The Bush Strategy at War

The Bush Strategy at War

Mini Teaser: How the Bush Doctrine is actually shaping policy - and its results.

by Author(s): Ilan Berman

QUIETLY, and largely away from the public eye, a revolution has begun in American strategic thinking. The endeavor currently being pursued by the Bush Administration is breathtaking in scope, entailing a re-examination of virtually all the traditional elements of U.S. strategic posture. And while its contours are just becoming visible, this blueprint has already begun to reshape world affairs.

The reconception now emerging in American strategy, articulated partly in the September 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), can be defined by three distinct revolutions--each of which is already being put into practice by the Bush Administration. The first involves the way in which the United States uses force in the post-9/11 world. The NSS makes a convincing case that the concept of imminent threats must be amended to take into account "the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries": the amorphous nature of today's terrorism, the availability of weapons of mass destruction and the sinister possibility of a synergy of these elements with rogue states. In response, it codifies America's fight to act proactively to neutralize gathering dangers, declaring such moves to be a necessary and legal response to new global realities.

These new parameters of power are hardly limited to the theoretical. Indeed, they were prominently on display in the war against Iraq that the United States and its "coalition of the willing" waged in the spring of 2003. The Bush Administration's rationale for regime change in Baghdad hinged on the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's quest for weapons of mass destruction, and on the frightening possibility that a confluence of objectives could prompt the transfer of such tools of destruction to terrorists. The need for a preventive response, in turn, served as the guiding principle behind Washington's subsequent decision to resort to military action.

The second revolution in strategic thinking deals with how the United States defines defense. From its early days in office, the Bush Administration has worked actively to alter the Cold War-era strategic mindset that had held sway, quite counterintuitively, well into the 1990s. Even before September 11, it directed a wide-ranging reevaluation of America's strategic posture, launching the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) under the auspices of the Department of Defense. The September 11 attacks underscored the salience of the QDR's recommendations, released just days later, of a capabilities-based strategic posture able to assure allies, dissuade adversaries, deter aggression and--if necessary--decisively defeat undeterrable enemies.

Since then, the White House has moved decisively to enshrine this paradigm shift. With Russia, it has launched a comprehensive overhaul of strategic ties. Building on the recommendations of the QDR, the Congressionally-mandated January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review officially removed Russia as the principal strategic threat to the United States, setting the stage for the sweeping bilateral reductions in strategic arsenals codified by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin later that year in the Moscow Treaty. And, at home, Washington's June 2002 withdrawal from the ABM Treaty paved the way for President Bush's subsequent decision to construct a near-term, "initial set of missile defense capabilities."

The third and final transformation encompasses the way the United States approaches proliferation. In response to perceived inadequacies in existing arms control arrangements, the White House has placed emphasis on active counterproliferation as the hallmark of successful efforts to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Building on that theme, President Bush announced in late-May 2003 the establishment of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a loose-knit alliance intended to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction, as a supplement to existing arms control measures.

This initiative has since blossomed into a significant partnership.1 Two subsequent meetings, in June and July 2003, have fleshed out the core principles for the grouping: strengthening existing international security agreements, stepped-up intelligence-sharing among PSI member-states and active proliferation prevention through coordinated air, land and sea interdiction efforts. As such, the PSI represents a signal strategic development--the evolution of arms control into a proactive nonproliferation tool.

The Strategy Beyond Baghdad

QUITE clearly, the war with Iraq constituted the first concrete manifestation of these new principles. The conceptual underpinning of the Bush Administration's decision to go to war revolved around the need to prevent, by any means necessary, the acquisition of "catastrophic power" by rogue states and terrorist groups--in a word, pre-emption. And yet, despite both its significance and its current international prominence, Iraq represents only one part of a substantially larger picture. Beyond Baghdad, a number of high-profile crises now confront the emerging American strategy.

Foremost among these is North Korea. The current political stalemate on the Korean Peninsula is a product of Pyongyang's unexpected October 2002 revelation of its clandestine nuclear program. Since then, North Korea has ejected international inspectors, reactivated its nuclear reprocessing facility at Yongbyon and forged ahead with efforts to acquire a sustained offensive atomic capability. Concurrently, Kim Jong-il's regime has stepped up work on ballistic missile capabilities through a number of measures, from rescinding its self-imposed 1999 moratorium on missile testing to accelerating development work on its Taepo-Dong series of long-range rockets.2

The resulting advances have substantially expanded both its nuclear arsenal and its ability to target the United States and U.S. allies.

