a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Imbalance of bluster

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 4th, 2002

As is well known, President Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” in the State of the Union address, leading to concern in some quarters and satisfaction (or at least nuanced understanding) in others. Over at “More Than Zero,” (MTZ) for instance, “Andreas” wrote (01/31/2002):

While Bush’s speech made us all a little nervous, it was intended to make terrorist sponsors nervous. The jangling of European nerves was a side effect. This was a forceful speech intended to show terrorist regimes and dictators that:

a) we won’t necessarily be restrained by a need to please Europe or other parts of the world, and

b) we won’t be restrained by waiting for an open act of aggression on your part.

The point was to increase our threat power. It would not have been effective if it weren’t as jarring as it was.

I replied with a comment the other day, to which “Andreas” replied; have a look, if you like. To clarify my comments there, I’m not saying MTZ approves of bluster, but he does seem to approve of Bush’s “axis of evil” phrase. My read of his comments is that he feels it improves the “threat imbalance” that terrorists and their sponsors enjoy vis-a-vis nation-states with more self-imposed restrictions on their behavior. But while MTZ appears to see “axis of evil” rhetoric as threat enhancement, I see it as one checkers move away from mere bluster. Unless the regimes involve cave in with fright, Bush’s statement only temporarily improves the threat imbalance, and ultimately will confront us with a “put up or shut up” dilemma we didn’t need. At that point we either admit we were blustering, or we’ll “put up.”*

And that would presumably involve starting a war, something international law and opinion quite reasonably frowns on, even when there’s a reasonable case for it. After all, who gets to decide how reasonable the case is? Many in China, Iraq, and any number of other countries no doubt have any number of wars they would be happy to start. The authorized brains in those regimes may think their case is “reasonable” too: Taiwan gets some rocking military equipment, Israel exists for yet another intolerable day. Are we willing to furnish them with a precedent? Are we willing to rely only on our own military strength not just to start wars we believe we have to wage, but also to prevent wars we disapprove of? I’m not; I’m concerned that’s where the “axis of evil” rhetoric is heading us.

Those are not “ironizing” quotes around “axis of evil.” I’m no fan of any of the regimes Bush mentioned, and I’m aware of the danger they — or factions within those regimes — pose to our safety and those of our friends. I disagree with MTZ’s occasionally equating them with Al Qaeda as far as the game theory of it all goes; unlike that group of worthies, these are states with something to lose (even North Korean functionaries have some kind of life: food that isn’t grass, a roof, 100,000 dancer follies, what have you.) I continue to believe it’s better to focus on those who have actually attacked us, to get wars over with as quickly as possible rather than turning them into a new way of life, and, given the choice, to finish one before starting the next. But I’m not blind to the threat these regimes pose.

MTZ comments that he isn’t sure the Bush strategy is a good one, either, but wants the threat imbalance problem addressed. So with apologies to devoted non-militarists, non-interventionists, non-imperialists, and/or peaceniks generally, I’ll suggest that we spell out a doctrine, not a catchphrase — preferably in concert with an alliance built or recentered on the concept. That doctrine might avoid making us the sole arbiter of when to declare the need for and carry out self-defensive pre-emptive strikes. It would at least spell out clearly a sequence of enemy missteps that would lead to such a strike, and a sequence of steps or a timetable that ratchets down the danger. It would also spell out whether this is a militant antiproliferation doctrine, a militant anti-terror-harbor doctrine, or both.

I’d prefer that doctrine to rely as much as possible on existing international law, so that we’re making up the fewest possible new rules, and gain at least some clear advance understanding, even approval — dream with me! — of our position. I’m aware of the limitations this could put on us; but I wish others would similarly acknowledge the problems with unilateral action on our part. Meanwhile, the presence of a well-understood doctrine might begin to address that threat imbalance; we would not be groping for responses to WMD discoveries and the like, but might instead just set the clock ticking on defined courses of action, and let the other side sweat out the confrontation. With all due respect for Dubya’s wartime instincts, diplomacy may not be his long suit: you might get more bad guy “blinks” this way than with the “apes at the water hole” approach. And as Ug once reasoned, in extremis you can always go ahead and beat their brains in after all. (“In extremis” was a widely used Neolithic ape-man phrase.)

Treaties, conventions, and the customs of foreign policy are ultimately made of paper or less; but they still serve as brakes on bad behavior, and that often benefits us, preventing some crises and providing some consensus about how to analyze and respond to others. Building and respecting international systems of law and trade has been a key element of U.S. foreign policy since the nation was founded. The treaties we’ve signed are also ostensibly the supreme law (see Article VI) of our own land, on the same plane as the Constitution itself. One of those is the U.N. Charter, which appears to vest primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in the Security Council, and which limits self-defense to cases of actual armed attack. The Constitution is no suicide pact, it’s true. Yet we owe it to ourselves and to a world ruled by laws, not guns (not even ours), that we work within those laws, and seek to modify them in advance when necessary.


* MTZ notes this is similar to a point made by “Sergeant Stryker” (“walk the walk”) which may well be the case. Also, I suppose there’s a 3rd alternative to “put up or shut up”: “bluster even harder,” but that just postpones choosing between the first two.

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