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Iraq: 'Preemptive' Or Otherwise, U.S. Interventionism Has A Long History

  • Jeffrey Donovan

An international uproar has greeted U.S. plans to disarm Iraq by force. Protesters have hurled abuse at Washington's new doctrine of "preemptive war," saying it could change the face of world relations. But a U.S.-led war against Iraq would not exactly be the first of its kind.

Washington, 14 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Given the deep and passionate opposition voiced around the world, a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq would appear to be a historical first, i.e., a war launched by the United States without direct provocation. But history suggests that's hardly the case.

While largely isolationist Americans were reluctant to enter either of the 20th century's world wars, it did embark on a series of armed conflicts that many historians now say marked the start of an imperial United States.

Beginning with the overthrow of Hawaii's ruling family in 1893 and continuing through the Spanish-American War and the interventions in Grenada, Panama, and Haiti a century later, Washington has asserted its authority in its own region and beyond whenever U.S. interests or security appeared to be in jeopardy.

That new policy had a name, as retired U.S. Army Major General Edward Atkeson recalls, "We used to call it 'gunboat diplomacy.'"

In certain instances, as with Hawaii, gunboat diplomacy helped to win new markets, raw materials, and territory. But it also served perceived security interests, as when Washington sought to rein in growing chaos in neighbors Nicaragua (1912) and Haiti (1915) and ended up occupying both for 20 years.

To some extent, gunboat diplomacy continued in the nuclear, post-World War II world, albeit in Cold War guise. There was the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba to overthrow the communist government in 1961. Four years later, the United States invaded the nearby Dominican Republic to stop another communist takeover.

From 1955 to 1973, Washington waged its bloodiest conflict since World War II, suffering in Vietnam perhaps its most glaring military setback -- and giving rise to a domestic and international criticism of the United States that continues to this day.

Washington claimed it was defending a friendly South Vietnamese government against a communist insurgency from the north.

More recently, Washington -- ostensibly to protect U.S. medical students -- invaded the Caribbean island nation of Grenada in 1983 to again prevent the Soviet Union from gaining an ally in the Western Hemisphere. And in 1989, the United States attacked Panama to remove its leader, Manuel Noriega, accusing him of violating U.S. drug-trafficking laws.

In these conflicts, the United States was not responding to an attack on its soil. Nor did it seek approval from the United Nations. Typically, once the war was over, the United States pulled back without annexing the territory.

Atkeson, a former intelligence officer who is now an analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, thinks the possibility of war in Iraq without UN approval is hardly out of character for the United States. But he said the difference today is that the United States is actively trying to get the UN's backing. "In this one, we're making an effort to get the world behind us. We've just never tried that. We never went to the League of Nations. We've had this sort of experience before. A certain amount of that runs in our blood. We're still a 'frontier' people," Atkeson said.

For the record, the United States did have the UN's backing during the 1950-53 Korean War, thanks to the Soviet Union's boycott of the Security Council's vote on the matter.

The administration of President George W. Bush and its supporters, however, say that a war in Iraq this time would not necessarily require UN Security Council sanction. They argue that war is already justified on grounds of national defense and also since Iraq has already violated several past UN resolutions dating to the cease-fire with Washington in 1991.

Jack Spencer, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation policy institute in Washington, had this to say: "While nations often do go to the UN Security Council to address problems, they largely do not require a UN Security Council resolution to legitimize the use of force. In fact, we didn't go to the Security Council for the war in Kosovo, which was legitimate. We did not go to the Security Council for the war in Afghanistan, which absolutely was legitimate."

He added that Washington, which perceives a direct threat from Iraq, has every right to defend itself.

But critics of Washington's possible "preemptive war" in Iraq, i.e., a war to thwart a possible future threat, complain that such action would set a dangerous precedent in international affairs. After all, the thinking goes, if the United States can do it, what's to stop India from attacking Pakistan or China from taking out Taiwan?

But analyst Ted Galen Carpenter of Washington's Cato Institute think tank agrees with Atkeson. He said that war against Iraq would actually be in keeping with U.S. tradition. "To be blunt about it, it's American-style imperialism. And this is simply going to be the latest installment of that. It's not as unprecedented as they [the critics] seem to assume," Carpenter said.

But some critics disagree. Phyllis Bennis is an analyst with the Institute for Policy Studies, a center-left think tank in Washington. Bennis said that, although Washington has sometimes been unilateralist in its actions, the circumstances in Iraq are entirely different. "The U.S. has invaded countries preemptively without approval and in fact broken the law doing it in the past. The difference here, and it's a crucial one, is that the U.S. is asserting the right to do that. This time they're celebrating that aspect, and, of course, the war itself is a far more devastating global possibility than anything we saw back in those days," Bennis said.

Although Washington is seeking UN backing for war in Iraq, U.S. President Bush has left little doubt that Washington will go it alone even without UN support. And Bush's backers in the U.S. media and elsewhere have urged him to ignore the UN, decrying it as anti-American and irrelevant.

Carpenter said that much of the international opposition to the Bush administration was fomented last summer when it published a new national-security doctrine stating that the United States has a right to launch a preemptive war against any state that may threaten it now or in the future.

By advertising that new policy and raising it to the level of official doctrine, Carpenter said that Washington gave a lot of people the idea that current U.S. policy is actually far different in substance than in the past. He said they're mostly wrong, save for the sheer scale of an Iraq war.

But Bennis said they're right. She said the Bush administration's emphasis on a new doctrine of preemptive war -- and its handling of most diplomacy in a somewhat single-minded way -- is to blame for the deep misgivings felt by Washington's traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere. "I think that this has become a battle over containing U.S. power as much as it is about containing Iraq. There is enormous fear throughout the world that the U.S. administration is running on a course toward empire and that its power is virtually unchallenged," Bennis said.