American power

Published : Jun 03, 2005 00:00 IST

The U.S. military police escort a detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By favouring bigger defence budgets and more ambitious strategies, the U.S. has often flouted international law, as in the case of human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay. - SHANE T. MCCOY/AFP

The U.S. military police escort a detainee to his cell in Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By favouring bigger defence budgets and more ambitious strategies, the U.S. has often flouted international law, as in the case of human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay. - SHANE T. MCCOY/AFP

"It is an infallible rule that a prince who is not wise himself cannot be well advised, unless by chance he leaves himself entirely in the hands of one man who rules him in everything, and happens to be a very prudent man. In this case he may doubtless be well governed, but it would not last long, for that governor would in a short time deprive him of the state; but by taking counsel with many, a prince who is not wise will never have united councils and will not be able to bring them to unanimity for himself... wise counsels, from whoever they come, must necessarily be due to the prudence of the prince, and not the prudence of the prince to the good counsels received."

- (Machiavelli; The Prince; Ch. XXIII).

IT happened before; the disillusionment that greeted the gullible who expected power to moderate, if not reform, persons of crippling limitations. Nixon as President failed them as did Morarji Desai as Prime Minister in 1977 and Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1980-84. George W. Bush's appointment of Paul Wolfowitz as President of the World Bank was bad enough. To appoint John Bolton, a notorious United Nations-basher as the U.S.' Permanent Representative to the U.N. is to insult the world community. The appointment of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State was but expected. But those in New Delhi who were bowled over by her charm and fulsome praise for India are in for disillusionment. She is much more polished and poised than Madeleine Albright. But is that saying much for her? For, she is as arrogant, more intemperate in her language, and far more calculating; a cool cat with eyes on the main chance. As David J. Rothko writes in his book The Inside Story of the National Security Council, due to be published this month, according to "many within the administration who still work at the NSC or within NSC member agencies... as National Security Adviser, Rice was so pre-occupied with being at the President's side every minute, whispering in his ear, being his `alter ego on foreign-policy matters', that she has let the NSC's role as a coordinating body weaken" (emphasis added, throughout).

Those ears are particularly vulnerable to whisperings. They belong to a man of no talent or equipment. It is not rude to recall the incident. It was no momentary indiscretion at a dinner party which is best forgotten. It is relevant because it exposed, in a flash, a hollowness in the man who aspired to be and was, indeed, elected exactly a year later President of the most powerful country in the world. Besides the void, the incident exposed also his utter dependence on advisers of the kind Machiavelli so sagely warned against centuries ago. It bears reproduction in full from James Mann's compelling work.

"The perception of Bush's inexperience in international affairs gained additional currency when at the start of his campaign he was ambushed in New Hampshire by a television reporter with a `pop quiz' in which Bush was asked to name the leaders of several foreign governments. He drew a blank when asked to come up with the name of the leader of Pakistan. `General ... ' Bush replied, struggling without success to come up with the name of Pervez Musharraf. Did he know the Prime Minister of India? `The new Prime Minister of India is - no,' Bush replied." That was in November 1999. The following year Bush came up empty when a writer for Glamour magazine asked him to identify the Taliban. Finally the writer had to cue him. `Repression of women in Afghanistan?' he offered. `Oh, I thought you said some band,' Bush replied. `The Taliban in Afghanistan. Absolutely, Repressive.'" So much for his awareness of the Taliban in June 2000 when it was regarded as a serious threat to U.S. security.

Throughout 1999 and 2000, "seeking to counteract questions about his command of foreign policy, Bush had pressed the theme that he could be trusted as President because of his illustrious advisers and their long record of experience. `One of the things about a President Bush is that I'll be surrounded by good, strong, capable, smart people who understand the mission of the United States is to lead the world to peace,'" he said. (page 255)

Whatever led such a person to believe that he was qualified to be President of the U.S.? He revealed an inherent incapacity for growth. One must not denounce the American people for electing him. One must try and understand why they voted as they did in 2000. He stole the election with the U.S. Supreme Court's complicity. But why did so very many vote for him at all? And, relatedly, what is the outlook of those he has now selected as his advisers? Colin Powell, Secretary of State and his Deputy Richard Armitage were dropped. Donald Rumsfeld was retained as Defence Secretary despite his disgraceful record in Iraq and on Abu Ghraib.

