Tomgram: Klare, Bush Goes Over to Imperial Defense


Richard Moore

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Tomgram: Klare, Bush Goes Over to Imperial Defense

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In September 2002, Arab League head Amr Mussa warned that an invasion of Iraq 
would "open the gates of Hell" in the Middle East. Four years later, with those 
gates -- at least in Iraq -- open wide enough to drive a tank through, the look 
of the Bush administration is suddenly in rapid flux. (The neocons, having 
ushered in Hell, are being ushered out the door; while the first President 
Bush's "realists" and their followers are heading in.) Given the nominee to 
replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Gates of Hell may soon have a 
new meaning. Right now, despite all the anticipation about future Iraq policy 
changes, the good news that accompanies the nomination of former CIA Director 
(and, as president of Texas A&M, keeper of the Bush family flame) Robert Gates 
has little to do with Iraq and lots to do with Iran.

In these early post-election days, the Iran rhetoric at the White House has, in 
fact, remained at the boiling point. As last week ended, White House spokesman 
Tony Snow labeled Iran and Hezbollah a "global nexus of terrorism." (Paul 
Woodward, editor of the War in Context website, commented: "The administration 
is no longer served by playing to the Christian Right, so its out with religious
Œevil' and in with a much more sophisticated, secular, and no doubt bi-partisan,
"global nexus of terrorism.") Then, on Monday, the President himself, in a press
briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, called for the global "isolation" 
of Iran and essentially rejected an opening of any sort to that country. ("[I]f 
the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, 
and that is for them to verify -- verifiably suspend their enrichment 

None of this sounds like good news; but, despite the rhetoric, the Gates 
appointment certainly lessens the possibility of an air assault on Iranian 
nuclear facilities early next year (as well as any campaign to "decapitate" the 
Iranian regime). This had clearly been one of the (mad) policy options that Dick
Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were entertaining.

Like James A. Baker, co-head of the Iraq Study Group, Gates believes in 
negotiating with Iran. In the summer of 2004, with former Carter National 
Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, he co-chaired a task force sponsored by 
the Council on Foreign Relations that argued for opening a dialogue with Iran. 
Its report, "Iran: Time for a New Approach," contended that the lack of American
engagement with Iran had harmed American interests and advocated direct talks 
with the Iranians. ("Just as the United States has a constructive relationship 
with China [and earlier did so with the Soviet Union] while strongly opposing 
certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should 
approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while 
continuing to contest objectionable policy.")

In addition, Gates -- like Baker one of Daddy Bush's boys -- has clearly been 
brought in to help clean up Sonny's Iraq mess. Being sane and hard-headed, he 
knows perfectly well that stirring up a hornet's nest in neighboring Iran is 
hardly a way to tackle the almost insurmountable Iraqi crisis.

Gates offers another advantage for those who prefer not to go to war again. The 
American high command (despite the fantasies of some administration critics) 
would never refuse a direct order from the commander-in-chief to bomb the gates 
of Hell out of Iran. However, a civilian Secretary of Defense (whose reputation 
is at stake) might. So the replacement of Rumsfeld is also significant in this 

Throw in a new Democratic Congress that, as Juan Cole has written, is less 
likely to grant the necessary funds for such a war (though Time's Tony Karon at 
his Rootless Cosmopolitan website disagrees), and you have the potential for a 
genuine ebbing of tensions in the one area where the rash acts for which the 
Bush administration is by now well known could literally wreck the global 
economy in a matter of days. For this, a small sigh of relief is in order. Now, 
let Michael Klare, author of the ever more relevant book Blood and Oil: The 
Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum, 
explain the larger picture. Tom


The Meaning of Gates
From Imperial Offense to Imperial Defense
By Michael T. Klare

There are many reasons why President George W. Bush might have wanted to replace
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert M. Gates: To distance himself 
from the current military disaster in Iraq, to make the adoption of a new Iraqi 
strategy easier, to prevent further disunity within the military, or to clear 
the path for a revival of Republican fortunes in the 2008 elections. All of 
these may, in fact, have been contributing factors in Gates' appointment; yet, 
on a deeper level, the move can also be read as signaling a momentous shift in 
America's global posture -- from imperial offense to imperial defense.

