William Saletan, "Bush's whitewashed national security manifesto," Slate, 20 September 2002


Here's a rough translation of the national security manifesto President Bush unveiled Friday: Shoot first, ask questions later.

The key section of the manifesto discusses the Cold War doctrine of deterrence and why it doesn't work in the age of terrorism. The section makes three points. First, compared to the old Soviet politburo, rogue-state leaders who sponsor terror are "more willing to take risks, gambling with the lives of their people." Second, whereas the Soviets saw weapons of mass destruction as a last resort, today's rogues "see these weapons as their best means of overcoming the conventional superiority of the United States." Third, "deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents" and "whose so-called soldiers seek martyrdom in death."

In other words, we now face an enemy that seeks advantage over us not through the ability to exceed us in material strength, but through its willingness to exceed us in ruthlessness. How do we adjust to this enemy? The intuitive, if unpleasant, answer is to pare our scruples to even the fight a bit. But Bush doesn't want to admit this. Instead of embracing the blunt Cold War realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, Bush redefines terms to conceal his moral compromises.

1. Imminent threats. Until now, the manifesto observes, "Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of pre-emption on the existence of an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack. We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries."

How? By loosening the definition of "imminent." The catastrophic weapons favored by today's enemies "can be easily concealed and delivered covertly and without warning," says the document. "The greater the threat … the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack."

In short, "imminent" no longer means knowing when the enemy will strike, or even what the enemy will do. "Imminent" now means that the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by our enemies must be stopped, by unilateral American military action if necessary, because these weapons inherently pose an imminent threat.

The manifesto stipulates, "The purpose of our actions will always be to eliminate a specific threat to the United States or our allies and friends. The reasons for our actions will be clear, the force measured, and the cause just." But this is linguistic trickery. Instead of specifying the threats against which you'll attack pre-emptively, you assert vaguely that those threats will be specific. Instead of giving clear reasons, you assert that your reasons will be clear. Instead of quantifying the force you'll use, you say your force will be properly measured. You leave the rules vague so that in practice, by filling in the blanks later, you get to make up the rules as you go along.

2. Self-defense. The manifesto says the United States will focus on "defending the United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders." To justify unilateral action against such threats, the document frames this policy as part of "our right of self-defense." But this stretches the meaning of both "self" and "defense." Don't American interests abroad, under Bush's definition, include Israel's security? If our borders don't define the self we're committed to defend, and if the violation of those borders doesn't define the difference between offensive and defensive action on our part, what does?

3. Interests and values. According to the manifesto, "The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests." But the only thing distinctly American about this proposition is its pretense that our interests and values are identical. Nations choose their interests over their values all the time. They go easy on dictators to protect profitable commerce. They prop up friendly but repressive governments.

The United States under Bush isn't much different. Our new moral compromise is that we're putting stability and order before reform. "Today, the world's great powers find ourselves on the same side—united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos," says the manifesto. "America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones." Specifically, "the United States and Russia are no longer strategic adversaries," and we're cooperating with China "where our interests overlap, including the current war on terrorism."

The manifesto gives familiar lip service to the importance of Russian and Chinese reform, but the whole point of the new doctrine is that reform is no longer primary. Fighting terrorism is. That's why the document doesn't mention Chechnya or the repression of Chinese minorities in the name of fighting terrorism. It frames a simplistic anti-terrorist alliance of "civilization," including "moderate and modern government, especially in the Muslim world." Does that mean Muslim governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are moderate toward the United States but corrupt or repressive at home?

4. Multilateralism. The manifesto makes a show of embracing the United Nations and other international institutions. It pledges, "America will implement its strategies by organizing coalitions—as broad as practicable—of states able and willing to promote a balance of power that favors freedom." But what does this mean? If you aren't willing to engage in military action that in the view of the U.S. "favors freedom," your inclusion in the coalition isn't "practicable." This is unilateralism dressed up as multilateralism. We're happy to work with you, as long as you'll do it our way.

The document reaches the height of its blindness to irony in a paragraph pledging to ensure that our efforts to meet our global security commitments and protect Americans are not impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept. We will work together with other nations to avoid complications in our military operations and cooperation, through such mechanisms as multilateral and bilateral agreements that will protect U.S. nationals from the ICC.

In other words, we'll cooperate with regimes that make sure we don't have to cooperate.

What is the justification for all these compromises? According to the document, "History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act. In the new world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action." But this is a backward-looking policy disguised as a forward-looking policy. It focuses on what history has already judged harshly. Bush is afraid that if we don't err on the side of shooting first and asking questions later, what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, will happen again.

That isn't the new world we're entering. The new world is the one rationalized by Bush's manifesto: a world in which great powers wink at each other's misconduct, every threat is imminent, self-defense means pre-emptive action abroad, interests are dressed up as values, and cooperation means cooperating with the United States. We don't know what history will judge harshly about this era, but there's a good chance it'll be the compromises we embraced to rectify the mistakes of Sept. 11. Perhaps those compromises are necessary. Covering them up surely isn't.


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