Three humiliations moulded a climate of opinion in which this could happen - defeat in Vietnam in 1975; capture of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran by Iranian students in late 1979 coupled with the foolhardy rescue operation; and the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon after a truck carrying a bomb had hit the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut on October 23, 1983, killing 241 American Marines.

The process began around 1974-75 with mounting attacks on detente and one of its architects, Henry Kissinger. He was too preoccupied with fighting the political left to notice the growing challenge from the right, which not only ousted him from power but possessed the country itself. James Mann's book is a most instructive record of that era and the rise of the Vulcans who surround Bush today. It is a nickname which his advisers came up with "to describe themselves". The choice is significant. Vulcan is the Roman god of fire. Rice, who gave Bush tutorials on foreign policy during the first election campaign, was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, where a mammoth 56-foot statue of Vulcan was built in homage to the city's steel industry.

"That word, Vulcans, captured perfectly the image the Bush foreign policy team sought to convey, a sense of power, toughness, resilience and durability." They were Dick Cheney, Powell, Rice, Wolfowitz, Armitage and Rumsfeld. "The vision was that of an unchallengeable America, a United States whose military power was so awesome that it no longer needed to make compromises or accommodations (unless it chose to do so) with any other nation or groups of countries." This is the vision they would have worked to make real even if 9/11 had not happened. This group was altogether different from the ones who created a new foreign policy under Truman and Eisenhower or the "Best and Brightest" under Kennedy. "The Vulcans were the military generation. Their wellspring, the common institution in their careers, was the Pentagon. The top levels of the foreign policy team that took office in 2001 included two former Secretaries of Defence (Cheney and Rumsfeld), one former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Powell), one former Under Secretary of Defence (Wolfowitz) and one former Assistant Secretary of Defence (Armitage). Even Rice had started her career in Washington with a stint at the Pentagon, working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

James Mann skilfully weaves brief bios of the Vulcans with his narrative of recent years which is fully sourced in this fine work of reference. We learn about others like Philip Zelikov, whose declared aim to help make India a great power transported some in New Delhi to heights of ecstasy; and about Robert Zoellick and Zalmay Khalilzad, who, like Wolfowitz, was a student of the nuclear theorist, Albert Wohlstether. Wolfowitz recruited him and Francis Fukayama of The End of History fame to work for the Reagan administration. This is by far the most competent analysis of The Network that is in power today and the ideas its members advocated not long ago.

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, The New York Times published on March 8, 1992, a report by Patrick E. Tyler under the headline "U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop." It was a policy paper which Khalilzad wrote for the Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, Wolfowitz. It "set down some themes that even the Vulcans' Democratic opponents borrowed in the 1990s. As a guide to where American policy was headed, it had no peer. The Pentagon document envisioned a future in which `the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S.'... . There might be a need, the draft statement said, for `pre-empting an impending attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons'. In this report too the Pentagon's strategy of 1992 foreshadowed the policies of the George W. Bush administration after September 11, 2001."

This was part of the draft Defence Planning Guidance revised by the Pentagon every two years. Khalilzad's draft echoed some of the ideas Wolfowitz had been putting forward in his speeches: "In the Middle East [West Asia] and Southwest Asia, 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." In Western Europe and East Asia as well as West Asia, the goal of American policy should be "to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power". The draft suggested the possibility of bringing the new states of Central and Eastern Europe "into the European Union and of giving them any security commitments from the United States that would protect them from an attack by Russia".

Mann records that the Democrats' rhetoric and policies conformed to these ideas in many respects. The party was in a shambles. It had none with intellectual equipment and assertiveness who could come out with an alternative vision that they could present to a baffled public. The book provides a lot more besides a dissection of The Network. It provides a cogent, coherent explanation of the change in the American mood.

