(This is an expanded version of a piece that originally appeared in the Bergen Record [New Jersey] on Feb. 23, 2003. It was later anthologized in two collections of political writing published in the U.S. in 2004, and appears in a revised form in the book, Empire Burlesque.)
An attack on Iraq. Vast increases in military spending. Planting new American bases all over the world, from the jungles of South America to the steppes of Central Asia. Embracing the concept of "pre-emptive war" and unilateral action as cornerstones of national strategy.
These policies may seem like reactions to the "changed world" confronting America after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But in fact, each one of them – and many other policies now being advanced by the Bush Administration – was planned long before the first plane ever struck the doomed Twin Towers.
They are the handiwork of an obscure but influential conservative group called Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose members – including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – now sit in the highest reaches of power. The papers they produced during the 1990s are like a roadmap of the course that America is following – a course which PNAC hopes will lead to a "benign" but utterly dominant "American Empire."
The Unipolar Moment
Not surprisingly, the roots of PNAC go back to the first Bush Administration. In 1992, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney asked two of his top aides, Paul Wolfowitz (now assistant secretary of Defense) and Lewis Libby (now Cheney's chief of staff), to draw up a "Defense Guidance Plan" to shape American strategy in the post-Cold War world. They produced an aggressive, ambitious document calling for the unilateral use of American military might to "discourage advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." Military intervention would be "a constant fixture" of what Wolfowitz and Libby called a "new order" which the United States – not the United Nations – would "establish and protect."
The goal was to seize the opportunity offered by the collapse of the Soviet Union – which left the United States without a serious international rival – and extend this "unipolar moment" of American dominance for decades to come; indeed, into a "New American Century."
The report was leaked in the midst of the 1992 presidential campaign, sparking controversy over its "imperial ambitions," and was publicly disowned by President George H.W. Bush. After the Bush team was defeated by Bill Clinton, a lame-duck Cheney finally issued a watered-down version of the paper as official policy. The Clinton Administration then scrapped it upon taking office.
But the unipolar vision of American dominance was not forgotten. During the 1990s, it was refined and expanded their ideas in a number of conservative think tanks – the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Hudson Institute, the Center for Security Policy and others – whose memberships often overlapped. And now that they were out of office, the advocates of dominance could speak more freely.
One former member of Cheney's Defense Department team, Zalmay Khalilzad (now Bush's special emissary to Afghanistan), wrote openly that the U.S. must "be willing to use force" to express its "global leadership" and preclude the rise of potential rivals. Others, such as former Reagan official and AEI stalwart Richard Perle (now head of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board) and Douglas Feith (now assistant secretary of Defense), worked with Israel's Likud Party, drawing up plans calling for American-led "regime change" efforts in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, in 1997, Project for the New American Century was formed as a focal point for disseminating the dominance ideal. It was a "big tent" of Great Power adherents: Beltway players like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, former Vice President Dan Quayle, and former Reagan education secretary turned public scold, William Bennett; Christian "social conservatives" like Gary Bauer; and the so-called "neoconservatives" (often former Democrats whose staunch anti-communism had led them to the Reagan Right), including Elliot Abrams, who'd been convicted of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra scandal but was pardoned by George Bush Sr. (and now serves on the White House director of Middle East policy). Other notable figures joining PNAC included the Afghan-born Khalilzad, publisher and presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and Jeb Bush, younger brother of the president-to-be.
"A New Pearl Harbor"
PNAC fired its first shot across the bow in 1998, with letters to President Clinton and Congressional leaders calling for "regime change" in Iraq, by force if necessary, and the establishment of a "strong U.S. military presence in the region." Then in September 2000, just months before the disputed election that brought George W. Bush to power, the group published a highly detailed, 90-page "blueprint" for transforming America's military – and the nation's role on the world stage.
The document, "Rebuilding America's Defenses," acknowledged its adherence to the "basic tenets" of the controversial 1992 Wolfowitz-Libby report, and advocated a series of "transformations" in national defense and foreign affairs. These included:
--- Projecting American dominance with a "worldwide network of forward operating bases" – some permanent, others "temporary access arrangements" as needed for various military interventions – in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. These additions to America's already-extensive overseas deployments would act as "the cavalry on the new American frontier" – a frontier that PNAC declared now extended throughout the world.
--- Withdrawing from arms control treaties to allow for the development of a global missile shield, the deployment of space-based weapons and the production of a new generation of "battlefield nuclear weapons," especially "bunker-busters" for penetrating underground fortifications.
--- Raising the U.S. military budget to at least 3.8 percent of gross domestic product, with annual increases of tens of billions of dollars each year.
--- Developing sophisticated new technologies to "control the global commons of cyberspace" by closely monitoring communications and transactions on the Internet.
--- Pursuing the development of "new methods of attack – electronic, 'non-lethal, biological…in new dimensions, in space, cyberspace and perhaps the world of microbes." Just this month, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was complaining to Congress about long-standing international chemical weapons treaties which have "tangled us up so badly" and prevented the use of non-lethal chemical arms in subduing enemy armies – and enemy populations.
--- Developing the ability to "fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars." This means moving beyond the "two-war standard" of preparedness which has guided U.S. strategy since World War II in order to account for "new realities and potential new conflicts." It lists countries such as Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea and Libya as targets for those potential new conflicts, and urges Pentagon warplanners to consider not merely containing them or defeating them in battle, but "changing their regimes."