Taken together, these moves have increasingly challenged the strategic status quo in East Asia. On the one hand, North Korea's nuclear breakout--accomplished in contravention of Pyongyang's commitments under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1994 "Agreed Framework" subsequently signed with the Clinton Administration--has eloquently demonstrated the limitations of arms control in ensuring compliance with international obligations among strategic adversaries of the United States. On the other hand, North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have called into question the durability of the American alliance system in Asia, enabling Pyongyang to menace the United States with the credible threat of a nuclear strike. With such a potent policy tool, North Korea holds the power to deter Washington from assisting its Asian partners in the event of North Korean regional aggression, a fact understood well not only in Pyongyang but also among U.S. allies in Asia and beyond.

Iran poses a similar strategic quandary. Recent revelations regarding the advanced state of Iran's nuclear-processing capabilities, coupled with the discovery of trace amounts of weapons-grade uranium within the country, suggest that the Islamic Republic's nuclear ambitions have attained a significant degree of maturity. Like those of Pyongyang, Tehran's strides toward a nuclear capability have occurred in spite of its membership in, and obligations under, the NPT. And, as in North Korea, Iran's nuclear advances have been mirrored by progress in its ballistic missile capabilities. Following this summer's "final" test of its Shahab-3, which has a 1,300 kilometer range, Iran has inducted the intermediate range rocket--capable of targeting Israel, Turkey and India, as well as U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region--into its feared Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Pasdaran.

These advances hold ominous implications for America's regional policy. Iran's expanded missile reach threatens to undermine the reliability of U.S. allies in the Middle East, rendering them vulnerable to Iranian blackmail--which the Islamic Republic can invoke at will in response to U.S. policy. And Tehran's nuclear and ballistic missile breakthroughs, together with its conventional military rearmament (accomplished principally through partnership with Russia), have led the Iranian government to adopt an increasingly aggressive regional profile, one that has intimidated Gulf neighbors and allowed Tehran to exert growing influence over Middle Eastern politics.

Meanwhile, Tehran and Pyongyang's successes have been repeated, albeit on a smaller scale, by a host of other aspiring regional powers in the Middle East and Asia. For these nations, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles has become a common element of contemporary strategy and a shared means to achieve strategic parity with the United States. Such a focus is quite logical, given both the overwhelming conventional military superiority of the United States, and its self-created vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction--demonstrated so eloquently by the lack of American defenses capable of countering Iraqi SCUD missiles during the first Gulf War. And it has been both perpetuated and accelerated by a steady stream of technologies and know-how from "supplier states" like Russia, China and North Korea, yielding what amounts to an independent, self-sustaining international system of proliferation. The consequences of this dynamic, which in large part enabled the twin nuclearizations of India and Pakistan back in 1998, can today be seen in the ominous ballistic missile and WMD advances being charted by countries such as Libya and Syria.

The Bush Administration's response to these trends has highlighted both the versatility of its new strategy, and its practical utility. Even as it has pursued multilateral diplomatic dialogue with North Korea, the White House has worked to elevate the importance of missile defenses among its allies in the Asia-Pacific region. These efforts have gained significant ground over the past year. In the wake of its December 2002 decision to expand missile defense cooperation with Washington, the Japanese government has moved decisively to realize an ambitious plan for national defense--one that includes not only the deployment of American-made defenses to protect vital population centers, but also the possible amendment of its constitution to permit both interception of overflying missiles and participation in a U.S.-led regional missile shield. In a similar vein, the United States has drawn closer with South Korea: through a recently unveiled $11 billion multi-year defense plan, the Pentagon has pledged to deploy advanced missile defense batteries to protect Seoul from its northern neighbor. Even Australia, notwithstanding a recent governmental decision to limit its investment in missile defense, has maintained a robust dialogue with the United States and has left open the possibility of a role in Washington's planned Asian ABM system as a complement to its own existing defenses.

In response to Iran, the United States has broadened its dialogue with allies in Europe. Building on a newfound European consensus regarding the gravity of the threat from Tehran, the Bush Administration has pressed transatlantic allies to engage in bilateral missile defense initiatives as a strategic response. Concurrently, the White House has made considerable headway in its plans for a larger regional anti-ballistic missile architecture that will include east European countries like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as Britain and Denmark, and will be oriented against emerging missile threats from the Middle East and Asia.

Through work with European and Asian allies, the Bush Administration has succeeded in establishing more stringent standards for monitoring international commerce. Proof of this was visible in April 2003, when, even prior to the formal creation of the PSI, intelligence collaboration between Paris and Berlin resulted in the French seizure of nuclear-related components believed to be intended for North Korea. Similarly, the subsequent interdiction of North Korean narcotics by Australian authorities, and Japan's concurrent closure of North Korean smuggling operations, has effectively tightened the noose on North Korea's rogue proliferation habits.