"During the thirty-five years from 1968 through 2003, the Vulcans reflected the moods and the beliefs of America as a whole. One reason that these six Republican foreign policy hands had been able to build up more experience in the executive branch of government than their counterparts in the Democratic party was simply that by and large the country kept on electing Republican presidents... . Beyond these ties to electoral policies, the Vulcans from 1968 to 2003 also tended more often than not to reflect more closely than the Democrats the views of the military. They usually favoured bigger defence budgets and more ambitious strategies, positions that were good for the Pentagon. Even when the Vulcans were out of office, they still tended to retain their close ties to the national security apparatus."

In the process the U.S. has inflicted great incalculable damage on the entire structure of international law. On March 7, it withdrew from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights it had ardently espoused once because it enables the International Court of Justice to intervene when suspects in detention are denied access to diplomats of their country. The U.S. invoked it in Teheran in 1979-80. It has been invoked by Mexico lately for dozens of its citizens in U.S. prisons.

THERE is no finer study of this trend than Phillippe Sands' work. As a distinguished Queen's Counsel he has appeared in some leading cases including those concerning Pinochet and Guantanamo detainees. As a scholar he has been Professor of Law at the University College, London, and has also taught at three other universities. His interaction with diplomats and civil servants enables him to make disclosures which would be the envy of any correspondent; for example, by which the Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith altered his opinion on attacking Iraq.

Time was when the U.S. advocated respect for international law and led many countries in scholarship on the subject. It is a pathetic comment on American society that decline in its study in academia has kept pace with decline in respect for the law in successive governments since Reagan; well before 9/11. Sands writes: "I trace the efforts of the first George W. Bush Administration to remake the system of global rules, from the abandonment of the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, through the attempt to disapply the Geneva Conventions and other human right norms at Guantanamo and other places, to the virtual disavowal of the United Nations' prescriptions prohibiting the use of force. Even when it comes to the international economic rules on free trade and the protection of foreign investments, which the Administration claims to support, there are signs of new thinking. Faced with this onslaught the British Government was often silent or, in certain respects, a willing handmaiden to some of the worst violations of international law. Together, the two countries were trying to remake the global rules."

Not only the government, even U.S. courts flout international law. Sands' criticisms earned him the gibe that he was a "Third World loyalist trying to set international precedent to undermine U.S. sovereignty". He rightly asks: "Why was the country that led the negotiations of the 1963 Vienna Convention, and which brought fundamental human rights into international law, able to show such disdain for international rules and for the International Court? And what of my own European prejudices, favouring rules and international law; were they preventing me from taking a more realistic approach to the limits of international law? Why were my friends and colleagues in American academe not agitating? And, would it have been any different in Britain?"

It would have been, as he correctly concludes from the House of Lords' recent rulings. But, then "how can the difference in attitude to international law be explained? Is it political or cultural? Or a result of the fact that most American law schools do not teach international law, and those that do, tend to treat it more as a poor relation of political science, international relations or social theory, with the result that its normative value is diminished?"

The law in actual practice differs from the law taught in law schools. Therein lies the great value and relevance of this book to Indian readers. Study of international law here leaves a lot to be desired. Respect for the law in relations with the neighbours is none too conspicuous, either. The new of band of "realists" who urge India to jump to great-power status - on the shoulders of the U.S. - have as their sub-text disdain for the law and for multilateralism. With perfect consistency they clamour for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.

Sands has seen the system from the inside as a negotiator. Not a breath of cynicism marks his disillusionment. It prods him instead to advocate respect for the law.

The international state-system is in a state of flux. Old notions of sovereignty are being discarded. This is not a work of arid legalism. "One main purpose of this book, then, is to shed some light on international law, to explain in a little more detail what the rules are, how they are made, and how they are argued when contentious issues come up. It is not intended as academic work. It is a practical book based on the personal experiences of a pragmatic Anglo-Saxon who is not seeking to apply Cartesian logic or develop some overarching international legal theory which can explain where we are and where we may be heading."

