Paranoia Americana

America's National Security Strategy suggests that its foreign policy is driven by fear.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

The Bush administration published its National Security Strategy in September 2002 (1), in an attempt to clarify the aims of the war on terror.

Many commentators focused on the document’s elaboration of the policy of ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against states developing weapons of mass destruction. Pro-war commentators saw the policy as an expression of America’s confidence in international affairs – while anti-war critics claimed it was part of the Bush administration’s plans to reshape the Middle East according to US interests.

But far from demonstrating US confidence, recent National Strategy documents show that policy is driven more by fear than by secret plans for Empire. At times, the document sounds like it was written by Oxfam rather than the US elite.

The National Security Strategy may suggest spreading the free market around the world, but it puts the emphasis on promoting human rights: ‘America must stand firmly for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property.’

The document seems to be as concerned with poverty as with military action. It pledges World Bank reforms; increased US contributions to the Bank’s fund for the poorest countries and the African Development Fund; increased development and humanitarian assistance; and grants not loans for education, HIV/AIDS, health, nutrition, water, sanitation and other human needs in third world states.

‘Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers’, the document says. ‘Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.’

In the introduction, President George W Bush says he is ‘guided by the conviction that no nation can build a safer, better world alone’. The text reiterates US support for a Palestinian state and for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. All this in the National Security Strategy of the USA. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Bush administration has taken on board anti-war protesters’ complaints about the ‘root causes’ of terrorism.

Of course the document also flags up the importance of military force, but this is hardly a novel departure – and nor is the emphasis on human rights, as it happens. But what the strategy does bring to light is the explicit influence of fear on US foreign policy.

Promoting the document, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that ‘most fundamentally, 9/11 crystallised our vulnerability’ (2). The idea that a country like Iraq is a threat to the West is less the result of hard evidence against Saddam, than of a feeling of vulnerability and insecurity at home.

The result is a bizarre reversal of world power in the imagination of the US elite. According to the security strategy, ‘America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones. We are menaced less by fleets and armies than by catastrophic technologies in the hands of the embittered few’.

As one conservative critic of war puts it, ‘The more one thinks about it, the more implausible it becomes to claim that the United States, a superpower with an historically unprecedented position of unchallenged military superiority, is threatened by an impoverished, ruined, insecure state halfway round the world’ (3).

The idea that failing states are a threat to the US superpower can only be understood by looking at domestic developments in the USA. Consider the National Strategy for Homeland Security. While the president has been required to publish a National Security Strategy dealing with foreign policy since 1986, the National Strategy for Homeland Security (4), published in July 2002, was the Bush administration’s most distinctive response to 11 September.

The National Strategy for Homeland Security powerfully emphasises America’s sense
of vulnerability to terror. Its other theme is the need for the US government to reconnect to the people. And it is these two themes that seem to be driving the war on terror.

The National Strategy for Homeland Security claims that ‘the need for homeland security is not tied solely to today’s terrorist threat. The need for homeland security is tied to our enduring vulnerability’. Vulnerability is seen an ongoing problem that requires ongoing attention, rather than an historically specific problem in the face of potential terrorist attacks: ‘Where we insulate ourselves from one form of attack, they can shift focus on another exposed vulnerability.’

The other theme that runs through the National Strategy for Homeland Security is the need to include the whole nation. ‘The US government has no more important mission than protecting the homeland from future terrorist attacks’, writes Bush. Having discovered a government purpose seen as relevant and legitimate, he uses the opportunity to get in touch with the American people. ‘This is a national strategy, not a federal strategy’ he goes on. Bush wants not just government at every level, but business and individuals to play a role too.

‘All of us have a key role to play in America’s war on terrorism’ the Homeland Strategy says. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved: Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), a Stasi-style scheme to recruit workers as police spies, has been criticised as an unlikely substitute for effective intelligence work. But it fits a pattern of building connections between the state and the individual.

Symbolic participation seems to be as important as the practical results. ‘Virtually every American participated in one way or another in helping our Nation recover and grow stronger. Some rushed into burning buildings to save the lives of colleagues, friends, and strangers. Others demonstrated their solidarity by wearing an American flag on their lapel.’ Many flags worn after 11 September were modelled after AIDS ribbons rather than military insignias, which seemed to reflect their function of building a community of mourning rather than military organisation.

Bush’s threat to go to war over the possibility that a risk may emerge at some future point fits the pattern of risk aversion in domestic politics. In his keynote Cincinnati speech of 7 October 2002, Bush, trying to make the case for war in Iraq, filled the hole where evidence should be with the proposition that ‘we have every reason to assume the worst’ (5).

If Bush officials think that launching pre-emptive wars abroad will cohere the nation at home, they can think again. But their strategy might just take us towards a world ruled by fear.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) See The National Security Strategy of the United States of America Table of Contents

(2) See Dr. Condoleezza Rice Discusses President’s National Security Strategy, 1 October 2002

(3) Iraq: The Case Against Preemptive War, American Conservative

(4) National strategy for homeland security

(5) President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat, 7 October 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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