Imperial Presidency

The events of 9/11 and the Iraq occupation inaugurated a greater reliance by the administration on the political use of secrecy in manipulating the tools of law, especially (though not exclusively) in the security realm. Like the struggle against world communism before 1990, the current struggle to defeat Islamic terrorism and unpopular figures like Saddam Hussein provides a president who chooses to invoke it the ability to conjure a virtually omnipresent, shadowy threat as well as specific unpopular enemies.

By focusing openly on these enemies and secretly handling the timing of action and of less popular aspects of U. S. policy, the president can take a very large share of power away from Congress and away from the kind of public scrutiny that the Constitution intended Congress to provide. Two very different types of geopolitical projects illustrate the president's new secrecy powers in international and security affairs. These projects matter less for their foreign affairs specifics than for their use in concretely illustrating how the means of secrecy, deployed in the Bush administration's initial years, may have uses in a second term.

One consists of perhaps the single largest economic resource prize in the world: the under-developed natural resources of Central Asia, specifically the huge oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea region. Nothing could appeal more to President Bush and an administration top-heavy with fellow former oil-men than a region containing the largest undeveloped oil resources outside the Middle East. Where the Soviet Union once stood in the way, Putin's Russia now seeks to overcome regional instability by developing its own oil lifeline.

The geopolitical challenge lies both in developing the fields in countries such as Kazakhstan—or in the Caspian Sea itself, which involves conflicting claims from surrounding countries, including Iran—and in transporting the oil across an area unstable in every direction. Problems range from the unsavory and potentially unstable nature of several of the region's authoritarian regimes to the difficulty of reaching accommodation with the hostile Caspian Sea power of Iran. More generally, the problem comes in building a base in a region where popular discontent may further destabilize national governments.

When the United States rooted out the Taliban in Afghanistan, it dealt with the only Central Asian country (putting the special problem of Iran aside) where the regime itself directed militant Islamic fundamentalism into violent action against America. What the United States does elsewhere in the region determines whether the inevitable popular discontents and uprisings, including those rooted in militant Islam, are directed only against often corrupt local rulers or also against the United States. Through 2000 Central Asia seemed far from the centers of traditional American geopolitical attention.

Hence, prior to 9/11 and the Iraq occupation, limited development prospects in the near term hinged upon a crude multilateral “rule of law” model for achieving stability. Efforts by Western and other nations to reform corrupt authoritarian regimes, international cooperation through open negotiation, and establishing fair terms for trade and development seemed the only way. Before the 2000s, the United States' own quite limited security stake in Central Asia would not have supported unilateral American military involvement in the region, anyway.

Observers hoped that the United States would use its leverage for needed reforms, so that popular discontent would find outlets other than through potentially jihad-minded groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In the first nine months of the Bush administration, despite its interest in the oil industry and evident preference for unilateral action, American activity in the region seemed likely to stay limited. Heavy-handed attempts to pursue Central Asian oil and gas resources would arouse too much suspicion.

After 9/11 and the Iraq occupation, however, the administration foresaw exercising expanded legal authority and tools for projecting American power into Central Asia, deflecting the inevitable domestic and international criticism, once again, through a program of secrecy. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush could insist that the region's potential as a base for future terrorism justified whatever the administration did there and, further, justified the administration's policy of making its decisions in utmost secrecy.

President Bush's secrecy in the preparation and implementation of the moves regarding Iraq, from the 9/17 secret directive to closed-door reconstruction contracting, became exhibit A for demonstrating how secrecy would work in the new projection of power in adjoining Central Asia. Clearly, the days of the Marshall Plan and the Alliance for Progress—when many controversial aspects of America's foreign policy were handled openly—are behind us. Indeed, by 2004 Rumsfeld's aggressive, unaccountable covert operations prompted a rebuke from Congress.

Even Trent Lott (R. -Miss. ), no lefty pinko, expressed alarm. In contrast, done unilaterally and in deep secrecy, American commitments of credibility, money, and military might in Central Asia would raise the suspicion that they owe too little to actual public security imperatives and too much to private economic interests. It would serve American security interests better, as open congressional debate would reflect, to press reforms on the local authoritarian regimes and to let popular discontent find outlets other than Islamic militancy.

Why not lighten up on the greed and do something to make the populations feel they have a stake in their nation's government and economy? Decisions made without open debate will reflect more the preference of global businesses and their state backers, who may decide that development needs complete support from the existing regimes, even though they resist reforms and eagerly label all opposition as terrorist. Authoritarian regimes of Central Asia, lacking popular support, have every incentive to work with multinational businesses and to line up the Bush administration to suppress all “terrorist” opposition.

In this way, secret processes may take the United States down the path of inevitable armed confrontation between the regimes it backs and popular uprisings forced for lack of any other alternative into jihadi channels. By going this way in secrecy, the Bush administration could repeat some of the most regrettable episodes of the Cold War: the overthrow of progressive regimes from Guatemala in the 1950s to Chile in 1973; adherence to regimes such as that of the shah of Iran, until it fell in 1979; and ever deepening commitments to unstable regimes such as that of South Vietnam and the apartheid system in South Africa.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration's trajectory, shaped by secrecy, sometimes seems headed in precisely that tragic direction. An entirely separate and different geopolitical project consists of what other target countries or regimes that the Bush administration's conservative electoral base dislikes could receive the preemptive “regime change” treatment meted out to Iraq. In one variant, this might involve a regime in the course of changing on its own, like Haiti in the 1990s, but one in which President Bush wields the tools of secrecy and unilateral action to achieve the goals of his conservative backers.

Any number of regimes around the world might fall under this heading, but an obvious example—on which the American right wing has remained fixated for more than forty years—is Cuba as Fidel Castro's time comes to an inevitable end. Until the Bush administration, the centrist American public looked to a gradual policy of engagement to replace the failed policies of decades of confrontation. Bush took a different tack, dedicating a substantial part of his Latin American policy to serving the desires of the right-wing Cuban American exile community in Florida.

Karl Rove had not forgotten that community's preoccupation with Elian Gonzalez in 2000 or the key role of Bush's Cuban American supporters during the Florida electoral controversy later that year or during Governor Jeb Bush's reelection campaign in 2002. He couldn't: conservatives never cease ideological criticism of Cuba. Even former president Carter's innocuous visit to Cuba in 2002 occasioned an international legal incident in the hands of John Bolton.

As Castro relinquishes control, the Bush administration can be expected to impose secrecy and exert maximum pressure on behalf of the reactionary Cuban American exile community, especially as to its assertion of old property claims. From the presidential election campaign of 2000 through Bush's first months in office before the attacks of 9/11, there were strong indications of what was to come. Bush had staffed his administration with conservative Republicans, who, especially on defense and security issues, had articulated a hardline, unilateralist position.

Their strategic priorities included: missile defense; withdrawal from the ABM Treaty; creation of a high-tech, rapid-reaction military with overwhelming scope and power; and a revitalizing of the US nuclear weapons industry. Their worldview was a combination of a Manichean ideology about pitting good against evil, and a Realist commitment to the construction of such overwhelming capabilities (military, economic, and technological) that no other state or coalition of states would dare to confront the United States.

Shortly after Bush took office, and several months before 9/11, a general argument critical of the Bush plans for missile defense, arguing that the upper-tier, “hit-to-kill” technology was unlikely to be successful; that deployment might well prompt a nuclear arms race, especially with China; and that because of the adverse strategic implications, America would as a result probably be less secure, rather than more secure.

It was suggested that perhaps the administration really did not understand the dynamic of what in international relations theory is called the “security dilemma,” the idea that when one country builds up its military capability to enhance its defense, often an adversary will understand that buildup as an offensive threat and increase its own military capability as a result, thereby igniting a vicious circle of arms racing in which both countries become less secure. Some in the audience thought that was probably right: The Bush people simply did not understand the security dilemma.

