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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
September / October 2002
Volume 55, Number 5
FAS Home | Download PDF | PIR Archive
Front Page
Behind the Prospect of War with Iraq
Nuclear Security Legislative Update
Fire in the Hole
Non-Lethal Chemical and Biological Weapons

Behind the Prospect of War with Iraq:
The New U.S. National Security Strategy

by Carl Kaysen, John D. Steinbruner, Martin B. Malin

On September 17, 2002, the White House, under cover of a letter from President Bush, issued a thirty-page document entitled "The National Security Strategy of the United States." Its "Overview" states:

The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests. The aim of this strategy is to help make the world not just safer but better. Our goals on the path to progress are clear: political and economic freedom, peaceful relations with other states, and respect for human dignity. . . .

To achieve these goals, the United States will:

  • champion aspirations for human dignity;
  • strengthen alliances to defeat global terrorism and work to prevent attacks against us and our friends;
  • work with others to defuse regional conflicts;
  • prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies, and our friends, with weapons of mass destruction;
  • ignite a new era of global economic growth through free markets and free trade;
  • expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy;
  • develop agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power; and
  • transform America's national security institutions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century.1

These goals are admirable. Many of the means proposed for achieving them - each of which is developed in a separate chapter of the document - have been features of U.S. policy for the past half-century or more.2

New Policies, New Realities

The new National Security Strategy is not, however, merely a continuation of past policies. Two relatively novel features of the contemporary international scene and the United States' place in it correspond to the two most significant new elements in the policy. These deserve more attention than they are currently receiving.

Preponderant U.S. Military Power

First is the United States' overwhelming preponderance of military power over any other nation or any plausible combination of nations that might oppose us. The reach and the striking power of U.S. forces far outmatch those of any others. The United States can today strike with speed and accuracy that was unheard of only a decade ago. A crude indicator of U.S. dominance: the U.S. defense budget is today larger than the combined defense expenditures of the next twenty-five largest militaries.3

Because of this condition of U.S. superiority, two questions will determine in large degree the character of the international order in the coming decades: In what manner will the United States use its military force? And for what purposes? On the question of manner, the central issue is whether U.S. force deployments will be attempted in accordance with international law and with authorization from the UN Security Council, or in defiance of legitimate international objection and in violation of legal procedure. On the question of purpose, the issue will turn on whether military force is used to serve broad national and international concerns, or to advance a parochial interest in maintaining U.S. global dominance regardless of the consequences for others.

The National Security Strategy document does not say explicitly that it is the policy of the United States to do whatever is necessary to sustain its global dominance. What it does say, in the final section on transforming American national security institutions, is that the United States intends to build and maintain its defenses "beyond challenge." The president had previously set this indefinite and operationally ambiguous standard in an address to the graduating class of West Point in June 2002 when he declared: "America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge."4 The United States will retain, as it has in the past, the capability to deter threats to its vital interests and to defeat an adversary should deterrence fail. But a new criterion has been added. It is that the U.S. military be "strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States."5

The concept of fielding a military force so dominating that it prevents adversaries from contemplating resistance raises troubling questions. Is it justified on legitimate grounds of self-defense? Russian and Chinese officials have asked this question in response to U.S. plans for deploying a national missile defense system and aspirations for placing strike weapons in space. China has asked repeatedly that the United States negotiate at the UN Conference on Disarmament at Geneva new rules to prevent the competitive and unrestrained deployment of weapons in space. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, China was joined in its request by Russia. The United States, seeking a standard of dominance that is beyond challenge, has refused to consider the Chinese and Russian proposal for negotiated restraints.

The concept of building weapons systems that are so advanced that they cause opponents to throw up their hands and forgo defiance should also be questioned on grounds of effectiveness. No potential adversary hopes to match U.S. military might head on, in symmetrical fashion. Rather, those who would harm the United States seek cheap and easy ways of exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities. Those points of leverage grow more numerous as the United States labors to extend its military superiority abroad. And the motivation of U.S. enemies to act grows with their resentment of perceived intimidation. By aspiring to a standard of dominance that would dissuade others from attempting a direct military challenge, the United States may in fact stimulate adversaries to work ever harder to exploit any number of vulnerabilities.

Weapons of Mass Destruction and Terrorism

A second novel feature of the international environment is the development of international networks of terrorists with a demonstrated willingness to undertake violence on a massive scale. These networks flourish within and between states whose political agendas overlap with those of the terrorists, and in countries where there is no authority capable of preventing terrorist groups from using the territories as bases, staging areas, and refuges. A grave and valid concern of the new National Security Strategy is that a terrorist group will acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons and wreak catastrophic harm.

The weapons themselves are not new (though the development of new and more deadly biological weapons is particularly worrisome). Almost as soon as they were developed, the United States recognized the dangers inherent in the existence of nuclear weapons and participated in international efforts to limit their possession. Political and military leaders have shared the concerns of scientists and scholars that nuclear weapons are not simply more efficient explosives but rather a threat of an entirely different magnitude. Their dangers to civilians had to be weighed heavily in the reckoning of their usability. Similarly, biological and chemical weapons have been recognized as presenting special dangers, and international efforts to control their possession and forbid their use by law embodied in treaties had the support of the United States.

