The Resort To Force

The Bush administration’s elevation of force as a principle above all else has driven up the levels of terrorism, of violence, and of danger to our long-term survival.

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(Note: This piece is a shortened and slightly adapted version of the afterword to Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance, which has just been released in paperback.)

As Colin Powell explained the National Security Strategy (NSS) of September 2002 to a hostile audience at the World Economic Forum, Washington has a “sovereign right to use force to defend ourselves” from nations that possess WMD and cooperate with terrorists, the official pretexts for invading Iraq. The collapse of the pretexts is well known, but there has been insufficient attention to its most important consequence: the NSS was effectively revised to lower the bars to aggression. The need to establish ties to terror was quietly dropped. More significant, Bush and colleagues declared the right to resort to force even if a country does not have WMD or even programs to develop them. It is sufficient that it have the “intent and ability”‘ to do so. Just about every country has the ability, and intent is in the eye of the beholder. The official doctrine, then, is that anyone is subject to overwhelming attack. Colin Powell carried the revision even a step further. The president was right to attack Iraq because Saddam not only had “intent and capability” but had “actually used such horrible weapons against his enemies in Iran and against his own people” — with continuing support from Powell and his associates, he failed to add, following the usual convention. Condoleezza Rice gave a similar version. With such reasoning as this, who is exempt from attack? Small wonder that, as one Reuters report put it, “if Iraqis ever see Saddam Hussein in the dock, they want his former American allies shackled beside him.”

In the desperate flailing to contrive justifications as one pretext after another collapsed, the obvious reason for the invasion was conspicuously evaded by the administration and commentators: to establish the first secure military bases in a client state right at the heart of the world’s major energy resources, understood since World War II to be a “stupendous source of strategic power” and expected to become even more important in the future. There should have been little surprise at revelations that the administration intended to attack Iraq before 9-11, and downgraded the “war on terror” in favor of this objective. In internal discussion, evasion is unnecessary. Long before they took office, the private club of reactionary statists had recognized that “the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” With all the vacillations of policy since the current incumbents first took office in 1981, one guiding principle remains stable: the Iraqi people must not rule Iraq.

The 2002 National Security Strategy, and its implementation in Iraq, are widely regarded as a watershed in international affairs. “The new approach is revolutionary,” Henry Kissinger wrote, approving of the doctrine but with tactical reservations and a crucial qualification: it cannot be “a universal principle available to every nation.” The right of aggression is to be reserved for the US and perhaps its chosen clients. We must reject the most elementary of moral truisms, the principle of universality — a stand usually concealed in professions of virtuous intent and tortured legalisms.

Arthur Schlesinger agreed that the doctrine and implementation were “revolutionary,” but from a quite different standpoint. As the first bombs fell on Baghdad, he recalled FDR’s words following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “a date which will live in infamy.” Now it is Americans who live in infamy, he wrote, as their government adopts the policies of imperial Japan. He added that George Bush had converted a “global wave of sympathy” for the US into a “global wave of hatred of American arrogance and militarism.” A year later, “discontent with America and its policies had intensified rather than diminished.” Even in Britain support for the war had declined by a third.

As predicted, the war increased the threat of terror. Middle East expert Fawaz Gerges found it “simply unbelievable how the war has revived the appeal of a global jihadi Islam that was in real decline after 9-11.” Recruitment for the Al Qaeda networks increased, while Iraq itself became a “terrorist haven” for the first time. Suicide attacks for the year 2003 reached the highest level in modern times; Iraq suffered its first since the thirteenth century. Substantial specialist opinion concluded that the war also led to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

As the anniversary of the invasion approached, New York’s Grand Central Station was patrolled by police with submachine guns, a reaction to the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed 200 people in Europe’s worst terrorist crime. A few days later, the Spanish electorate voted out the government that had gone to war despite overwhelming popular opposition. Spaniards were condemned for appeasing terrorism by voting for withdrawing troops from Iraq in the absence of UN authorization — that is, for taking a stand rather like that of 70 percent of Americans, who called for the UN to take the leading role in Iraq.

