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Frontier Justice from Teddy Roosevelt to GW Bush

“Warlike intervention by civilized powers would contribute directly to the peace of the world.”

This type of bellicose formulation of U.S. foreign policy could have easily come from any member of Bush’s foreign policy team. One thinks first of the hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, or Richard Perle. But it could just as easily have been a statement by the president himself or by the moderate conservatives like Colin Powell or Richard Armitage when referring to U.S. plans to wage war on Iraq.

This “war for peace” doctrine, however, came from the U.S. president whom neoconservatives honor as America’s model of an “internationalist” president: Teddy Roosevelt–the hero who led the famous charge up “San Juan Hill” in Cuba and championed the Spanish-American War of 1898, which made the U.S. an imperial power with territorial possessions around the world. Here was a man who was unapologetic about power and its uses. “All the great masterful races have been fighting races,” boasted Roosevelt, “And no triumph of peace is quite so great as the triumphs of war.”

Any attempt to understand the ideology and the type of frontier justice that distinguishes U.S. foreign policy today will fall short if it does not keep in mind the heroes of the ideologues and enforcers of the Bush foreign policy. Beginning in the 1970s, neoconservative groups, like the Committee on the Present Danger, started criticizing mainstream scholars of international relations for their purported misrepresentation of the history of U.S. internationalism. America’s true internationalism is not the liberal variety advanced by Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, they have argued, but the conservative, interventionist internationalism of Teddy Roosevelt. Today, the neoconservatives include Ronald Reagan in their models of conservative internationalists. At the same time, the neoconservatives who have set the foreign policy agenda of this administration also rail against the proponents of “realism” in international relations. They contend that U.S. foreign policy needs to have a “moral clarity” (a pet phrase of the conservative camp), and shouldn’t be based just on strictly defined national or economists interests, as the realists would have it.

The Bush foreign policy team has been champing at the bit to get on with the foreign policy agenda laid out in the 1990s by groups like the American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, Center for Security Policy, and the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). These and other right-wing think-tanks and policy institutes believe that George W.’s father and Clinton squandered the opportunity to fashion a truly global U.S. hegemony or imperium in the 1990s. High on the list of priorities for the interventionist agenda of the conservative internationalists is overthrowing Saddam Hussein–a case of a U.S. foreign policy objective where moral clarity partners with U.S. national interest, namely controlling a major source of oil.

The White House’s National Security Strategy of the United States, released September 2002, briefly outlines the new Bush foreign policy doctrine of global military domination and interventionism. But the full scope and ambition of the Bush foreign and military policy is more comprehensively laid out in a book called Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy produced by the Project for the New American Century in 2000. In this edited volume by PNAC founders Robert Kagan and William Kristol, one can find what amounts to a blueprint for the current objectives of U.S. global engagement. Nonstate terrorism is given short shrift in the book, which includes chapters written by such current top foreign policy team players as Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, and Peter Rodman.

It’s a call for a doctrine of frontier justice in which the top gun–the U.S.–saddles up and hustles together a posse to pursue bandits and rogues. According to the conservative internationalists, like Paul Wolfowitz, we “must descend from the realm of general principles to the making of specific decisions.” While laws, judges, and trials are what we “want for our domestic political process … foreign policy decisions cannot be subject to that kind of rule of law.”

PNAC’s Present Dangers apparently functions as a playbook for the Bush administration. In his chapter on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams lays out the “peace through strength” credo that has become the operating principle of this administration. “Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace,” wrote Abrams, who is the administration’s National Security Council Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations. Like the other PNAC principals, Abrams calls for a preemptive “toppling of Saddam Hussein.” Strengthening our major ally in the region, Israel, should be the base of U.S. Middle East policy, and we should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that does not explicitly uphold U.S. policy in the region, according to Abrams.

Under a heading labeled “Regime Change” in the introductory chapter, Kristol and Kagan target Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and China as challengers that need to be confronted. With respect to Iraq and North Korea, the two PNAC founders conclude that U.S. “preeminence” in the 21st century cannot rest on “simply wish[ing] hostile regimes out of existence.” They warn that the U.S. will have “to intervene abroad even when we cannot prove that a narrowly construed ‘vital interest’ of the United States is at stake.”

This is precisely why the Bush administration is having such a difficult time explaining why it is on the war path against Iraq. The arguments made by the Pentagon, State Department, and White House about the Iraqi regime’s support for international terrorism, its obstruction of UN inspections, or its repressive character don’t go to the heart of their agenda–namely to effect “regime change” in all countries that constitute a challenge–real or potential–to the American “imperium,” with their control of essential global resources and its global military domination.

The Bush administration contends, like Teddy Roosevelt, that U.S. war-making is a strike for peace. Writing during the last presidential campaign, Kagan and Kristol called for a new foreign policy based on the principles of superior military power and conservative internationalism. “Conservative internationalists,” they said, “…are the true heirs to a tradition in American foreign policy that runs from Theodore Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan.” Fortunately, most of the international community and growing numbers of Americans reject the revival of 19th century gunboat diplomacy as an appropriate manifestation of 21st century internationalism.

TOM BARRY is a senior analyst at the Interhemispheric Resource Center and codirector of Foreign Policy In Focus.) He can be reached at: tom@irc-online.org.

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Tom Barry directs the Transborder Program at the Center for International Policy and is a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

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