TCS Daily

Arrogance and Power

By Dale Franks - January 3, 2003 12:00 AM

The president's National Security Strategy and its new doctrine of preemption have come under heavy fire from critics. The critics tell us that it amounts to little more than carte blanche for the American president to attack anyone he wishes. It is "cowboy" unilateralism whose purpose is to disregard the opinions of the international community when it seems convenient to do so. It is precisely this kind of arrogance, we are told, that causes such distrust and dislike of the United States all around the world.

Such criticisms cannot pass close scrutiny.

The policy of preemption does not give the president a free hand to attack any country he wishes. Instead, it is specifically designed for rogue states that do not respond to normal international diplomacy. Normal states that abide by their treaty obligations and international agreements have nothing to fear from such a policy.

Unfortunately, the modern world contains some states that cynically disregard their treaty obligations, support terrorist organizations, brutally repress their own populations, and do any number of other unpleasant things. These are the states towards which the policy of preemption is aimed. States that disregard the civilized norms of international relations cannot claim that those same norms protect them from attack. To argue otherwise is to grant rogue states license to act with impunity. Preemption puts rogue states on notice that they cannot indefinitely defy civilized standards of international relations.

No system of laws, international or otherwise, can exist without a means to punish those who transgress it. If those states are engaged in actions that threaten the security of the United States or the lives of its people, it is not only the right of the United States to eliminate those threats, but a positive moral duty as well.

Many would argue that diplomacy, rather than force, should be the only legitimate means for bringing recalcitrant dictators to heel. It is difficult to see how this suggestion can be taken seriously, however, when rogue states are defined by their unwillingness to respond to diplomatic pressure. Diplomacy with North Korea over the past decade appears to have accomplished little, despite the existence of the Agreed Framework. At some point, international norms must be enforced, or they are meaningless. If rogue states know that no punishment awaits them for their aggressive and dangerous actions, then maintaining a peaceful international order will become a very difficult task, indeed.

It may, in some sense, be "unilateral" for the U.S. to act preemptively in its own security, but it's difficult to see what the alternative might be. The primary responsibility for American security rests with the government in Washington, D.C., not with those in Bonn, Paris, or London. To argue against such "unilateralism" is to implicitly argue that foreign governments have an equally valid say in what constitutes a proper security policy for the U.S. One suspects, however, that foreign governments are less concerned about threats to the U.S. than the American government is. Moreover, one notices that those governments are not generally keen about American interference in their own security affairs, except to the extent that they desire American assistance in dealing with them.

Even if, say, the French or the Germans were extraordinarily keen to help us, the unpleasant fact is that they would be utterly unable to do so. They have no ability to project military force beyond their own borders in any convincing way. Diplomacy is the only tool they have in their toolbox, which may go a long way towards explaining why they think diplomacy is the only answer when dealing with rogue states. It also explains why brutal dictators don't sit anxiously by the phone, waiting for their ambassadors to report the extent of the government's displeasure in Stockholm or The Hague. They know that there is simply no prospect of a squadron of Swedish missile frigates approaching their shores, or Dutch paratroops raining down on their capital. At present, the United States is the only country in the world with the diplomatic, economic, and military reach to curb rogue states, which is why our displeasure matters in a very real sense, and that of the Italians or Belgians does not. American action will thus always be unilateral, at least in the sense that we are the only ones capable of effective action.

It is not arrogant to point out that a peaceful international order must be enforced, and to recognize that the United States alone has the power to do it. That is merely a clear-eyed appreciation of the correlation of forces. It is not arrogant to refuse to allow U.S. security policy to be held hostage by the wishes of foreign governments. It is, however, arrogant for foreign governments to presume to exercise a veto power on our security policy. Finally, It is not arrogant to demonstrate a willingness to use American power against those who would threaten us. The real arrogance rests with those rogue states who blithely ignore international norms of behavior in the expectation that they will never be called to account for it.

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