Headlines, North America

2001-2002: Pax Americana All Over Again?

WASHINGTON, Dec 27 2001 (IPS) - When he saw it shortly after the Gulf War ten years ago, Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced it as a prescription for “literally a Pax Americana.”

The past, as is said, is prologue. At the time, Biden referred to a document by two relatively obscure political appointees at the Pentagon charged with drafting plans for U.S. defence strategy over the following decade. The authors now are back in key positions and their vision appears to be reviving.

What was excerpted in the New York Times from the secret study seemed rather grandiose, even given the triumphalism that followed Washington’s crushing defeat of Iraq.

However great the military victory, Washington had paid for it only by passing the hat to its wealthy Western and Arab allies, and President George Bush was already sinking in the polls due in part to his seeming indifference to the plight of ordinary citizens fearful of the spreading effects of recession.

Nonetheless, the draft described a strategy true to the arguments of the most unilateralist and U.S.-centric commentators and politicians, who asserted that, what with the Soviet collapse combined with the awesome demonstration of U.S. military power, the United States should construct a “unipolar world” in which foreign states would be rewarded or punished according to the respect they accorded to Washington’s wishes.

“While the U.S. cannot become the world’s ‘policeman,’ by assuming responsibility for righting every wrong, we will retain the preeminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests, but those of our allies or friends, or which could seriously unsettle international relations,” declared the draft, which scarcely mentioned the United Nations.

The basic aim of U.S. strategy in the new era, according to the document, would be to prevent the emergence of a rival power at both the global level and in key geo-strategic regions. These included “Western Europe, East Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.”

In the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the document stated, “our overall objective is to remain the predominant outside power in the region and preserve U.S. and Western access to the region’s oil.”

At the same time, “we should expect future coalitions to be ad hoc assemblies, often not lasting beyond the crisis being confronted, and in many cases carrying only general agreement over the objectives to be accomplished.”

The exercise of U.S. military power could be seen “as a constant fixture” of the new order, the document suggested. It added, “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S. will be an important stabilising factor.”

No state – not even Washington’s closest allies – according to the document, should even question U.S. global leadership, the draft warned. It called for a “new order (that accounts) sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.”

Publication of such excerpts set off a storm of controversy in Washington that was resolved only after Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and his secretary of state, James Baker, prevailed on then-Pentagon chief Dick Cheney to tone down the final draft and insert a few good words about the United Nations and its potential role in ensuring world order.

The two officials who authored the document, both consummate Washington operators, revised the draft as they were told, quietly hoping for the day when their imperial instincts would be more favourably received, particularly in an administration where their views were preponderant.

It seems that day has come.

The two officials whose labours went so unappreciated by the elder Bush have themselves moved up under the current President Bush to the top ranks of national-security policy. Recent policy-making in the war in Afghanistan clearly bears the imprint of that 1992 draft.

Paul Wolfowitz, then an Assistant Secretary of Defence, now is Number Two in the Pentagon, right behind Donald Rumsfeld. I. Lewis Libby, then a deputy to Wolfowitz, now serves as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff and national security adviser.

They are key players in a team of right-wing hawks that appears now to exercise a preponderant influence on the new administration. Clustered mostly around and under Rumsfeld – who, as then-defense secretary, battled Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s détente policies a generation ago – this group in the last year has set Washington on a course toward the kind of strategic dominance and unilateralism envisaged by the 1992 draft.

Its single-minded conduct of the war in Afghanistan – in which it turned aside allies’ offers of military assistance and even scorned their expressions of concern about civilian casualties and the humanitarian situation – is just one illustration of how much these forces have taken hold of policy.

“Europe seems to understand that the U.S. is the final guarantor of world order and so when America is committed to pursuing a goal as a matter of its own national security, Europe has little choice but to agree,” exulted the Wall Street Journal in an editorial which stressed that “U.S. military power is now more dominant than any the world has seen since the British Empire.”

No less an authority than Paul Kennedy, the author of the 1987 best-seller ‘Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ in which he warned the United States against the consequences of “imperial overstretch” by overly confident hegemons, agrees with that assessment.

The United States, he wrote in a recent essay, “is far more robust than Imperial Spain and late-Victorian Britain, which were faltering economically and technologically even as they were demonstrating their military and naval might in many theaters of war.”

“Fifteen and twenty years ago, the U.S. looked as if it, too, was faltering, but the collapse of the USSR, the weakening of Japan, and the remarkable recovery of American industrial competitiveness reversed those worrying trends, for a while at least. America’s world position nowadays hardly looks in doubt.”

However, Kennedy added, this is not the end of the story. He argued that the United States, despite its long history of “exceptionalism”, has still not escaped the laws of history.

“Punishing raids against terrorist bases and brutal regimes are one thing,” he wrote. “Imperial policing by the American democracy is something else, politically divisive and ultimately debilitating, and thus counter to a reasoned strategy for the maintenance of American power in the twenty-first century.”

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