For the past six years, the top officials in charge of American foreign and 
military policy have known how to play rough-and-tumble offensive football, but 
were simply clueless when it came to defense. However, just as every football 
team must, at some point, surrender possession of the ball and bring in its 
defensive specialists to stop the other team from scoring a touchdown, so the 
President has evidently at long last called for a changing of the guard. Far too
late in the game, he's finally decided to send the defense onto the field for 
Team America. This is Bob Gates' historic mission.

After all the setbacks and spilt blood in Iraq, it's nearly impossible even to 
recall those heady days in late 2001 when President Bush and his acolytes 
announced that we were entering a new epoch of enduring American greatness -- a 
golden era in which the United States would use its overwhelming military might 
to spread its divinely-inspired values to the rest of the world.

This vision of American beliefs carried to the far ends of the earth at the 
point of a sword (or, at least, the modern Cruise and Hellfire-missile-armed 
equivalents thereof) was first concocted in right-wing think-tanks and 
talk-shops like the Project for the New American Century during the second 
Clinton administration. It was then quietly incorporated into the Bush campaign 
of 1999-2000. In perhaps the most evocative, if not yet fully militarized, 
expression of this messianic prospect, then-Governor Bush told an appreciative 
audience at the Citadel on September 23, 1999 that, in rebuilding the U.S. 
military after the supposed neglect of the Clinton years, his goal would be "to 
take advantage of a tremendous opportunity -- given few nations in history -- to
extend the current peace into the far realm of the future. A chance to project 
America's peaceful influence, not just across the world, but across the years."

To achieve such a grandiose vision, as its planners imagined it, required a 
substantial expansion of the military's capacity to "project power" to remote 
areas of the developing world, far from the existing Pentagon infrastructure in 
Europe and the Pacific. "We must be able to project our power over long 
distances, in days or weeks," Bush explained at the Citadel. "Our forces in the 
next century," he added, "must be agile, lethal, readily deployable, and require
a minimum of logistical support." Here, the football analogy was already 
unmistakably present. Surely, the President was describing a swift, no-huddle, 
run-and-pass offense. To captain this offense-oriented outfit, Bush chose Donald
Rumsfeld, a true fellow-believer, who would oversee the "transformation" of the 
U.S. military from a stodgy, ponderous Cold War relic into a fleet, agile, 
"readily deployable" tool capable of sustaining his global crusade.

Then came September 11. In its wake, the President and his Secretary of Defense 
added a new element to their global agenda: the preemptive emasculation of 
hostile states deemed capable of posing a future threat to American dominance. 
This new policy -- quickly dubbed the "Bush Doctrine" -- was first spelled out 
in a June 2002 commencement speech Bush gave at West Point. "The war on terror 
will not be won on the defensive," he exclaimed. "We must take the battle to the
enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

This, of course, required yet another expansion of U.S. military capabilities, 
focusing again on America's capacity for power projection to distant lands. In 
the view of Bush, Vice President Cheney, and his close pal Rumsfeld, as well as 
the neoconservative punditry, it also required a willingness to employ force in 
a muscular and conspicuous manner, so as to intimidate potential rivals into 
submission. "In the world we have entered," Bush declared at West Point, "the 
only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act."

It was this aggressive impulse more than anything else that tipped the balance 
toward war with Iraq. "At the extreme," commented John Ikenberry of Georgetown 
University, these newly introduced notions formed "a neo-imperial vision in 
which the United States arrogates to itself the global role of setting 
standards, determining threats, using force, and meting out justice."

And so began the rush to war with Iraq -- with visions of victory not just in 
Baghdad but subsequently in Tehran, Damascus, and who knows where else dancing 
in the minds of the Rumsfeld-Cheney-Bush backfield, their various offensive 
linemen, and a bevy of overly enthusiastic cheerleaders on the sidelines. A few 
months before the onset of hostilities, the administration adopted a new 
National Security Strategy document enshrining the Bush doctrine as formal U.S. 
policy and indicating a readiness to conduct any number of "preventive" assaults
on potential adversaries. "The publication of the strategy was the signal that 
Iraq would be the first test [of the new doctrine], not the last," a high 
official involved in its drafting told David E. Sanger and Steven E. Weisman of 
the New York Times after the attack on Iraq had commenced."

