington, in effect, the right of arbitrary aggression.

But the strategy is not new, nor is it solely a Republican construct. The goal is to prevent any challenge to the "power, position and prestige of the United States". The words are not those of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, or any of the other statist reactionaries who formulated the National Security Strategy. Rather, they were spoken by the respected liberal elder statesman Dean Acheson in 1963. Justifying US actions against Cuba, Acheson instructed the American Society of International Law that no "legal issue" arises when the US responds to a challenge to its "power, position and prestige".

Acheson's doctrine was subsequently invoked by the Reagan administration when it rejected World Court jurisdiction over its attack on Nicaragua and vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions calling on all states to observe international law. The State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer explained that most of the world cannot "be counted on to share our view" and that "this same majority often opposes the United States on important international questions". Accordingly, we must "reserve to ourselves the power to determine" which matters fall "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States".

Acheson and Sofaer were describing policy guidelines within elite circles. Their stands were known only to specialists or readers of dissident literature. Other cases may be regarded as worldly-wise reiterations of the maxim of Thucydides that "large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must". In contrast, Cheney-Rumsfeld-Powell and their associates are officially declaring an even more extreme policy, one aimed at permanent global hegemony by reliance on force where necessary. They intend to be heard, and took action at once to put the world on notice that they mean what they say.

The declaration of the grand strategy was rightly understood to be an ominous step in world affairs. It is not enough, however, for a great power to declare an official policy. It must go on to establish the policy as a new norm of international law by carrying out exemplary actions. The target of preventive war must have several characteristics. It must be virtually defenceless; it must be important enough to be worth the trouble; it must be possible to portray it as the ultimate evil and an imminent threat to our survival. Iraq qualified on all counts: the first two obviously, the third by virtue of the impassioned orations of George Bush and Tony Blair.

As the time approached to demonstrate the new norm of preventive war in September 2002, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, warned that the next evidence of Saddam Hussein's intentions might be a mushroom cloud - presumably in New York. Again, that is nothing new. Washington still refuses to provide evidence to support the claims in 1990 that a huge Iraqi military build-up on the Saudi border justified war.

Within weeks of the claims in 2002, around 60 per cent of Ameri-cans came to regard Saddam Hussein as "an immediate threat to the US". By March, almost half believed that he was personally involved in the 11 September attacks. Support for the war was strongly correlated with such beliefs. Diplomacy may have failed overseas, but it worked at home. The political analyst Anatol Lieven commented that most Americans had been duped "by a propaganda programme which for systematic mendacity has few parallels in peacetime democracies". In October, Congress granted the president authority to go to war "to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq". Once more, the script is familiar. In 1985, President Reagan declared a national emergency, renewed annually, because "the policies and the actions of the government of Nicaragua constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States". The US trembled before Nicaragua as it would tremble in 2002 before Iraq.

The brilliant success of public diplomacy on the domestic front was revealed once again when the president, at the end of the war in Iraq in May 2003, stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. He was free to declare that he had won a "victory in a war on terror" by having "removed an ally of al-Qaeda". It was immaterial that the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden (his bitter enemy, in fact) was based on no credible evidence. Also immaterial was the only known connection between the Iraq invasion and the threat of terror: that the invasion enhanced the threat, as had been widely predicted, by sharply increasing al-Qaeda recruitment.

There was always the possibility that things might go wrong in Iraq. But it was unlikely, at least for the invaders. The disparity of force was so phenomenal that overwhelming victory was assured, and any humanitarian consequences could be blamed on Saddam Hussein. Victors do not investigate their own crimes, so that little is known about them: the death toll of the US wars in Indo-China, for example, is not known within a range of millions.

After the invasion of Iraq was declared a success, it was publicly recognised that one motive for the war had been to establish the imperial grand strategy as a new norm: "Publication of the [National Security Strategy] was the signal that Iraq would be the first test, not the last," the New York Times reported. "Iraq became the Petri dish in which this experiment in pre-emptive policy grew." The message, according to Roger Owen, a historian of the Middle East at Harvard University, was that peoples and regimes would have to change the way they see the world "from a view based on the United Nations and international law to one based on an identification" with Washington's agenda.

It is worth reflecting on how the new norm was established. After a few false starts, the 1990s became "the decade of humanitarian intervention". The right to intervene on "humanitarian" grounds was established by the courage and altruism of the US and its allies particularly in Kosovo and East Timor, the two jewels in the diadem. The Kosovo bombing in particular is understood by distinguished authorities to have established the norm of resort to force without Security Council authorisation.

A simple question arises: why were the 1990s considered the decade of humanitarian intervention but not the 1970s? Since the Second World War there have been two major examples of resort to force that really did put an end to terrible crimes: India's invasion of East Pakistan in 1971, which ended a mass slaughter and other horrors, and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's atrocities as they were picking up. Nothing remotely comparable took place under the western aegis in the 1990s. But the 1970s interventions were carried out by the wrong people. In both cases, the US was adamantly opposed to intervention and moved to punish the offender, particularly Vietnam, by subjecting it to a US-backed Chinese invasion. The essential insight was formulated by a unanimous vote of the International Court of Justice in one of its earliest rulings, in 1949: "The Court can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects in international organisation, find a place in international law . . . ; from the nature of things, [intervention] would be reserved for the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting the administration of justice itself."

