The Common Good
September-October 2003

The Project for a New American Empire

by Duane Shank | September-October 2003

Who are these guys? And why do they think they can rule the world?

Powers That Be
Key participants in the Project for the New American Century and their current positions in the Bush administration:

A British magazine called them "the weird men behind George W. Bush's war." Their Project has led to countless conspiracy theories. Their principles are now the governing foreign and military policy of the Bush administration—a plan combining U.S. military forces based around the world with a doctrine of pre-emptive war and the development of new nuclear weapons.

Who are they, the creators of the "Project for the New American Century"? What is the "Project," and why is it cause for concern? The people behind it are now prominent players in the Bush administration (see "Powers That Be," at left), and some of them—most notably, Vice-President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—are household names. And their plan is for nothing less than securing U.S. global domination for decades to come—and that's according to their own testimony.

The roots of the Project—both ideological and the people identified with it—are in the Reagan administration. Combining an aggressive foreign policy with a then-unprecedented military buildup, they helped lead the invasions of Panama and Grenada, counter-insurgency wars in Central America, the Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union, and the arming of Iraq as a counter to radical Islamists in Iran.

In 1989, the Soviet Union finally imploded—and with it ended the bipolar world that had existed since World War II. The United States remained as the lone superpower. Neoconservative intellectuals, inside and outside the administration of George Bush I, began plotting how to continue that situation into the future.

After the first Gulf war, Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary of defense for policy, drafted a defense planning document that laid out the core ideas of what was to become the Project for the New American Century's vision. It was a strategy of maintaining and strengthening unchallenged U.S. military superiority against a potential future superpower rival and against unrest around the world, through pre-emption rather than containment and unilateral military action rather than multilateral internationalism. Bush Sr. administration officials rejected it as too radical.

Bill Clinton's foreign policy emphasized multilateralism, involving the United States in peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Bosnia. In response, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) emerged in June 1997. Its founding "Statement of Principles" was released by a who's who of former Reagan administration and conservative think tank intellectuals. After criticizing the Clinton administration for "incoherent policies," "squandering the opportunity," and "inconstant leadership," they presented their alternative.

"American foreign and defense policy is adrift," the statement said. "...As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world's preeminent power…. Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?" The statement ended by calling for "a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity."

From the beginning, the Project was obsessed with Iraq. In a January 1998 letter to President Clinton, PNAC wrote, "We urge you…to turn your administration's attention to implementing a strategy for removing Saddam's regime from power." The letter was signed by, among others, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, and Richard Armitage.

In September 2000, the Project released its grand plan for the future in a report titled "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century." The report begins with the premise that "The United States is the world's only superpower, combining preeminent military power, global technological leadership, and the world's largest economy…. America's grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.… Yet no moment in international politics can be frozen in time; even a global Pax Americana will not preserve itself."

The report recommends new missions for the U.S. armed forces, including a dominant nuclear capability with a new generation of nuclear weapons, sufficient combat forces to fight and win multiple major wars, and forces for "constabulary duties" around the world with American rather than U.N. leadership. It asserts that "The presence of American forces in critical regions around the world is the visible expression of the extent of America's status as a superpower" and proposes "a network of 'deployment bases' or 'forward operating bases' to increase the reach of current and future forces."

Specifically citing the Persian Gulf, the report notes that "the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein…. Over the long term, Iran may well prove as large a threat to U.S. interests in the Gulf as Iraq has."

Concluding with the importance of transforming the U.S. military for new challenges, it provocatively notes that "the failure to prepare for tomorrow's challenges will ensure that the current Pax Americana comes to an early end."

This vision of American empire received little attention in fall 2000 and was largely dismissed as the work of hard-liners. The report itself admitted that the process of accomplishing this transformation was "likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor."

FEW OF THE Project's participants had supported George W. Bush in his run for the presidency, fearing that with his lack of foreign policy experience, he would be shaped by the moderate Republicans who had dominated his father's administration. But Richard Cheney, one of the Project's founders, was named vice president and placed in charge of the transition. Suddenly Project participants were in key foreign and military policy positions.

They immediately began to implement their strategic plan—withdrawing from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, increasing military spending, and beginning a missile defense program. But by the end of summer 2001, the administration was in trouble. The president's approval rating had sunk to 51 percent, the Democrats had regained control of the Senate with the switch of Sen. James Jeffords, and the economy was entering a recession.

Then came Sept. 11, the type of catastrophe the Project had posed as necessary for the realization of its agenda. For them, it was the best thing that could have happened.

The Project lost no time. Only days after 9/11, it released a letter arguing that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." That determined effort culminated in the war this spring. The real rationale ultimately was not weapons of mass destruction, oil, human rights violations, or any of the other reasons given publicly. It was, as had been written two years earlier, the desire for a permanent role in the strategically important Gulf region.

President Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech declared that "Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun." He singled out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as "an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." In June, the president signaled his support for a pre-emptive war strategy, saying that the United States is "ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives." By the end of the year, this was the official policy of the administration, outlined in two White House planning documents.

The strategy makes pre-emptive war official policy against "rogue states" with the alleged potential to develop weapons of mass destruction. "To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries," the White House documents say, "the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively." To fight those countries the administration accuses of attaining (or even seeking) weapons of mass destruction, the planning documents threaten its own mass destruction: the possible first use of U.S. nuclear weapons. Admitting that this is a "fundamental change from the past," the White House documents state that U.S. military forces will use "pre-emptive measures" against such states, including "the full range of operational capabilities"—which many read as code for nuclear strikes. Indeed, this year's defense authorization bill includes new, low-yield nuclear weapons, including the "bunker buster."

The real or exaggerated fear of terrorism is being used to drive the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. There are now U.S. troops in 130 countries around the world, permanent bases in 40, and a growing number of others providing basing rights. The Wall Street Journal recently described it as "one of the biggest shifts in U.S. military thinking in the past 50 years," and noted that the new strategy is "pushing U.S. forces into far more remote and dangerous corners of the world." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, architect of the strategy, is "preparing U.S. forces for a future that could involve lots of small, dirty fights in remote and dangerous places."

HOW DID A GROUP of little-known intellectuals gain the power to control an administration? Partly by capitalizing on fear, with the American people kept constantly on edge by color-coded terror warnings. Partly by keeping the focus on one piece at a time—Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Iran. And partly by their arrogant belief that there is ultimately no force that can defeat them. It is the same hubris that always accompanies empire—a desire to dominate the world through military power.

But there is an alternative to empire and endless war. The plan of the Project for the New American Century must be countered with a vision that insists militarization and pre-emptive war is not the path to real security. We must advance the vision of a world where international institutions are strengthened rather than destroyed, where global poverty is seriously addressed, where all countries, including the United States, are disarming their weapons of mass destruction, and where human rights are taken seriously. People of faith and goodwill in this country and around the world stood up by the millions to oppose the war against Iraq. We must now continue that opposition—through doing justice, loving compassion, and walking with God in the struggle.

Duane Shank is issues and policy adviser for Sojourners.

  • Richard Cheney, Vice-President
  • Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense
  • Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Peter Rodman, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs
  • Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State
  • John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
  • Elliot Abrams, Senior Director for Near East, Southwest Asian, and North African Affairs, National Security Council
  • James Woolsey, former Director of Central Intelligence; member Defense Policy Board
  • Lewis Libby, Chief of Staff, Office of the Vice-President
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