As we now know, the "agile, lethal, readily deployable" force assembled by 
Donald Rumsfeld in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein did a remarkable job of 
penetrating Iraqi defenses and scoring the touchdown that the elder President 
Bush had passed up in Baghdad twelve years earlier, but has proved wholly 
incapable of defending the capital and vital U.S. interests in Iraq ever since. 
If George Bush goes down in history as a failed president, it will be for this. 
After it became inescapably evident that American forces needed to shift quickly
to a defensive strategy and put in place leadership better suited to manage such
a shift -- a point reached well before the end of 2004 in Iraq -- Bush chose to 
cling to the old strategy as well as the old leadership, and simply go on 
hallucinating about a last-second miracle touchdown that would avert certain 
defeat. It took a while, but the American public finally grasped the insane 
folly of this stance and voted for change on November 7.

Of course, the President -- his approval rating in the latest Newsweek poll at 
31%, a personal low -- was not up for reelection on November 7, or he too would 
be out of a job. Still, having dimly perceived the true nature of America's 
existential predicament, he did the next best thing, and finally began to 
replace his top imperial team with defensive specialists. This is not to suggest
that Gates and his patron, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, are any
less dedicated imperial managers than Cheney and Rumsfeld. Far from it: they are
just as committed to some form of perpetual American global supremacy -- but 
they seem to have some grasp of the actual limits of American power, as Dick 
Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neocon appointees under them never did.

Cheney and Rumsfeld thought that there was endless stretch to imperial 
overstretch and, as a result, managed to push American power (military and 
economic) so hard in the service of their dreams of global dominion that the 
actual imperial might of the United States began to crack and give way under the
strain. Gates is all too aware of the vulnerabilities this opens up -- like a 
football coach whose team has suddenly found itself deep in its own territory. 
That's the moment, of course, when you need to pay closer attention to your 
adversaries; you need to psych out their strategies and tactics; you have to be 
able to play defense and give up some yards when endless blitzes of the other 
team's quarterback prove futile; you have to establish fall-back positions you 
can hold onto. Rumsfeld could never master those skills; Gates, with his long 
experience in the intelligence community, already has. It is for this reason, 
more than any other, that he was chosen at this pivotal moment in American 

It is too early to foresee what particular course Gates and his 
soon-to-be-selected associates will adopt in their effort to refashion American 
strategy in light of current international realities. But any notion of emerging
triumphant from Iraq will now be abandoned, and the search will be on for a 
strategy that would allow the United States to extricate itself from the Iraqi 
morass while retaining its dominant position in the greater Persian Gulf region.
This has become the overarching objective.

Such a withdrawal will require the tacit acquiescence of Iraq's neighbors, 
including Iran and Syria, both of which have a stake in the outcome of the Iraqi
imbroglio and possess an ability to frustrate any American plans that run 
counter to their fundamental interests. Hence, these nations must be consulted 
as part of the process, a move expected to be advocated by the Iraq Study Group 
(of which Baker is co-chair and Gates was, until recently, a member). This, in 
turn, will require that talk of air strikes against Iran or of "regime change" 
in Damascus be muzzled in Washington, at least for the time being.

From a long-term strategic perspective, the most serious task facing the new 
imperial cadre is to rebuild American ground forces after three years of 
relentless combat in Iraq. The lean, agile machine envisioned by Bush and 
Rumsfeld before 2001 was never designed for the sort of brutal urban warfare it 
has been exposed to in Baghdad. ("Why carry heavy armor? It only slows you down"
was the prevailing Pentagon attitude back then.) It will take several hard years
and a great deal of money to restore the Army and Marines to any sort of combat 

Messrs. Gates, Baker, and Associates understand full well that a vision of 
enduring U.S. supremacy will continue to govern American political thinking -- 
and that there will be many tests of American hegemony to come. But more than 
others in and around the White House, they recognize that this is a time for 
adopting a defensive stance if the United States is ever to go on the offensive 

Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire 
College in Amherst, Mass., and author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and 
Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Owl Books).

Copyright 2006 Michael T. Klare
posted November 14, 2006 at 4:16 pm

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