The dark roots of America's security strategy

By Andrew Bacevich

Financial Times

Published: March 2 2005

George W. Bush has laboured to portray his global war on terror as a principled response to the events of September 11, 2001. In practice, the hallmark of US policy since then has been not principle but opportunism. In this sense, recurring rumours of wider war - whether the buzz about Washington taking aim at Syria or gearing up to attack Iran - capture an essential truth about US strategy in the Bush era.

During his first term, Mr Bush abandoned concepts of prudence and restraint that had long informed American thinking about the use of military power. He devised an alternative strategic tradition, revolutionary in its implications. The new thinking behind the Bush doctrine of preventive war insists that in a post-9/11 world the US has no choice but to go permanently on the offensive. Old notions of using force as a last resort no longer apply. As the world's sole superpower, the US must act, enforcing order and eliminating evil-doers however it deems appropriate.

The spirit animating this new approach is one of intense urgency. What counts is not deliberation, not the careful weighing of means and ends, and not the evaluation of second-order consequences, but action. Audacity, risk-taking, a willingness to lay all on the line: these have emerged as emblems of Bush's new approach to strategy.

Lending these precepts an air of plausibility is US military might and the Bush administration's confidence in the invincibility of the American soldier, the liberator of Afghanistan and Iraq. Granted, events since the fall of Baghdad have not been without disappointment. Efforts to parlay the overthrow of Saddam Hussein into a fully-fledged transformation of the Greater Middle East have encountered obstacles, even as the original rationale for the war has evaporated. That becomes all the more reason, therefore, to act boldly to reclaim the initiative. For the Bush administration, the key is to attack - surely on the other side of such exertions a great harvest awaits.

In fact, little of this is as novel as either the president's acolytes or his critics imagine. Casting loose from strategic precepts that had served the US well, the administration has embraced a tradition that Americans would have once rejected as utterly alien. Its post-9/11 approach to war-making is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the military record of imperial Germany: punch a hole in the enemy's front and count on something useful to turn up.

As if affirming the adage about history repeating itself, the US seems determined to replicate in its war on terror the errors that Germany committed in its misguided war of 1914-1918. Mr Bush, the warrior president, has come to resemble no one more than Kaiser Wilhelm II, the self-described supreme warlord. Having unleashed a whirlwind beyond his control, Mr Bush, like the Kaiser, seems unable to conceive of an out. Nothing remains but to press on, trusting in the bravery and resourcefulness of the frontline troops to carry the day, no matter what the cost.

As with the Kaiser so too with Mr Bush, as the fighting stretches on, authority passes from his hands to those of others: in the so-called Great War, that power devolved on Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorf. Together this duo oversaw the destruction of the German army while driving Germany itself on to the rocks. In the global war on terror, the parts of Hindenburg and Ludendorf have gone to Donald Rumsfeld and his cohorts in the defence secretary's office. In striking contrast to activist commanders-in-chief such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr Bush has increasingly chosen to play a largely ceremonial role. Like the Kaiser by the time things came crashing down in 1918, he has become something of a figurehead, trotted out on occasions of state and touring foreign capitals while seemingly disengaged from the actual direction of events determining his nation's fate.

Meanwhile, in the manner of their German counterparts who counted on unrestricted submarine warfare to starve Britain but managed only to add the US to the list of the Reich's enemies, Mr Rumsfeld's team has made rashness a virtue, certain that beyond the next push final victory lies. Although they have not yet depleted US military strength, opening a new front against Syria or Iran just might do the trick. The word for all this is militarism.

The writer is professor of international relations at Boston University and author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (published this month by OUP)