The author describes the evolution of the international legal order since 1945. The U.S. swore by the law once upon a time only in order to contain the Soviet Union. It flouts it now because there is little check on its power. Globalisation rests on the law. International boundaries are being blurred. In our global village "a Londoner's hairstyle may be an Australian's cancer". The new information technology enables easier access to precedents. Democratisation has made impressive strides. Deregulation and enhancement of the role of private enterprise and ownership has made giant corporations players in the international arena. India faces serious challenges, which demand competence in the law of a high order plus a keen sense of the realities.

The author provides a good guide to the Pinochet case, the International Criminal Court, the law and global warming, global free trade rules and the World Trade Organisation. "Most international lawyers try to steer well clear of them. In fact, they have become the most powerful rules of international law and fuel the engine of economic globalisation - which is why they cause people to take to the streets in protest. They are the focus for increasingly bitter claims that international laws are being used by groups of rich countries, led by the U.S. and the E.U., to impose their values on the rest of the world. I saw first-hand the potential impact of free trade rules in the `bananas' case that went to the World Trade Organisation in the mid-1990s." New rules on trade and foreign investment threaten the environment and labour standards.

Anecdotes enrich the book; for instance his successful defence of Albania in a case brought by a Greek company, alleging expropriation before the World Bank's International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. It rejected the claim for $3 million in compensation. "Their meetings are secret. Their members are generally unknown. The decisions they reach need not be fully disclosed. Yet the way a small group of international tribunals handles disputes between investors and foreign governments has led to national laws being revoked, justice systems questioned and environmental regulations challenged.

The facts and the law concerning Guantanamo, "the legal black hole", the attack on Iraq and the Abu Ghraib outrages are well set out.

David Harvey, a scholarly radical, describes the growth of an oppressive international system and its institutions of power particularly the International Monetary Fund. There is hope on two fronts; externally, the world would realise that the U.S. can be bridled by using the financial power. The U.S. is a debtor state. Domestically, there can be a change of opinion. Harvey calls it "the real battleground".

The question we must ask ourselves is whether the venture into Iraq marked the limits of expansion of American power. Events in Ukraine and Kyrgystan suggest otherwise. The U.N. itself is under a threat. On April 15, Rice warned that the U.N. must remember its limitations - as if the warning was necessary - and asserted that it must "reform" in order to "survive" and that Bolton would "help" in this exercise. There is another item on the U.S. agenda - installation of democracy in West Asia. Pursuit of unrivalled American power is certain to continue. The Vulcans had begun to develop ideas "on a world in which there was no Soviet Union".

Rice deserves particular attention. She developed "more than other White House staff", any other National Security Adviser or Secretary of State "a strong personal identification with the Bush administration and the family". Her academic achievements have been limited. Her insights speak a lot for her. Even in 1990 she regarded the Soviet Union as a threat. In the late 1990s she advocated quarantine of Russia. "To some of Rice's fellow Russia scholars, she sounded as if she were proposing a new form of containment of Russia. I was totally shocked," recalled Stanford University scholar Michael McFaul. Recent remarks on the sensitive issue of North Korea reflect a disdain for diplomatic civility.

IT is Wolfowitz who was the main ideologue of the Vulcans. He stayed on in the Carter administration - he was not a Republican - as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for regional programmes. He worked on the Pentagon's project Capabilities for Limited Contingency Study. It sketched the worst case scenarios. Dated June 15, 1979, it concluded: "Iraq has become militarily pre-eminent in the Persian Gulf, a worrisome development because of Iraq's radical-Arab stance, its anti-Western attitudes, its dependence on Soviet arms sales, and its willingness to foment trouble in other local nations... .

