More To The Story

July 7, 2004

More To The Story

In this brief collection of lectures inspired by the September 11 attack on the United States, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis attempts to demonstrate that the Bush Administration's response is not as great a departure from American traditions as co

In this brief collection of lectures inspired by the September 11 attack on the United States, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis attempts to demonstrate that the Bush Administration's response is not as great a departure from American traditions as commonly believed.  In particular, he argues, John Quincy Adams based his foreign policy on the principles of preemption, unilateralism and hegemony, thereby establishing a pattern for his successors to follow.

It is a very innovative interpretation of American history, and Gaddis's reputation means the argument must be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, the very brevity of Gaddis's book limits the discussion.  A thesis so startling needs to be developed more fully.  More to the point, it needs to take into account obvious objections.

Let us take each of the propositions in turn.  First, there is no question the Founders allowed for the possibility of preemption, if by that we mean the initiating of war.  The issue was discussed at the Constitutional Convention, and the power to initiate war was given to Congress.  "The only case in which the Executive can enter on a war, undeclared by Congress, is when a state of war has ‘been actually' produced by the conduct of another power," James Madison wrote James Monroe on November 16, 1827.[i] That position was not controversial at the time.  Indeed, President Monroe had written Madison in 1824 revealing that when asked by the Colombian minister whether, in light of the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. would come to Colombia's assistance in the event of war with France, he had replied that "the Executive has no right to compromit [sic] the nation in any question of war."[ii]

The question, in other words, is not whether the United States can initiate war (or preempt), but who should decide on that ultimate and dangerous course.  What distinguishes our present situation from the one 200 years ago is the assumption that the President makes the decision to initiate war.  To be sure, the Bush position is not new; for example, President Bill Clinton initiated armed conflict in the Balkans without authorization from Congress.  Yet the resolution passed by Congress in 2002 authorizing war against Iraq is distinctive because Congress agreed to transfer its responsibility to the President.  According to the text of the resolution, "the President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" against Iraq subject to the provisions of the War Powers Act.[iii]

In other words, the President, not Congress, decided if and when the United States would initiate war with Iraq, which did not begin for several months.  Contrast that situation to the War of 1812.  There is "on the side of Great Britain a state of war against the United States, and on the side of the United States a state of peace toward Great Britain," President Madison asserted in his war message to Congress, acknowledging that "whether the United States shall continue passive under these progressive usurpations and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of their national rights, … , is a solemn question which the Constitution wisely confides to the legislative department of the Government."[iv]

Congress then made the decision for war with Britain.  Similarly, in the war against Mexico, which Gaddis cites as a model of preemption, Congress declared "a state of war exists" in response to a message from President James K. Polk.[v] It is one thing for Congress to decide the United States is at war and instruct the president to conduct it; it is something else altogether for Congress to transfer the authority to make that decision to the president.  That is what is so distinctive about the preemptive doctrine today, and why it raises such concern.  In effect, we are turning the Constitutional procedure upside down, and we are doing so without even realizing it or appreciating the example we are setting for other countries.

With regard to unilateralism, two points must be made.  First, the international legal regime is far different from what it was two centuries ago.  In particular, the United Nations Charter specifies that military action other than self-defense must be authorized by the Security Council.  Unilateralism is in large measure a justification for ignoring the United Nations, but the Constitution specifies that ratified treaties are "the supreme Law of the land."  Since the President's responsibility is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed, unilateralism now confronts a legal complication that did not exist at the time of Adams.

Second, there is a practical objection.  In the nineteenth century, American objectives were limited, matching our capabilities.  When unilateralism was proclaimed with much fanfare, its ambitions were limitless, based on an underlying assumption of irresistible American power.  As recent events have demonstrated, however, even American resources are not limitless.  The Bush Administration is now desperately seeking allies, but is finding that those whose advice it spurned are not rushing to come to its assistance. 

In addition, other major powers, uneasy about American preemption and unilateralism because of the implicit threat it represents to them, are building ties of resistance to American hegemony.  For example, on November 28, 2002, China's People's Daily Online published an article entitled "China-Russian Relations Remain Better Than Russian-U.S. Ties."  According to this article, the "theoretical foundation for strategic cooperation refers to the theory on opposing a mono-polar world and promoting a multi-polar world."  Other countries have also endorsed the idea of multipolarity, but although most attention seems to be focused on France, the action seems to be taking place in the heartland of Eurasia.  As the Indian Ambassador to Russia told the Itar-Tass news agency (reported in The Hindu on February 22, 2004), "Moscow, Delhi and Beijing are moving from non-governmental contacts in a triangular format to discussing issues of common concern at a high official level."

It would be naïve to assume that such triangular discussions do not touch on the concerns that all these countries share about American policy.  That is not to say they, and others like them, do not want good relations with the United States, for they clearly do, but it is unrealistic to expect them to meekly accept a situation in which "the United States exchanged its long-established reputation as the principal stabilizer of the international system for one as its chief destabilizer."

Of course, it is possible to dismiss these ties as insubstantial, or to say American superiority is so great it doesn't matter anyway.  Maybe, but that attitude recalls the saying that pride goeth before the fall.  On this issue, either one believes prudence is a virtue or one does not, since all evidence will be perceived through that lens.

In the end, however, whatever the historical antecedents of the policy Professor Gaddis praises, it has run afoul of its ambitions.  In what is perhaps the most important passage in the book, Gaddis emphasizes "the psychological value of victory-of defeating an adversary sufficiently thoroughly that you shatter the confidence of others, so that they'll roll over themselves before you have to roll over them."  Accordingly, the task facing the Bush Administration after the initial victory in Afghanistan was "to maintain the momentum….  This was where Saddam Hussein came in: Iraq was the most feasible place in which to strike the next blow."  Victory in Iraq "could set in motion a process that could undermine and ultimately remove reactionary regimes elsewhere in the Middle East, thereby eliminating the principal breeding ground for terrorism."

To be sure, Gaddis immediately cautions that the grandness of a strategy is no assurance of its success.  Indeed, the history of the last century would seem to call into question the very basis for this approach.  World War I, after all, was supposed to be the war to end all war.  It didn't.  Neither did our decisive victory in World War II.  Even the triumph of the West in the Cold War did not prevent the defiance of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Mohammed Aidid.  And now, despite our "shock and awe" victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, our troops remain under incessant attack by insurgents.

Strategy is not simply about vision; it must also relate means to ends.  The problem with an overly "grand" strategy is that it risks outrunning the resources available to achieve it.  In this regard, Gaddis recounts an incident that, unintentionally, illustrates the problem confronting us.  Shortly after September 11, one of his students announces he is joining the Marines, telling a gathering of students and faculty: "It's people like me who make it possible for people like you to be here doing what you're doing."

Gaddis is clearly bursting with pride, but we are left to wonder.  One student?  ONE?  Out of how many?  And what does "people like me" and "people like you" mean?  Is that an implicit rebuke of the Yale community-and by extension, of the entire American elite-for expecting other Americans to defend their liberties? 

This question is not academic, as stop-loss orders are imposed on soldiers already serving and a growing number of reservists are called to active duty and deployed overseas.  Although recruiting and retention have held up so far, there is mounting concern about the future, especially for the National Guard and reserves.  The active duty army may also face problems.  "Parents will tell us all the time that `Johnny's not joining!' and just hang up on us," one recruiter told the New York Times (June 14, 2004). "It has definitely gotten harder out here."