US: a bigger stick - and no longer speaking softly
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Today, no other country comes close to US air power. It was not lost on Pentagon strategists (or the rest of the world) that US Air Force B-2 stealth bombers were able to take off from their base in Missouri, cruise to targets in Afghanistan and Iraq, deliver their deadly payloads, and fly back home without ever stopping. The US dominates the skies to a far greater degree than Roman legions controlled the ground or the British fleet ruled the seas.Skip to next paragraph
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If war is unavoidable, this could allow the side with the advantage here - the US - to prevail quickly and preclude the destruction and human misery of prolonged combat. Or, it could also present the means if not the rationale for preemptively starting war in order to dominate another country or region, illustrating Prussian Gen. Carl von Clausewitz's contention that "War is ... a continuation of policy by other means."
Of course, having the capability and using it are two different things. With two major exceptions (arguably) - the Spanish-American and Vietnam wars - the US has not ventured beyond its hemisphere to engage in overt unprovoked war. Even then, it used events to suggest it was provoked: the blowing up of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898 - now thought to have been an accident - and the now-discredited 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Today, many critics think the invasion of Iraq also was sold to the world on a false premise: that Saddam Hussein had actual weapons of mass destruction and that he'd given his military commanders the order to use them.
What most worries other nations is that the US now explicitly reserves the right to take preemptive action anywhere. The president's National Security Strategy calls for unquestioned military superiority, and it shifts US doctrine from deterrence and containment to preemptive strikes against potential threats.
In an age of stateless terrorism, moving from containment to preemption makes sense, supporters argue. Strike first before others attack the US heartland or overseas interests. But others see such a policy bringing a more dangerous world. "Its defects range from its dubious legitimacy under international law, to the bad example it sets for other countries eager to justify a preemptive or preventive attack on their neighbors," says Bruce Blair of the Center for Defense Information and a former Air Force missile launch-control officer.
The rest of the world also watches in disquiet as the US tries to widen its military lead with new technology. "Nonlethal" weapons, laser- and satellite-guided ordnance, remote-controlled attack aircraft that can loiter over a battlefield for hours before striking, cruise missiles with high-power microwaves to zap an enemy's electronic gear, and a new generation of small, "bunker busting" nuclear bombs offer the possibility of moving from the cold war's relatively static "mutually assured destruction" to actual warfare.
The US also appears intent on militarizing space. A congressionally mandated commission headed by Secretary Rumsfeld has called for "superior space capabilities ... both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space."
Not surprisingly, Bush's Democratic opponents criticize these changes in US foreign policy. But concern is being voiced from the right as well. "The negative practical consequences of this policy are all too evident," writes Doug Bandow, of the Cato Institute, in The American Conservative. "Ugly foreign governments from Iran to North Korea have an incentive to arm themselves, quickly, with [weapons of mass destruction] to deter a US preventive assault."
The cover of a recent issue of The Economist magazine (published in London) shows a red, white, and blue fist, thumb down. "Greatest danger?" reads the headline. But turn the page upside down, and the letters off the end of the now thumbs-up fist read "Greatest hope?"
"The fashionable source of anxiety in both Europe and Asia is whether America is becoming so different from everywhere else that it is becoming a problem for the world, not a solution," the magazine's editors observe. In any case, they state, "Iraq is the crucible for this debate."
It used to be said, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." Given the US's economic and cultural influence, military might, and declared willingness to strike first at a perceived threat, the first draft of this era's history may show the same to be true of an American empire. Depending on one's point of view, that is either an exalting idea or a frightening one.