"The emerging Iraqi threat has two dimensions. On the one hand, Iraq may in the future use her military forces against such states as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia (as in the 1961 Kuwait crisis that was resolved by timely British intervention with force). On the other hand, the more serious problem may be that Iraq's implicit power will cause currently moderate local powers to accommodate themselves to Iraq without being overtly coerced. The latter problem suggests that we must not only be able to defend the interests of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and ourselves against an Iraqi invasion or show of force, we should also make manifest our capabilities and commitments to balance Iraq's power - and this may require an increased visibility for U.S. power." In 1980 and in 1990, the U.S.' ally Saddam Hussein played into its hands and ruined himself, his country and peace in the region. By then Wolfowitz had switched over to the Republicans after a timely tip-off from a friend in the last stages of the Carter administration

Tertrais, a scholar who served in the French government, is no admirer of Saddam and is sympathetic to the U.S. The "messianic neo-conservatism" is what worries him. Are they launching a war without end, ensnaring the U.S. His account of those who contributed to its rise is useful as also its impact on our region. He is worried about the U.S.' unpopularity the world over. China is a fond target of the necocons: "The American enemies of China, united for some years now in an informal network called the Blue Team, have been lying low since September 11. It is true that several of them are in command position in the administration or in Congress. But the neoconservatives await other opportunities for that matter, if one believes Robert Kagan, `the long-term goal (of current U.S. policy) is regime change in Beijing.' The theme of the Chinese menace could bring together both those who want to block the emergence of a major rival power and those who are obsessed by the goal of expanding democracy...

"`After Baghdad, Beijing' said some neoconservatives in the spring of 2003, while an influential figure in the Pentagon suggested that `Iraq was just a warm-up for China'. The authors of these statements were only half kidding. Despite the difficulties and the failures of the U.S. project for the Middle East, the ideology of combative democratising is not dead. The importance of neo-conservatism in U.S. strategy is cyclical: at the right moment, it is quite possible that it will ally itself again with militant evangelism, this time to attack the last great bastion of revolutionary socialism."

TWO historians, Llyod G. Gardner and Marilyn B. Yong, have edited a collection of insightful essays on the new course the U.S. is following. Young's essay on "Imperial Language" is brilliant. "One must distinguish, I think between the language of imperialism and the language of empire. The language of imperialism, of the act of creating and sustaining empire, is immediate, direct, often monosyllabic, given to slang but not to euphemism. Its dominant tense is the imperative. The language of empire is benign, nurturing, polysyllabic; its preferred tense is the future conditional. The language of empire reassures."

A rich crop of historians has grown in the U.S. which advocates imperial rule. But there are those who dare to warn. Michael Mann, Michael Walzer, and other commentators on the current state of the American empire argue that its flaws and weaknesses will ultimately doom it. "I think they are right in the medium to long run. What they miss is the damage done along the way. J.M. Coetzee captures the inside of imperialism, its linguistic soul, best. In his novel Waiting for the Barbarians he writes: `Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster; the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one... .

"This mad vision inhabits Bush's staccato, repetitious performance as a `war president' on Meet the Press, as it does the clauses of fat contracts with private military corporations and the glossy illustrated federal budget the administration has just issued. It is a vision of permanent war pursued in the name of permanent peace."

One is reminded of Will Durant's arresting lines on Sparta in his work The Age of Greece: "In the end Sparta's narrowness of spirit betrayed even her strength of soul. She descended to the sanctioning of any means to gain a Spartan aim... . Militarism absorbed her, and made her, once so honoured, the hated tenor of her neighbours. When she fell, all the nations marvelled, but none mourned." It is a warning which militarists would do well to heed. And not in the United States alone.

Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet by James Mann; Penguin; pages 426; $10.50 (India price)

Lawless World by Philippe Sands; Penguin; pages 324; $9.10 (India price).

The New Imperialism by David Harvey; Oxford University Press; pages 253. Rs. 975 (hardback).

War Without End by Bruno Tertrais; translated by Franklin Philip; The New Press; pages 140; $21.95.

The New American Empire: A 21st Century Teach-in on U.S. Foreign Policy by Lloyd G. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young; The New Press; pages 316; 12.99.

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