On the brief occasions when the President now appears in the Rose Garden to “comfort” or “reassure” a shock-and-awed nation, you can almost hear those legions of ducks quacking lamely in the background. Once upon a time, George W. Bush, along with his top officials and advisors, hoped to preside over a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana — a legacy for the generations. More recently, their highest hope seems to have been to slip out of town in January before the you-know-what hits the fan. No such luck.
Of course, what they feared most was that the you-know-what would hit in Iraq, and so put their efforts into sweeping that disaster out of sight. Once again, however, as in September 2001 and August 2005, they were caught predictably flatfooted by a domestic disaster. In this case, they were ambushed by an insurgent stock market heading into chaos, killer squads of credit default swaps, and a hurricane of financial collapse.
At the moment, only 7% of Americans believe the country is “going in the right direction,” Bush’s job-approval ratings have dropped into the low 20s with no bottom in sight, and North Dakota is “in play” in the presidential election. Think of that as the equivalent of a report card on Bush’s economic policies. In other words, the Yale legacy student with the C average has been branded for life with a resounding domestic “F” for failure. (His singular domestic triumph may prove to be paving the way for the first African American president.)
But there’s another report card that’s not in. Despite a media focus on Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the record of his Global War on Terror (and the Bush Doctrine that once went with it) has yet to be fully assessed. This is surprising, since administration actions in waging that war in what neoconservatives used to call “the arc of instability” — a swath of territory running from North Africa to the Chinese border — add up to a record of failure unprecedented in American history.
On June 1, 2002, George W. Bush gave the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Afghan War was then being hailed as a triumph and the invasion of Iraq just beginning to loom on the horizon. That day, after insisting the U.S. had “no empire to extend or utopia to establish,” the President laid out a vision of how the U.S. was to operate globally, facing “a threat with no precedent” — al-Qaeda-style terrorism in a world of weapons of mass destruction.
After indicating that “terror cells” were to be targeted in up to 60 countries, he offered a breathtakingly radical basis for the pursuit of American interests:
“We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.”
This would later be known as Vice President Dick Cheney’s “one percent doctrine” — even a 1% chance of an attack on the U.S., especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with militarily as if it were a certainty. It may have been the rashest formula for “preventive” or “aggressive” war offered in the modern era.
The President and his neocon backers were then riding high. Some were even talking up the United States as a “new Rome,” greater even than imperial Britain. For them, global control had a single prerequisite: the possession of overwhelming military force. With American military power unimpeachably #1, global domination followed logically. As Bush put it that day, in a statement unique in the annals of our history: “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge — thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”
In other words, a planet of Great Powers was all over and it was time for the rest of the world to get used to it. Like the wimps they were, other nations could “trade” and pursue “peace.” For its pure folly, not to say its misunderstanding of the nature of power on our planet, it remains a statement that should still take anyone’s breath away…
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Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the American Age of Denial. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has recently been published. To listen to a podcast in which he discusses this article, click here.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt