The War in Context

   alternative perspectives on the "war on terrorism" and the middle east conflict

Principle gives way to prerogative
Editorial, The War in Context, June 27, 2002

As the Twin Towers collapsed on September 11th, some observers drew comfort from the thought that what had also been destroyed was any rational argument for the United States to continue spending billions of dollars on the development of national missile defense. Clearly, such a defense system, of whatever sophistication, would have done nothing to protect America against passenger aircraft re-purposed as weapons of mass destruction.

Be that as it may, the Bush administration, then and now, sees no reason for reconsidering its commitment to this Cold War Reagan-era project. Instead, a schizophrenic policy is being advanced which argues that missile defense is still essential even in a world where international terrorists and "rogue states" pose a more immediate threat than the nuclear arsenals of Russia or China. Having already sunk $40 billion into this project and with billions more waiting to be spent, the Pentagon doesn't want to turn away this cash cow, irrespective of its value. By recently announcing that security requirements dictate that there will be a news blackout on the timing and results of future tests of the missile defense system, the White House and Pentagon are now attempting to shut down any further debate on the issue.

When missile defense was first proposed, its opponents argued that if such a system actually worked, it would undermine the basis of nuclear deterrence. The United States would have the power to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against any of its enemies in the knowledge that it could attack with impunity. The guarantee of mutually assured destruction - the basis of nuclear deterrence - depended on the enforcement of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but missile defense would clearly nullify this treaty. In response to the charge that a US invulnerable to nuclear threats would become a superpower free to launch pre-emptive attacks, the Reagan administration argued that missile defense would in fact render the US free from any need to ever use pre-emptive force. A secure United States would by definition be perfectly benign - assuming of course that it was not entertaining imperial ambitions. And lest we forget, back in the '80's the term "empire" was a pejorative epithet reserved for the Soviet Union.

Last year, the US went ahead and announced its withdrawal from the treaty and in what was hailed as a foreign policy coup for Bush, Russia's president Putin raised few objections. While Russia and Europe initially protested against the demise of the ABM treaty, they soon turned mute. By June 13, when the treaty officially expired, many governments had shifted their attention away from strategic misgivings and onto the commercial opportunities that missile defense offered to defense contractors worldwide.

The White House, having thus effectively silenced its foreign critics, and having muted domestic debate by shutting off access to key information on the system's development, has now closed the circle in the argument on deterrence. Deterrence, President Bush says, is an outdated concept. The United States reserves the right to strike its enemies how and when it chooses.

In a single act, the finer principles of international relations - principles that were once regarded as applying to all nations - have been swept away. Principle has been replaced by prerogative. The work of policymakers, scholars and international jurists has become largely redundant as a single answer can now be given to so many questions.

What gives the US the right to launch preemptive attacks on its enemies? "Because we're the United States!"

©2002 Paul Woodward