Bush assured Americans that “The world is safer today because, in Iraq, our coalition ended a regime that cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction.” The president’s handlers know that every word is false, but they also know that lies can become Truth, if repeated insistently enough.

There is broad agreement among specialists on how to reduce the threat of terror — keeping here to the subcategory that is doctrinally acceptable, their terror against us — and also on how to incite terrorist atrocities, which may become truly horrendous. The consensus is well articulated by Jason Burke in his study of the Al Qaeda phenomenon, the most detailed and informed investigation of this loose array of radical Islamists for whom bin Laden is hardly more than a symbol (a more dangerous one after he is killed, perhaps, becoming a martyr who inspires others to join his cause). The role of Washington’s current incumbents, in their Reaganite phase, in creating the radical Islamist networks is well known. Less familiar is their tolerance of Pakistan’s slide toward radical Islamist extremism and its development of nuclear weapons.

As Burke reviews, Clinton’s 1998 bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan created bin Laden as a symbol, forged close relations between him and the Taliban, and led to a sharp increase in support, recruitment, and financing for Al Qaeda, which until then was virtually unknown. The next major contribution to the growth of Al Qaeda and the prominence of bin Laden was Bush’s bombing of Afghanistan following September 11, undertaken without credible pretext as later quietly conceded. As a result, bin Laden’s message “spread among tens of millions of people, particularly the young and angry, around the world,” Burke writes, reviewing the increase in global terror and the creation of “a whole new cadre of terrorists” enlisted in what they see as a “cosmic struggle between good and evil,” a vision shared by bin Laden and Bush. As noted, the invasion of Iraq had the same effect.

Citing many examples, Burke concludes that “Every use of force is another small victory for bin Laden,” who “is winning,” whether he lives or dies. Burke’s assessment is widely shared by many analysts, including former heads of Israeli military intelligence and the General Security Services.

There is also a broad consensus on what the proper reaction to terrorism should be. It is two-pronged: directed at the terrorists themselves and at the reservoir of potential support. The appropriate response to terrorist crimes is police work, which has been successful worldwide. More important is the broad constituency the terrorists — who see themselves as a vanguard — seek to mobilize, including many who hate and fear them but nevertheless see them as fighting for a just cause. We can help the vanguard mobilize this reservoir of support by violence, or can address the “myriad grievances,” many legitimate, that are “the root causes of modern Islamic militancy.” That can significantly reduce the threat of terror, and should be undertaken independently of this goal.

Violence can succeed, as Americans know well from the conquest of the national territory. But at terrible cost. It can also provoke violence in response, and often does. Inciting terror is not the only illustration. Others are even more hazardous.

In February 2004, Russia carried out its largest military exercises in two decades, prominently exhibiting advanced WMD. Russian generals and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that they were responding to Washington’s plans “to make nuclear weapons an instrument of solving military tasks,” including its development of new low-yield nuclear weapons, “an extremely dangerous tendency that is undermining global and regional stability,… lowering the threshold for actual use.” Strategic analyst Bruce Blair writes that Russia is well aware that the new “bunker busters” are designed to target the “high-level nuclear command bunkers” that control its nuclear arsenal. Ivanov and Russian generals report that in response to US escalation they are deploying “the most advanced state-of-the-art missile in the world,” perhaps next to impossible to destroy, something that “would be very alarming to the Pentagon,” says former Assistant Defense Secretary Phil Coyle. US analysts suspect that Russia may also be duplicating US development of a hypersonic cruise vehicle that can re-enter the atmosphere from space and launch devastating attacks without warning, part of US plans to reduce reliance on overseas bases or negotiated access to air routes.

US analysts estimate that Russian military expenditures have tripled during the Bush-Putin years, in large measure a predicted reaction to the Bush administration’s militancy and aggressiveness. Putin and Ivanov cited the Bush doctrine of “preemptive strike”– the “revolutionary” new doctrine of the National Security Strategy — but also “added a key detail, saying that military force can be used if there is an attempt to limit Russia’s access to regions that are essential to its survival,” thus adapting for Russia the Clinton doctrine that the US is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.” The world “is a much more insecure place” now that Russia has decided to follow the US lead, said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, adding that other countries presumably “will follow suit.”

