|The True Rationale? It's a Decade Old
By James Mann
© Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 2004
The Bush administration has offered a series of shifting justifications for
the war in Iraq. Each has been quite specific: The war was to uncover Saddam
Hussein's weapons of mass destruction; to dislodge a brutal dictator; to
combat Iraq's support for terrorism; to deal with what President Bush called
a "grave and gathering threat."
Which was the real one? That's the overarching question that has dominated
public debate in recent months. But the question is too narrow. The
underlying rationale was both broader and more abstract: The war was carried
out in pursuit of a larger vision of using America's overwhelming military
superiority to shape the future.
The outlines of that vision were first sketched more than a decade ago,
immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed. Some of the most important and
bitterly debated aspects of the war in Iraq -- including the
administration's willingness to engage in preemptive military action -- can
be traced to discussions and documents from the early 1990s, when Pentagon
officials, under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Undersecretary
of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz, led the way in forging a new, post-Cold War
military strategy for the United States.
The gist of the strategy they formulated was that the United States should
be the world's dominant superpower -- not merely today, or 10 years from
now, or when a rival such as China appears, but permanently. The elements of
this vision were couched in bland-sounding phrases: The United States should
"preserve its strategic depth" and should act overseas to "shape the
security environment." What could potentially flow from those vague words
was, however, anything but bland: The recent war in Iraq was, above all, an
effort to shape the security environment of the Middle East.
This account of how that strategy was developed -- and how it has influenced
the policies of the current Bush administration -- is based on documents and
interviews with many of those involved in the discussions 12 years ago,
during what turned out to be the final year of the first Bush
administration. Early in 1992, officials in the Pentagon began putting
together a document called the Defense Planning Guidance. This statement of
America's military strategy, prepared every two years, serves as the
blueprint for upcoming defense budgets. As the first since the Soviet
collapse, the '92 version took on special significance.
An early draft of the document was leaked to reporters, and has been the
stuff of legend ever since. A mostly fictional version of that event has
been passed down over the years, and it goes like this: Wolfowitz, the
undersecretary of defense, had drafted a version of American military
strategy in which the United States would move to block any rival power in
Europe, Asia or the Middle East. After the leaked document caused a furor,
the first Bush administration retreated. The document was toned down and its
key ideas were abandoned.
But interviews with participants show that this version is wrong in several
important respects. Wolfowitz didn't write the original draft. While the
draft was rewritten, it was not really toned down. Indeed, in subtle ways,
using careful terminology and euphemisms, the vision of an American
superpower was actually made more sweeping. And although Wolfowitz and his
staff played key roles, the ultimate sponsor of the new strategy was Cheney.
It all began two years earlier. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989,
effectively ending the Cold War and prompting the Pentagon to undertake a
search for a new set of principles, in part to prevent Congress, then
controlled by the Democrats, from slashing the defense budget. The key
participants were Cheney, Wolfowitz and Colin L. Powell, then chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While Powell sometimes disagreed with the two
civilian leaders on other issues (including the events of 1990 and '91
leading up to the Persian Gulf War), the three men worked closely together
on forestalling cutbacks. The Soviet Union's collapse added new urgency to
their task. "What we were afraid of was people who would say, ' . . . Let's
bring all of the troops home, and let's abandon our position in Europe,' "
recalled Wolfowitz in an interview.
The job of writing a new Defense Planning Guidance was assigned to Zalmay
Khalilzad, then a Wolfowitz aide and now U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
Khalilzad produced a draft that stressed the need to prevent the emergence
of any rival power, particularly among the "advanced industrialized
nations." (It is largely forgotten now, but at the time, there were fears
that Japan and Germany, two of America's closest allies in the Cold War,
would eventually become post-Cold War competitors.) Khalilzad's draft also
suggested that in this new environment, the United States might sometimes
act through "ad hoc assemblies" of nations, rather than through permanent
alliances; this was an early rendition of what the second Bush
administration would later call "coalitions of the willing." The draft said
the United States "may be faced with the question of whether to take
military steps to prevent the development or use of weapons of mass
destruction" -- an allusion to the possibility of preemption or preventive
When he finished, Khalilzad sent copies to others in the Pentagon, asking
for comment. Within days, an account of this draft appeared on the New York
Times front page. The reaction was immediate. Officials in Japan, Germany
and other European countries were less than thrilled at the notion that the
United States might try to limit their military and economic power.
