Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2009, pages 28-29

Two Views

America’s Policy of Pre-Emptive War

  • President Barack Obama in a televised address to the Iranian people on the first day of Norooz, the Persian New Year, March 19, 2009 (AFP photo/Ho/The White House).

Obama Should Rescind the Bush Doctrine

By Paul Findley

IN THE WAKE of 9/11, President George W. Bush issued a new doctrine in U.S. security policy. Its main elements: The U.S. government assumes the responsibility for world policing and, accordingly, will maintain military budgets, forces and international bases sufficient to the task. It will also ignore the traditional sovereignty of nation states and confront threats to U.S. security with force wherever they are deemed to exist.

This radical doctrine was announced by the State Department a year after 9/11. It received little notice in major media.

At the president’s request, a panicky Congress, swept along by the public’s passion for a decisive military response to 9/11, endowed him with unprecedented powers, the authority to order pre-emptive acts of war, violate fundamental principles of international law, and ignore cherished constitutional guarantees.

This was an about-face from legislation enacted in the post-Vietnam period when, as a Republican U.S. representative, I helped override President Richard Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Resolution. My colleagues and I hoped it would make presidential wars, like the Vietnam conflict, less likely in the future.

In seeking support for the resolution, I often quoted Abraham Lincoln’s warning, issued in 1848 during his term as a U.S. representative, that “no one man should hold the power” to make war. In a letter explaining his position, Lincoln warned: “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary....Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power.”

In supporting Barack Obama for president, I had high hopes that he would quickly and clearly rescind this radical doctrine and end the wars that Bush launched in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Bush’s ill-conceived international military assault called the War on Terrorism. Late in his presidency, U.S. acts of war widened to northern Pakistan.

Despite the towering economic challenge Obama faces, terminating these conflicts deserves highest priority. At high cost, they tarnish the good name of America worldwide and, still worse, squander precious lives, not just money. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, Obama must overcome the mindset of the powerful U.S. military-industrial complex that has immense influence on Capitol Hill, is committed to the broad use of acts of war, and traditionally resists withdrawal from any territory it occupies.

Over many years, these nations have experienced the indignity and violence of foreign occupation by imperial Western powers. They have reason to be troubled by recent statements and actions by the Obama administration that suggest that U.S. acts of war will continue indefinitely on their soil. We should have learned long ago that the war measures of occupying forces are almost always counterproductive. They promote terrorism instead of diminishing it. The best antidote to terrorism is justice.

It is high time for President Obama to “turn the page” on the Bush doctrine. He should clearly rescind it and immediately limit our presence in these countries to a non-combat role that is supportive of peaceful endeavors by local leaders. To that end, his best first step is to order an immediate end to all U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. 

Paul Findley, a Member of Congress from 1961 to 1983, resides in Jacksonville, IL. He is the author of five books, all available from the AET Book Club, the most recent being Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam.

Happy New Year, Iran

By John V. Whitbeck

On the occasion of the Persian New Year, President Obama videotaped a personal statement to the Iranian people that is being portrayed in the Western media as a significant change, in both tone and substance, in American policy and an effort to reach out to Iran. Reading the principal substantive portion cited below, however, one must have serious doubts that it will be viewed in this light by many Iranians.

“My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties...This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect. You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right—but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.”

One may well agree that improving relations between the two countries “will not be advanced by threats,” but who has been threatening whom? Has Iran been threatening a preventive (i.e., unprovoked and aggressive) attack on the United States? Has Iran been insisting that military action remains on the table if the United States does not bow to Iranian demands?

One may also agree that no country’s “rightful place in the community of nations” should be reached “through terror or arms.” Yet it is the United States that brought shock and awe (the American marketing term for terror when unleashed by the United States) to the region six years ago, and it is the United States that spends more on arms than the rest of the world combined. One may also agree that the “true greatness” of a country is demonstrated through “peaceful actions.” Iran has not invaded another country in more than two centuries. The same can scarcely be said of the United States.

One may, finally, agree that “greatness is not the capacity to destroy.” America has, most recently, destroyed Iraq and applauded the destruction of Gaza, and, for decades, it has possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy life on Earth many times over. Its capacity and proclivity for destruction shape its unique “place in the community of nations.”

This peculiar effort to reach out to Iranians, which any rational Iranian who actually heard or read the words could be expected to view as condescending and insulting, is logically consistent with the line in Obama’s inaugural address in which he offered an outstretched hand to unspecified Muslims (subsequently identified as Iranians) if they would unclench their fist. Who has been brandishing a clenched fist at whom?

It is entirely possible that Obama has, in his own eyes, been trying to reach out to Muslims in general and Iranians in particular (except, of course, in respect to any matter relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). However, the words and concepts used in his efforts continue to reflect the blind self-righteousness and myopic obliviousness to reality and the way others might perceive America, the world and their own place in it so characteristic of his predecessor. This is troubling, because the window of opportunity to build a better relationship between the West and the Muslim world and to prevent yet another unnecessary and potentially even more catastrophic war in the greater Middle East may not be open for long.

Particularly because Obama is a man of intelligence, a more cynical and sinister interpretation of this public show of reaching out must also be considered. After the Iraq debacle, further wars of aggression are a hard sell. If military action (Israeli, American or combined) against Iran really does remain on the table (and Obama, who could have taken it off the table, has not chosen to do so), it will be essential to persuade American and Western peoples that the United States has gone the extra mile toward reaching out for a peaceful resolution of its dispute with Iran—and been irrationally repulsed, thereby conclusively demonstrating Iran’s evil intentions and justifying military action against it.

In this scenario, the videotaped statement might be explained by the fact that it is actually addressed to the American people and other Western interests (who would be unlikely to find anything jarring in it) rather than the Iranian people. Dennis Ross, recently named as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, is publicly on the record as favoring a brief but visibly intensified diplomatic effort to persuade Iran to bow to Israeli/American demands—which would, inevitably and necessarily, be unsuccessful—before proceeding on to the attack on Iran that he deems essential to protect Israel’s security interests.

If Ross recommended that Obama celebrate the Persian New Year in this peculiar manner (or even wrote the statement read by the president), the cynical and sinister view may, unfortunately, be the more realistic one. 

John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer, is author of The World According to Whitbeck (available from the AET Book Club). This op-ed first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

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