In the past, Russian automated response systems have come within a few minutes of launching a nuclear strike, barely aborted by human intervention. By now the systems have deteriorated. US systems, which are much more reliable, are nevertheless extremely hazardous. They allow three minutes for human judgment after computers warn of a missile attack, as they frequently do. The Pentagon has also found serious flaws in its computer security systems that might allow terrorist hackers to seize control and simulate a launch — “an accident waiting to happen,” Bruce Blair writes. The dangers are being consciously escalated by the threat and use of violence.

Concern is not eased by the recent discovery that US presidents have been “systematically misinformed” about the effects of nuclear war. The level of destruction has been “severely underestimated” because of lack of systematic oversight of the “insulated bureaucracies” that provide analyses of “limited and ‘winnable’ nuclear war”; the resulting “institutional myopia can be catastrophic,” far more so than the manipulation of intelligence on Iraq.

The Bush administration slated the initial deployment of a missile defense system for summer 2004, a move criticized as “completely political,” employing untested technology at great expense. A more appropriate criticism is that the system might seem workable; in the logic of nuclear war, what counts is perception. Both US planners and potential targets regard missile defense as a first-strike weapon, intended to provide more freedom for aggression, including nuclear attack. And they know how the US responded to Russia’s deployment of a very limited ABM system in 1968: by targeting the system with nuclear weapons to ensure that it would be instantly overwhelmed. Analysts warn that current US plans will also provoke a Chinese reaction. History and the logic of deterrence “remind us that missile defense systems are potent drivers of offensive nuclear planning,” and the Bush initiative will again raise the threat to Americans and to the world.

China’s reaction may set off a ripple effect through India, Pakistan, and beyond. In West Asia, Washington is increasing the threat posed by Israel’s nuclear weapons and other WMD by providing Israel with more than one hundred of its most advanced jet bombers, accompanied by prominent announcements that the bombers can reach Iran and return and are an advanced version of the US planes Israel used to destroy an Iraqi reactor in 1981. The Israeli press adds that the US is providing the Israeli air force with “‘special’ weaponry.” There can be little doubt that Iranian and other intelligence services are watching closely and perhaps giving a worst-case analysis: that these may be nuclear weapons. The leaks and dispatch of the aircraft may be intended to rattle the Iranian leadership, perhaps to provoke some action that can be used as a pretext for an attack.

Immediately after the National Security Strategy was announced in September 2002, the US moved to terminate negotiations on an enforceable bioweapons treaty and to block international efforts to ban biowarfare and the militarization of space. A year later, at the UN General Assembly, the US voted alone against implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and alone with its new ally India against steps toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. The US voted alone against “observance of environmental norms” in disarmament and arms control agreements and alone with Israel and Micronesia against steps to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East — the pretext for invading Iraq. A resolution to prevent militarization of space passed 174 to 0, with four abstentions: US, Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. As discussed earlier, a negative US vote or abstention amounts to a double veto: the resolution is blocked and is eliminated from reporting and history.

Bush planners know as well as others that the resort to force increases the threat of terror, and that their militaristic and aggressive posture and actions provoke reactions that increase the risk of catastrophe. They do not desire these outcomes, but assign them low priority in comparison to the international and domestic agendas they make little attempt to conceal.

Copyright 2004 Aviva Chomsky, Diane Chomsky and Harry Chomsky

[Reader’s Note: The footnotes to the well-sourced “Afterword” to the paperback edition of Hegemony or Survival have been removed from this version. An expanded version of the afterword is also available as part of an expanded e-book version of Hegemony or Survival.]

Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC

Noam Chomsky is a Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. In addition to Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), he is the author of numerous books on linguistics and on U.S. foreign policy.

This piece first appeared at, a web log of The Nation Institute.


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