Driving the need to produce evidence, however fantastic or fabricated, of a possible threat to the US was a radical new twist on war-making 101. In the days after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that even a 1 percent chance of an attack on the United States, especially involving weapons of mass destruction, must be dealt with as if it were a certainty. Journalist Ron Suskind dubbed it "the one percent doctrine." It may have been the rashest formula for "preventive" or "aggressive" war offered in the modern era.
Of course, the fact that Saddam's Iraq had no nuclear program, no biological or chemical weapons, no functioning drones, and no way of reaching the East Coast of the United States proved strike three for critics of the Bush administration. Missed was what was truly new in the invasion: not just the 1 percent doctrine itself, but the idea—a first on planet Earth—of going to war over the possibility that another country might be in possession of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.
Until then, such a concept hadn't been in the strategic vocabulary. Quite the opposite: in the Cold War years, nuclear weapons were thought of as "deterrence" or, in the case of the two massively nuclear-armed superpowers of that era, "mutually assured destruction" (with its fabulously grim acronym MAD). Those weapons, that is, were considered guarantors, however counterintuitively, against an outbreak of war. Their possession was a kind of grisly assurance that your opponent wouldn't attack you, lest you both be destroyed.
In that spirit, between the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the Iraqi invasion of March 2003, seven countries—the Soviet Union, England, France, China, Israel (though its large nuclear arsenal remains unacknowledged), India, and Pakistan—all went nuclear without anybody suggesting that they be attacked simply for possessing such weapons. An eighth country—white-ruled South Africa—actually assembled six nuclear weapons, and later became the only country to de-nuclearize itself. South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, and Brazil all had incipient nuclear programs, though none produced weapons. Japan is today considered to be at a point the Iranians have not yet reached: "breakout capacity," or the ability to build a nuclear weapon relatively quickly if a decision to do so were made. In 2006, North Korea set off its first nuclear test and, within years, had become the ninth active nuclear power.
In other words, in 2003, the idea that the possession of nuclear weapons or simply of an "active" nuclear program that might one day produce such weapons was a casus belli represented something new. And when it became clear that Saddam had no nuclear program, no weapons of mass destruction at all, that explanation for American war-making, for what Jonathan Schell once dubbed "disarmament wars"—so visibly fraudulent—seemed to disappear into the dustbin of history.
War and the Presidential "I"
Until now, that is.
Whether he meant to or not, in his latest version of Iran war policy President Obama has built on the Bush precedent. His represents, however, an even more extreme version, which should perhaps be labeled the 0 percent Doctrine. In holding off an Israeli strike that may itself be nothing but a bluff, he has defined a future Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon as a new form of aggression against the United States. We would, as the president explained to Jeffrey Goldberg, be committing our military power against Iran not to prevent an attack on the US itself, but a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
And by the way, note that he didn't say, "We don't bluff." His formulation was: "I don't bluff." And that "I" should not be ignored. The Bush administration promoted a cult of presidential power, of (as they called it at the time) a "unitary executive." No one in the White House uses such a term these days, any more than they use the term "Global War on Terror," but if both terms have disappeared, the phenomena they named have only intensified.
The Global War on Terror, with its burgeoning secret military, the elite special operations forces, and its growing drone air force, controlled in part by the CIA, should be thought of as the president's private war. In addition, as legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote recently, when it comes to drone assassinations (or "targeted killings" as they are now more politely known), Attorney General Eric Holder has just claimed for the president the "authority to kill any American if he unilaterally determines them to be a threat to the nation." In doing so, added Turley, "Obama has replaced the constitutional protections afforded to citizens with a 'trust me' pledge." With terror in its crosshairs, war, in other words, is increasingly becoming the president's private preserve and strikes on the enemy, however defined, a matter of his own private judgment.
It is no longer a matter of "we," but of a presidential "I" when it comes to unleashing attacks in what has become a global free fire zone for those drones and special ops forces. War, in other words, is increasingly lodged in the Oval Office and a commander-in-chief executive. As the Libyan intervention suggested, like the American people, Congress is, at best, an afterthought—even though this Congress would rubber-stamp a presidential act of war against Iran without a second thought.
The irony is that the president has propounded a war-making policy of unprecedented extremity at a moment when there is no evidence that the Iranians are pursuing a bomb—not yet at least. The "supreme leader" of their theocratic state has termed the possession of nuclear weapons "a grave sin" and US national intelligence estimates have repeatedly concluded that the Iranians are not, in fact, moving to build nuclear weapons. If, however—and it's a giant if—Iran actually got the bomb, if a 10th country joined the nuclear club (with others to follow), it would be bad news, and the world would be a worse place for it, but not necessarily that greatly changed.
What could change the world in a radical way, however, is the 0 percent doctrine—and the trend more generally to make war the personal prerogative of an American president, while ceding to the US military what was once the province and power of diplomacy.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.