The corresponding policy in the new National Security Strategy is what the document calls "preemption" - using force in anticipation of a danger to prevent hostile states from acquiring weapons of mass destruction or harboring terrorists. The United States has been preparing in recent months to implement this policy against Iraq. In this particular case, "preemption," as it is commonly understood, is a mischaracterization, since that term usually is taken to mean striking the first blow when war appears to be imminent and unavoidable. What the United States is proposing is more properly characterized as "preventive war," that is, a war of choice to prevent the emergence of a threat further in the future. U.S. military advisors have contemplated preventive war before, notably against the Soviet Union at various points during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations. But such thinking was consistently rejected at the political level on both moral and strategic grounds.6 Today, by contrast, it is our declared policy to maintain the capability to wage preventive war against those who may threaten us with weapons of mass destruction.

Law vs. Force

An additional and striking novelty of the National Security Strategy document is what it omits. The international rule of law as an overarching goal of policy is nowhere mentioned. Neither is the Charter of the United Nations, a treaty that is largely of the United States' own making and to which the United States is bound. The United Nations itself receives only a few perfunctory mentions: the most substantive one is in the penultimate paragraph of the president's introductory letter, where it is listed with the OAS, the WTO, and NATO as examples of multilateral institutions that can "multiply the strength of freedom-loving nations." There is an additional mention of the United Nations in the chapter on strengthening alliances to defeat global terrorism, where it is mentioned as an example of international organizations "we will continue to work with" in rebuilding Afghanistan.

The aim of the UN Charter was to substitute law and diplomacy for force as the primary regulators of relations among nations. The primacy of law over force has been a major thread in American foreign policy since the end of World War II. From the United Nations to the World Trade Organization, the United States has led in the creation of international organizations that extend the reach of law, and seek to constrain the powerful as well as to give the weak a voice. It has all but disappeared from the fabric of national security that the administration now presents.

Indeed, the Bush administration has conducted an assault on major elements of the international legal framework that has been developed to regulate security policies and force deployments. In addition to abrogating rather than renegotiating the ABM treaty, it has forced termination of efforts to negotiate a compliance protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. It has repeatedly denigrated and has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, despite international consensus that a ban on nuclear testing is necessary to preserve the Nonproliferation Treaty. Senior officials have recently questioned the security assurances endorsed by all previous administrations in support of the latter treaty.

The National Security Strategy departs sharply from previous U.S. practices, and in so doing can be compared to NSC 68, the once classified national security policy statement promulgated by President Truman in 1950. Released in the wake of the North Korean attack on South Korea (though drafted earlier), that document provided a blueprint for the conduct of the Cold War and initiated a vast U.S. military buildup, especially of nuclear weapons. The Bush administration's National Security Strategy provides a blueprint for a perpetual series of hot wars and preventive strikes, initiated whenever it is determined that another state is accumulating threatening weapons or harboring terrorists. Is the administration's apparent confidence in the utility of military force and our capacity to use it without unnecessarily provoking "asymmetric" retaliation, from terrorists and hostile states, justified? And has the administration adequately assessed the potential indirect costs of the strategy, in the form of alienation and even isolation from the rest of the world?

If one could directly ask all citizens of the United States to identify their core political values, freedom would probably be the most frequently mentioned word. Certainly those who seek to represent the American electorate regularly evoke it. Images of enslavement run deep in the national consciousness. The more thoughtful answers, however, and the ones best informed about historical traditions would cite the rule of law. Government by consensually formulated law is the defining feature of American democracy, and as a practical matter the threat to freedom has much more to do with the possible defects in the internal rule of law than with the actions of any external aggressor. Although they might not volunteer that latter thought, a solid majority of Americans would probably acknowledge it.

Curiously, however, and ominously, one cannot be as confident of the answer if the question is posed about political values in international relations. There is a substantial strand of opinion that believes the international order to be fundamentally anarchic and concludes that freedom and other core interests can be protected only by the exercise of military power. That has long been a minority view, but it is an intense minority with disproportionate influence that adheres to it. In the wake of last year's terrorist attacks that view has acquired ascendancy in American policy. Most of the implications are yet to unfold, but the possibilities are quite apparent. The traditional balance between military preparation and international legal restraint has already been sharply shifted by repudiating a number of treaties that the United States itself originally sponsored. The most recent statement of policy suggests that the United States reserves the right to initiate war for reasons of its own choosing.

Based on the recent U.S. election returns, some would argue that this policy appeals to more voters than it dismays. Further, the 15-0 vote in the UN Security Council for the final U.S.-U.K. draft of the resolution on Iraq's obligations to end its program for acquiring nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons - though it does not provide, as the United States had sought, automatic authorization for the use of force if Iraq is found to be uncooperative - arguably reflects the weight of U.S. power. The United States appears to be the beneficiary of the occasional if commonly fleeting response to the amassing and exercise of power in the international arena, that of jumping on the bandwagon of the most powerful.

In a longer-term perspective, however, can the pursuit of ever more intimidating military forces, their use in preventive wars, and the neglect of international law and cooperation be the path toward our goals of a more democratic and open world of governments more responsive to their citizens and more concerned to promote their prosperity and liberty?

Before implementing the new National Security Strategy by going to war with Iraq, a clear accounting of the costs, consequences, and alternatives to that action is urgently needed.


  1. This article is reprinted with permission by the American Academy of Science, excerpted from "War with Iraq: Cost, Consequences and Alternatives."
  2. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, pp. 1-2,
  3. Christopher Hellman, "Last of the Big Time Spenders: U.S. Military Budget Still the World's Largest, and Growing," Center for Defense Information (4 February 2002).
  5. The National Security Strategy of the United States, 30.
  6. Marc Trachtenberg, "A 'Wasting Asset': American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954," in Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 100-152.