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New Left Review 69, May-June 2011

andrew bacevich


President Kennedy was categorical on the subject. Speaking at American University in Washington, dc on June 10, 1963, he put it this way: ‘The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.’ Twenty years later, President Reagan concurred. ‘The defence policy of the United States’, he told Americans on March 23, 1983, ‘is based on a simple premise: the United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor.’ Given such authoritative (and bipartisan) assurances, how then can we explain the George W. Bush administration’s promulgation of a doctrine of preventive war at the start of the 21st century? The simple answer, of course, is that 9/11 changed everything. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage articulated a feeling that was widespread among Americans after the events of September 11: ‘History starts today.’ [1] James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, New York 2004. All bets were off. So too were the gloves. Deterrence and defence no longer sufficed. As President Bush himself put it, ‘the doctrine of containment just doesn’t hold water.’ Self-protection was not good enough. In Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s typically crisp formulation, ‘the best, and in some cases, the only defence, is a good offence.’ [2] Quoted in Michael Dobbs, ‘For Wolfowitz, a Vision May Be Realized’, Washington Post, 7 April 2003; Donald Rumsfeld, ‘Speech at the National Defense University’, 31 January 2002. This was one of those cases. In order to prevent another 9/11—or something even more nightmarish—the United States had no choice but to go permanently on the offensive. With the Bush Doctrine, Washington granted itself the authority to do just that. End of story.

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Andrew Bacevich, ‘Tailors to the Emperor’, NLR 69: £3

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