Oddly enough, although "regime change" in Iraq was still clearly a priority for PNAC, it had little to do with Saddam Hussein and his brutal policies or his aggressive tendencies. Instead, removing Saddam was tied to the larger goal of establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf in order to "secure energy supplies" and preclude any other power from dominating the vital oil regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. The PNAC report puts it quite plainly:
"The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."
This is why the Bush Regime has offered a constantly shifting menu of rationales for the impending attack on Iraq: because the decision to remove Saddam was taken long ago, as part of a larger strategic plan, and has little to do with any imminent threat from the broken-backed Iraqi regime, which is constantly bombed, partially occupied (with U.S. forces already working in the autonomous Kurdish territories) and now swarming with UN inspectors. If the strategic need for the attack "transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein," then almost any rationale will do.
Perhaps due to the presence of Washington heavyweights like Cheney and Rumsfeld, the PNAC report recognized that thorny political difficulties could stand in the way of implementing the group's radical designs. Indeed, in one of the most striking and prescient passages in the entire 90-page document, PNAC acknowledged that the "revolutionary" changes it envisaged could take decades to bring about – unless, that is, the United States was struck by "some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor."
The Path of Action
That "new Pearl Harbor" did come, of course, in the thunderclap of September 11, 2001. And the PNAC alumni now in government were quick to capitalize on this "catalyzing event." All of the PNAC recommendations listed above were put into place, with almost no debate from a shellshocked Congress and a populace reeling from the unprecedented assault on American security. In the very first days following the attack, Rumsfeld urged the Bush cabinet to make "Iraq a principal target of the first round in the war against terrorism," despite the lack of any proof connecting Baghdad to the terrorist atrocity, according to Bob Woodward's insider account, Bush at War.
But Rumsfeld was overruled by Colin Powell, who counseled that "public opinion has to be prepared before a move against Iraq is possible." So the "war on terrorism" was launched initially against Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was harboring Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden and his band of international extremists. The attack on Afghanistan was accompanied by the construction of new American bases and "temporary access arrangements" throughout Central Asia, giving America a military "footprint" in the strategically vital region for the first time. At the same time, new U.S. forces were dispatched to East Asia, to the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere, and to South America, to help Colombia combat "narco-terrorists" and to protect that nation's vital oil pipelines.
Meanwhile, at home, military budgets skyrocketed to deal with the "new realities and potential new conflicts." The Bush Administration withdrew from the landmark ABM arms control treaty and began construction of missile defense facilities. There were new funds and more research for the militarization of outer space (dubbed "Full Spectrum Dominance"), and the development of "non-lethal" biochemical weapons. Pentagon technicians, led by another convicted Iran-Contra figure, John Poindexter, began the development of Internet "data-mining" and monitoring technology (which, despite some recent Congressional restrictions, continues today). And the U.S. announced a new "nuclear posture," including the willingness to use tactical nuclear weapons – a move supported by the Republican-led House of Representatives, which approved Pentagon plans to develop the "bunker-buster" nukes specifically recommended by PNAC.
"The Savage Wars of Peace"
The existence of PNAC and its influence on the Bush Administration is not some "conspiracy theory." It follows a pattern frequently seen in American history: a group of like-minded people band together in think tanks, foundations, universities and other institutions, where they lay out their vision for America's future. And when they at last have access to the levers of power, they try to make that vision a reality.
What is different now is that the September 11 attacks have given this particular group an unprecedented amount of political capital – not to mention cold, hard federal cash – to put their long-held dreams into practice, virtually without opposition. (In contrast, consider the bitterly partisan political struggles between Congress and Lincoln during the Civil War.) What is also different is the essential content of that vision: the establishment – by force – of an American Empire.
This Empire is to be different from the old Roman or British models, of course. It will not entail settlement or direct control of foreign lands, but will instead offer paternal "protection" and "guidance" – backed up with strategically placed military bases and "temporary access arrangements" for the inevitable "constabulatory duties" required to enforce PNAC's longed-for "Pax Americana." However, the intent is not outright conquest, but the chance to bring "the single sustainable model of national success" to all the world, to set people, and their markets, free – as long as no "regional or global challenges to America's leadership" arise, of course.
But there will be costs to taking up what Thomas Donnelly, the principal author of the PNAC blueprint, calls "the free man's burden." Donnelly, a former journalist and legislative aide, wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs last year that America should look to its "imperial past" as a guide to its future. Reviewing The Savage Wars of Peace, a pro-Empire book by journalist Max Boot, Donnelly cites approvingly the "pacification" of the Philippines by American forces in 1898-1900, in which at least 100,000 Filipinos were killed in a bid for independence. He also points to the U.S. Army's success in subduing the Native American tribes in a series of small wars, and, closer to our time, the efficient "constabulatory operation" in Panama, which was invaded by the first President Bush in 1989. Similar "savage wars of peace" – pacifications, counterinsurgencies, police actions, invasions – will be required to maintain the new American Empire, says Donnelly.
And here too, George W. Bush has clearly echoed the thinking of the PNAC members who now surround him in the White House. Speaking at a Republican fundraiser last August, the President seemed keenly aware of the heavy price in blood and treasure the nation will have to pay to maintain its imperium in the New American Century:
"There's no telling how many wars it will take to secure freedom in the homeland."