When the power capabilities of two states are roughly equal, the security dilemma is likely to have the expected outcome, namely that no one side is benefited; and everyone is likely to lose. But when one state is much stronger than the others, that state might deliberately create a security dilemma between it and its perceived adversaries in order to intimidate and to dominate them. That, he argued, is what the Bush administration was trying to do. After 9/11 but before the invasion of Iraq, analysts like David Hendrickson began to spell out the serious strategic implications of Yan Xuetong's insight.

Writing in World Policy Journal, Hendrickson characterized the Bush Doctrine as a “quest for absolute security. ” Unilateralism and a strategic doctrine of preventive war were the key elements of this futile search. Hendrickson argued that these were “momentous steps,” standing in “direct antagonism to fundamental values in American political tradition,” which threaten “to wreck an international order that has been patiently built up for 50 years, inviting a fundamental de-legitimation of American power.

”  Hendrickson concluded his essay with a quote from Kissinger that sums up the basic flaw in a search for absolute security: “the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others. ” The invasion of Iraq, for the Bush leadership, became the prototype of this search for absolute security: “regime change” by military force to punish any adversary that dared to stand up to American power.

The overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq was intended to show the world that opposition to the Bush grand design was futile. Washington would have its way, through the use of overwhelming military force if necessary, regardless of the opposition of some of its major allies. On the other side of the same coin, Libya later became a model for the Bush administration of the “rogue state” that saw the light, in the face of US intimidation, and agreed to give up its “weapons of mass destruction” and submit to the hegemon.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair played his part in the coalition with the United States by welcoming Libya's Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi into the community of nations, illustrating the point that the Bush Doctrine effort to transform world politics was capable of using both carrots and sticks. But meanwhile, the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued bloodletting in the Israel-Palestine conflict demonstrated that there were limits to what even the most powerful state in the world could do in imposing its will on other nations.

So what strategic lessons does the Bush Doctrine teach? From the investigations together in this project, and informed by the insights of other colleagues like Yan Xuetong and David Hendrickson, it seems that four general propositions are amply illustrated by the efforts of the Bush administration to date. They are: 1. There is no such thing as absolute security-it is simply unattainable for any country, including the United States, the most powerful state the world has ever seen.

The world today is confounded by a unique and complex range of insecurities: military, political, economic, environmental, and public health insecurities that we are only beginning to comprehend. For example, some scientists cogently argue that climate change, all by itself, is the greatest threat to the existence, and specialists on Islam are convinced that if we do not treat the global problems of human security seriously, terrorism will be with us forever. More obviously, the 1997 financial crisis in Asia showed how vulnerable even some of the most highly reputed countries are to the whims of the global market.

3. No individual state, no matter how powerful, can adequately manage this range of insecurities alone. Self-help strategies are not adequate to the task. An effective response to the broad range of threats to national security requires a shared, multilateral response. Obviously, the leaders of every independent state will attempt to advance their own interests as best they can, but the Realist assumption that strategies based on narrow self-interest might be adequate to protect the security of a country are utopian in today's world.

Security, and even survival, requires a search for “win-win” solutions, rather than the playing out of zero-sum games with potential adversaries. 4. The more that the most powerful states seek to achieve absolute security by building up their economic and military power and operating with impunity to advance their perceived “national interests, ” the more insecure the world becomes-including themselves. Several pioneering projects in re-thinking national security provide excellent examples about what must be done.

Jeffrey Record in his essay “Bounding the Global War on Terrorism” concludes that the administration's goals are “politically, fiscally, and militarily unsustainable”; he analyzes the real terrorist threat to the United States and offers pragmatic advice on how to defend against it. The Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, led by Joseph Cirincione, has produced an independent analysis of the immensely controversial issue of weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, complete with a list of key findings and recommendations for the future.

And Mohamed ElBaradei, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has begun the important work of redesigning the nuclear nonproliferation regime based on his service as head of the IAEA, making specific proposals for strengthening the regime. The questions raised by the Bush Doctrine urgently demand answers.


Cantley, Shawn E. Book Review, Black Gold or the Devil's Excrement? Hydrocarbons, Geopolitics and the Law in the Caspian Basin, 3 Eur. -Asia Studies 477 (2002) Clarke, Richard, Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004), pp. 265, 287