These steps, in turn, have been supplemented by the multilateral efforts of the PSI. Exercises by member-states in Australia's Coral Sea this past September, and upcoming maneuvers in the Mediterranean, provide member-states critical experience in aggressive interdiction procedures and substantially impair international proliferation. And the American response has not been limited to the PSI. The White House has also promoted other nonproliferation instruments, such as the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, created in November 2002 as a means to strengthen and reinforce its emerging counterproliferation mechanisms.

Stumbling Blocks for the Strategy

THESE innovations in power, defense and nonproliferation lie at the heart of the Bush Administration's conceptual reordering of national security. But while these tools have already begun to alter the international strategic landscape, all three face substantial obstacles to their long-term Success.

The rationale behind pre-emption may have been successfully invoked by the United States in its first practical international application--that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. In Iraq's aftermath, however, the validity of pre-emption as a sustainable strategic concept has increasingly been challenged by three factors.

The first of these is conceptual clarity. The strategy laid out in the NSS is pointedly vague about which international conditions are thereafter deemed imminent threats by the United States. Some clarification of these criteria can be found in the administration's subsequently-released National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which identifies the acquisition and capacity to use WMD against American forces and the civilian population of the United States as one such trigger.4 Yet confusion about when, how and under which circumstances the United States will choose to apply preemptive force continues to prevail internationally, both among allies of the United States and its adversaries. And without a clear identification of standards-from likely targets to activating mechanisms--this lack of uniformity will continue to heighten suspicion of the strategy and chill its reception abroad.

Second, pre-emption faces premature strategic obsolescence--largely thanks to haphazard American diplomacy in East Asia, where justifiable fears of the possible impact on regional allies have so far prevented the United States from unambiguously retaining a military option to the North Korean crisis.5 Yet failure to maintain such a response to Pyongyang's nuclear blackmail risks invalidating the very proactive posture at the core of the Bush Administration's emerging grand strategy. Taking pre-emption off the table would also embolden other potential adversaries, like Iran, who seek the capability to stand down the United States.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the course of events in Iraq has profound consequence for the future of pre-emption. The postwar difficulty experienced by the United States in uncovering Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs has increasingly called into question the rationale for preemptive action: the notion that Iraq was an imminent threat to U.S. and regional security. Over time, this situation could prove seriously damaging to the viability of the Bush strategy. An unambiguous, post-facto demonstration of the global threat posed by Saddam Hussein's regime remains essential to shoring up legitimacy for the Bush Administration's pre-emption strategy among already skeptical members of the international community. That American efforts--spearheaded by Dr. David Kay's Iraq Survey Group--have, despite some successes, so far fallen short of accomplishing this goal does not bode well, either for pre-emption's popular appeal or its international acceptance.

Another main Bush Administration initiative, missile defense, faces a different but equally daunting impediment. Despite considerable progress by the Pentagon toward fulfilling the President's vision of protecting the United States and its deployed forces from ballistic missile attack, disheartening signs suggest that the administration has yet to fully transition beyond the Cold War concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Proof of this can be seen in the focus of the "initial effort", now being pursued by the Pentagon, to place priority emphasis on land--and sea-based anti-missile technologies--both explored extensively during the first Bush and Clinton Administrations--with little corresponding attention to the third potential theater of activity: space.

This constitutes a critical oversight. From the intercontinental arsenals of traditional strategic competitors to the potential acquisition of short- and medium-range missiles by terrorist groups, the complexity of the ballistic missile threat now arrayed against the United States requires a defensive capability that exploits all existing arenas and technologies. And this, in turn, necessitates a move into space as a medium capable of providing the United States with both global monitoring and global reach.

The Bush Administration's hesitance to do so thus far appears to stem from the continued prevalence of MAD in U.S. strategic thinking. That concept, codified in the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, enshrined a shared vulnerability to nuclear annihilation as the lynchpin of international security. Despite its flimsy foundations (which presupposed that Moscow's calculus of the costs of a nuclear exchange were the mirror image of Washington's), MAD proved to be surprisingly resilient--so much so that even the Strategic Defense Initiative, President Ronald Reagan's response to the "balance of terror" that had grown to dominate U.S.-Soviet relations, ultimately ended up operating within its constraints.

Little changed with the end of the Cold War. Political considerations prompted the new leaders in both Moscow and Washington to maintain the illusion of the now-obsolescent Cold War nuclear balance by rejuvenating and strengthening the ABM Treaty. At home, this decision was mirrored by a systematic governmental campaign to eradicate space-based anti-missile capabilities (outlawed under the Treaty) from the institutional knowledge of the Department of Defense and national laboratories. The resulting demise of promising space-based technologies--like the Brilliant Pebbles program developed by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s--has not yet been revisited by the Bush Administration, notwithstanding Bush's groundbreaking decision to abrogate the ABM Treaty.