We can go back further. The fundamental assumption that lies behind the imperial grand strategy is the guiding principle of Woodrow Wilson's idealism: we are good, even noble. Hence our interventions are necessarily righteous in intent, if occasionally clumsy in execution. In the words of President Wilson, we have "elevated ideals" and are dedicated to "stability and righteousness", and it is natural, as he wrote of the conquest of the Philippines, that "our interest must march forward, altruists though we are; other nations must see to it that they stand off, and do not seek to stay us".

"History," writes one commentator in our own time, "has a discernible direction and destination. Uniquely among all the nations of the world, the United States comprehends and manifests history's purpose." Accordingly, what US hegemony achieves is for the common good, so that empirical evaluation is unnecessary, if not faintly ridiculous. The primary principle of foreign policy, rooted in Wilsonian idealism and carried over from Bill Clinton to George Bush, is "the imperative of America's mission as the vanguard of history, transforming the global order and, in doing so, perpetuating its own dominance", guided by "the imperative of military supremacy, maintained in perpetuity and projected globally". Thus America is entitled, indeed obligated, to act as its leaders determine to be best, for the good of all, whether others understand or not.

Why do Europeans fail to understand the unique idealism of American leaders? One historian and political commentator, Max Boot, suggests Europe has "often been driven by avarice", and the "cynical Europeans" cannot comprehend the "strain of idealism" that animates US foreign policy. "After 200 years, Europe still hasn't figured out what makes America tick." Another commentator, Robert Kagan, argues that Europe is consumed with "paranoid, conspiratorial anti-Americanism".

Boot and Kagan are plagiarising (no doubt unwittingly) John Stuart Mill's classic essay on humanitarian intervention, in which he urged Britain to conquer more of India. Britain must pursue this high-minded mission, Mill explained, even though it would be "held up to obloquy" on the Continent. Europeans were unable to comprehend that England was truly "a novelty in the world", a remarkable nation that acted only "in the service of others". It was dedicated to peace, though if "the aggressions of barbarians force it to a successful war", it would selflessly bear the cost. Its policies were "blameless and laudable".

Mill did not mention that, by extending its control of India, Britain was also extending the near-monopoly of opium production that it needed both to force open Chinese markets and to sustain the imperial system more broadly by means of its immense narco-trafficking enterprises. His essay was written as Britain engaged in some of the worst crimes of its imperial reign. It is hard to think of a more distinguished and truly honourable intellectual - or a more disgraceful example of apologetics for terrible crimes.

But there is rarely any shortage of elevated ideals to accompany the resort to violence. In 1990, Saddam Hussein assured the world that he wanted not "permanent fighting, but permanent peace . . . and a dignified life". In 1938, President Roosevelt's close confidant Sumner Welles praised the Munich agreement with the Nazis and felt that it might lead to a "new world order based upon justice and upon law". When Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia, he explained his earnest desire "to serve the true interests of the peoples dwelling in this area, to safeguard the national individuality of the German and Czech peoples, and to further the peace and social welfare of all". What could be more moving than Japan's "exalted responsibility" to establish a "New Order" in 1938 to "insure the permanent stability of East Asia" based on the "mutual aid" of Japan, Manchuria and China "in political, economic and cultural fields"?

After the war, interventions were routinely declared to be "humanitarian" or in self-defence and therefore in accord with the UN Charter. For example, Russia's murderous invasion of Hungary in 1956 was justified by Soviet lawyers on the grounds that it was undertaken at the invitation of the Hungarian government as a "defensive response to foreign funding of subversive activities". With comparable plausibility, the US attack against South Vietnam a few years later was undertaken in "collective self-defence" against "internal aggression".

We need not assume that these protestations are disingenuous, no matter how grotesque they may be. Often one finds the same rhetoric in internal documents, where there is no obvious reason to dissemble: for example, the argument by Stalin's diplomats that "to create real democracies, some outside pressure would be necessary . . . We should not hesitate to use this kind of 'interference into the domestic affairs' of other nations . . . since democratic government is one of the main guarantees of durable peace".

As these few examples illustrate, even the harshest and most shameful measures are regularly accompanied by profession of noble intent. An honest look would only generalise Thomas Jefferson's observation on the world situation of his day: "We believe no more in Bonaparte's fighting merely for the liberties of the seas, than in Great Britain's fighting for the liberties of mankind. The object is the same, to draw to themselves the power, the wealth and the resources of other nations."

A century later, Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson's secretary of state (who also appears to have had few illusions about Wilsonian idealism), commented scornfully on "how willing the British, French or Italians are to accept a mandate" from the League of Nations, as long as "there are mines, oil fields, rich grain fields or railroads" that will "make it a profitable undertaking".

One may choose to have selective faith in one's domestic political leadership, adopting the stance that Hans Morgenthau, one of the founders of modern international relations theory, condemned as "our conformist subservience to those in power", the usual stance of most intellectuals throughout history. But it is important to recognise that profession of noble intent is predictable, and therefore carries no information, even in the technical sense of the term. Those who are seriously interested in understanding the world will adopt the same standards whether they are evaluating their own political and intellectual elites or those of official enemies.

Occasionally the educated classes do depart from the common stance of subordination to power: in Turkey and Colombia today, for example, where US military aid has sustained harsh and repressive regimes. In Turkey, prominent writers, journalists, academics, publishers and others not only protest atrocities and draconian laws but also carry out regular civil disobedience, facing and sometimes enduring severe and prolonged punishment. In Colombia, courageous priests, academics, human rights and union activists and others face the constant threat of assassination in one of the world's most violent states. Their actions should elicit humility and shame among their western counterparts.

Extracted from Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky, to be published by Hamish Hamilton on 27 November (16.99). c Noam Chomsky, 2003

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