Presidential candidate Bill Clinton's spokesman said that the document
represented an effort by the Pentagon "to find an excuse for big budgets
instead of downsizing."
Wolfowitz hadn't even seen Khalilzad's draft before it was leaked, and he
kept a certain distance from the controversy. But Cheney, as defense
secretary, was effusive in his praise. "He said to me, 'You've discovered a
new rationale for our role in the world,' " Khalilzad told me in an
Pentagon officials set out to smooth over the rough edges of the draft
without giving up its essentials. The job was given to Wolfowitz's top aide,
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then principal deputy undersecretary of defense
for strategy and now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff.
Now came the subtle, crucial change. Libby and others recognized that the
notion of America blocking a rival power was the part that had engendered
controversy. Yet they also knew this wasn't saying very much: Realistically,
there couldn't even be a rival to American power in Europe or Asia for
another decade or two, if not longer.
So Libby's new draft dropped the language about competitors. Reporters were
then told that the idea had been abandoned, and their stories created the
impression that the draft had been softened.
But it hadn't been. Instead, using careful language, Libby's rewrite
encompassed a more breathtaking vision: The United States would build up its
military capabilities to such an extent that there could never be a rival.
America would develop such enormous superiority in military power and
technology that other countries would realize it would be self-defeating to
try to compete. A country such as, say, China might embark on an intensive
30-year drive to match America's military might -- but doing so would be
prohibitively expensive, crippling other efforts at economic development,
and even then, might not succeed.
Instead of talking about blocking rivals, Libby's revision spoke more
vaguely about preserving America's "strategic depth" -- a term that Cheney
had begun to use in congressional hearings on the defense budget.
In military terms, "strategic depth" usually connotes additional territory
that provides an extra margin of safety in combating adversaries. For
example, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was said to give Pakistan
"strategic depth" in dealing with India. When Pentagon officials began using
the term in 1990, it had this same geographical connotation: Withdrawal of
Soviet forces from Eastern Europe gave America and its NATO allies
"strategic depth" in protecting Western Europe. But in Libby's rewrite, the
phrase took on a broader and more abstract meaning; "strategic depth"
referred to America's advantageous position in the world, its extensive
network of bases, weaponry and advanced levels of military technology.
The other key idea in the rewrite was that the United States would not wait
passively to see if a rival emerged. It would act to ensure events moved in
ways favorable to U.S. interests. This was called "shaping the future
security environment." The concept included everything from peacekeeping
missions to stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Libby's rewrite altered the wording of some other groundbreaking ideas in
Khalilzad's draft as well, without changing the meaning. The revised draft
omitted the discussion of "ad hoc assemblies," but it said America had to be
ready to protect its critical interests abroad "with only limited additional
help, or even alone, if necessary." The new version didn't mention
preemption specifically, but noted that "sometimes a measured military
action can contain or preclude a crisis" [emphasis added].
Ordinarily, the Defense Planning Guidance is a classified document. But
Cheney liked the revised draft so much that he ordered parts of it to be
declassified and made public. "He took ownership of it," recalled Khalilzad.
In January 1993, as the first Bush administration was leaving office, the
document was published as a government document under Cheney's name as
America's "Defense Strategy for the 1990s."
The Clinton administration set aside Cheney's vision without actually
repudiating it. A decade later, as the second Bush administration moved
toward war with Iraq, the ideas in the '92 document took on heightened
significance. What the Pentagon officials had succeeded in doing, within
months of the Soviet collapse, was to lay out the intellectual blueprint for
a new world dominated -- then, now and in the future -- by U.S. military
James Mann is senior writer in residence at the Center for Strategic &
International Studies. This article is based on his new book, "Rise of the
Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet" (Viking).