Diplomatically, meanwhile, political considerations have also complicated American efforts. While the newfound warmth that now dominates Washington's relations with Moscow may have expanded potential areas for strategic cooperation, Russian officials remain stridently opposed to any U.S. efforts in space, based largely on the fear that such activities could decisively invalidate their country's nuclear deterrent. The expanding strategic dialogue between the United States and Russia, together with Moscow's continning importance to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, have meanwhile given the Kremlin an increasingly potent voice in American strategic planning. Russian policymakers have used this opportunity to make clear their opposition to an unfettered U.S. anti-missile effort and have put forth initiatives that, if enacted, would profoundly constrain long-term missile defense development on the part of the United States.

Washington's complex relationship with China has had a similarly chilling effect. Fears of a destabilizing arms race have led missile defense opponents to warn against an extensive deployment capable of challenging China's nuclear deterrent or its regional military status. This argument persists in some segments of the U.S. government, notwithstanding ample evidence that Beijing continues to pursue a massive, multi-year military modernization effort--one designed to dominate the Asian theater and decisively determine the future of Taiwan--irrespective of American antimissile plans. Meanwhile, China's foray into space with the groundbreaking October launch of its Shenzhou-Y manned capsule suggests the start of a new arena of strategic competition between the United States and China--one that could further complicate an American deployment of space-based capabilities.

As for counterproliferation, whether the PSI can sustain its early successes is still an open question. To be sure, both in Europe and in Asia, the initiative has already resulted in more stringent monitoring of maritime commerce and significantly impaired North Korean proliferation practices. Future exercises are expected to give member states further experience with aggressive interdiction procedures, as well as send a clear signal to Pyongyang regarding its nuclear program. But long-term success hinges on broadening the alliance to include additional nations both willing and able to enforce its aggressive nonproliferation efforts, as well as gaining the endorsement of major international players (like Russia and China) that hold significant leverage over the PSI's global acceptance as an instrument of foreign policy.

Here, heartening progress can be seen abroad. The October 2003 Bali summit of ASEAN saw the creation of an Asian "security community" designed to strengthen and coordinate regional efforts against terrorism, maritime piracy and transnational crime--mirroring in part the intentions of the PSI. Similarly, since the establishment in 2001 of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both Moscow and Beijing have attempted to use it to create a common regional approach to the problems of terrorism and narcotics trafticking in Central Asia. These and other new constructs in Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe (as well as adaptations of existing alliances now underway) suggest that the core principles undergirding the President's Proliferation Security Initiative have begun to gain global currency.

MORE THAN a year after its genesis, the future of this bold new strategy is far from certain. In the face of growing difficulties in Asia and the Middle East, U.S. policymakers might yet be tempted to revert back to traditional approaches to arms control, defense and the use of force. (Against the backdrop of upcoming elections, the Bush strategy has also become a distinctly partisan issue, with many of the President's political opponents publicly advocating a return to the pre-September 11 status quo in strategic policy.) By contrast, early signs of an international consensus--from a shift toward pre-emption in Paris and Moscow to the widening appeal of both missile defense and the PSI--suggest that its strategic concepts could very well attain universal acceptance. Progress vis-a-vis North Korea and Iran, meanwhile, might decisively tip the scales in the administration's favor, demonstrating both the strategy's sustainability and its global applications. One thing, however, is abundantly clear. The ultimate success or failure of the Bush Administration's revolution in strategic thinking will profoundly shape the nature of the international environment, as well as America's place in it.

1 Eleven member-states currently comprise the Proliferation Security Initiative: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

2 Most concretely, this is believed to have yielded two new additions to the North Korean ballistic missile arsenal. The first, a medium-range, road-mobile missile with an estimated range of up to 3,400 miles, will allow North Korea to target all of Japan, as well as the U.S. territory of Guam. The second, a longer-range variant of Pyongyang's Taepo-Dong, will put Hawaii, Alaska, California and much of the western coast of the United States within striking range. See Bill Gertz, "North Korea to Display New Missiles", Washington Times, September 9, 2003.

3 An eloquent discussion of this "21st Century template" can be found in Defense Science Board Chairman William Schneider's October 29, 2002 Financial Times article, "Nuclear Bombing for the Beginner."

4 "Because deterrence may not succeed, and because of the devastating consequences of WMD use against our forces and civilian population, U.S. military forces and appropriate civilian agencies must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through preemptive measures" (emphasis added). National Strategy to Combat Weapom of Mass Destruction, White House, Office of the Press Secretary, December 2002, p. 3.

5 Notably, some prominent critics have argued that a military option is both feasible and necessary against the North Korean regime. See, for example, R. James Woolsey and Thomas McInerney, "The Next Korean War", Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2003.

Ilan Berman is Vice President for Policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC and an adjunct professor at the American University's School of International Service.

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