What's Left
September 24, 2002

 Bush's national security strategy: Protecting Americans at home, or promoting the interests of American corporations abroad?

By Stephen Gowans

"Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy." George W. Bush, September, 2002

"[W]e will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively," intones George W. Bush's national security strategy, a set of principles likened by the Moscow Times to Hitler's Mein Kampf, and described by the New York Times as Bush's "how I'll rule the world" blueprint.  "We must build and maintain our defenses beyond challenge," it continues, adding "our military must...dissuade future military competition."

But in its 33-pages it's clear the doctrine is less about Bush elevating himself to global potentate, using the spectre of terrorism as justification, and more about Washington imposing free markets and free trade on those parts of the world that have, until now, managed to live outside the American sphere of influence. In this, the newly articulated strategy is hardly a radical break, but a continuation of an American foreign policy which has always sought to open up American economic opportunities abroad. The difference, not of kind, but degree, is an adaptation to a new set of circumstances, or more specifically, to the falling away of constraints: the absence of any rival power capable of preventing Washington from pursuing its long-standing ambition of easing the way for foreign markets, labor and resources to be exploited by US firms. "We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world," the doctrine asserts. Indeed, it could be said that the cornerstone of US foreign policy has, for a century or more, been one of actively working to impose free markets and free trade {1} on every corner of the world, irrespective of the desires, and almost always despite the active opposition of, those on whom these "virtues" were imposed. It's only now, with the US having unparalleled military power, and the Soviet Union as the lone obstacle to US designs having collapsed, that the fulfilment of the goal on a world-wide basis has hove into view.

But the strategy's central goals, indeed, its obsessive focus on free trade, free markets, and private ownership of the economy, have largely been ignored. Instead, almost all discussion -- and there has been precious little considering the doctrine lifts the veil that has long been drawn across American foreign policy -- has centred on the means by which the Bush administration proposes to extend, and preserve, US domination: pre-emptive strikes on target countries; undermining potential rivals; a first strike nuclear doctrine; a robust militarism; elevation of the United States above international law. And it is in this sense, in the unrelieved boldness with which Washington intends to pursue its foreign policy, that something akin to a radical break has occurred.

Yet, with focus trained on how boldly Washington has proclaimed its intention to act as world hegemon, with little attention paid to the openly articulated goals of the strategy, there has emerged a vast literature of speculation on what American foreign policy -- and more specifically, the war on terrorism -- is all about. Is it about oil, or geopolitics? Is it the outcome of the Hitler-like megalomania of the Bush circle, or is the president drawing attention away from domestic crises? Or is it really about terrorism, as the media say?

It is, to various degrees, about all these things, but it is, above all else, what Bush says it's about: free markets and free trade as priorities {2}; standing firmly for private ownership of the economy (and those who own it) {3}; and standing against rogue countries, which reject, by the strategy's definition, such basic human values as respect for private property {4}, or, to put it another way, that commit the cardinal sin of public ownership, thereby expropriating the actual, or potential, profits of American firms. It is, in short, what American foreign policy has always been about.

But what's striking, from the perspective of an American public indoctrinated to believe national security is about defense and its personal safety, is that a doctrine that lays out a strategy for national security should centre on discussion of free markets, free trade, and the necessity of economies being privately owned. Astonishingly, at one point, the strategy even embarks on a discussion of moral philosophy, in which free trade is elevated to a moral principle.  "The concept of 'free trade'," we're told, "arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics," an assertion that seems more suited to the seminar notes of a course on morality taught by Ayn Rand,  than a "national security strategy" whose ostensible aim is to explain how the safety of Americans is to be guaranteed.

Equally striking is the document so clearly intertwining foreign policy,  military strategy and the interests of US firms and investors. Naively, one might suppose that a discussion of national security would articulate an approach to safeguarding American citizens at home, rather than rhapsodizing about free trade and promising to establish free markets in all corners of the globe. And while the 33-page strategy mentions "rogue", "terrorism", "terror", "enemy" and "defense" 76 times, it mentions "free trade", "free markets," "private property", "economic openness," "economic growth", "economic freedom", "economic liberty", "free enterprise" and American "interests" as many times; in fact, two more -- 78 times. It even, astonishingly, mentions progressive income tax (a dragon to be slayed, the document says) {5} but not a word about al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden,  Saddam Hussein, or Iraq. One would think the security of the United States lies in ensuring taxes on US firms operating abroad are kept to a minimum, not in disrupting terrorist networks.

Could it be that national security amounts to the security of US investments overseas and that a national security strategy is simply a means of helping Americans who count travel down a path they must inevitably travel --- finding more markets, resources and people to exploit? "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases [business] over the whole surface of the globe," remarked Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their Communist Manifesto, which set out a a doctrine Bush's strategy calls "failed." "It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere." {6} You would think Marx and Engels were reading from the same playbook as the Bush administration. In a sense, they were.

Smedley Butler, a two time Congressional Medal of Honor winner, thought there was more than an accidental connection between US national security strategy and the profit-making interests of US corporations. Looking back over a 33 year career in the Marine Corps, Butler recalled in 1933, long before the Bush circle crafted their national security strategy:
 

"I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscleman for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." {7}
"I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 . I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested." {8}


This, it need not be said, is a far cry from the usual depiction of a Marine, as one who puts his life on the line for the defense of his country. It strikes as much a dissonant note as Bush's national security strategy does in its emphasis on American economic interests abroad.

Here's Bush in 2002:
 

"The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values" [which Bush says includes respect for private ownership of the economy {9}] "and our national interests. Our goals on the path to progress are clear: political and economic freedom."


"Economic freedom" sounds nice, as anything which basks in the reflected glow of  "freedom" does, but what Bush's definition of "freedom" is, is hardly the amorphous, feel-good version of political stump speeches. It means, in Butler's words, "a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in," or a place  "safe for American oil interests;" at the very least, a place where a person of means can make a handsome return on his investment; not a place like Cuba, where there are no opportunities, or Zimbabwe, where the idea of expropriating private property is no longer regarded as an anathema, or Belarus and Russia, whose governments are dragging their feet on selling state-owned assets to American investors. It is freedom for American firms to exploit the resources, markets and labor of other countries.

Bush again:
 

"We will promote economic growth and economic freedom beyond America's shores......including:
 
  • pro-growth legal and regulatory policies to encourage business investment, innovation, and entrepreneurial activity;
  • tax policies -- particularly lower marginal tax rates -- that improve incentives for work and investment;
  • rule of law and intolerance of corruption so that people are confident that they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their economic endeavors;
  • strong financial systems that allow capital to be put to its most efficient use;
  • sound fiscal policies to support business activity;
  • investments in health and education that improve the well-being and skills of the labor force and population as a whole; and
  • free trade that provides new avenues for growth and fosters the diffusion of technologies and ideas that increase productivity and opportunity."
  • From a naive point of view, the promoting abroad of "lower marginal tax rates", "sound fiscal policies to support business activity" and "free trade" is completely out of place in a document that purports to lay out a strategy to safeguard Americans from external threat. Understood the way Butler came to understand US foreign policy, the emphasis is entirely reasonable, and to be expected.  In other words, national security means, to quote Butler, making the world safe for  "Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers."

    If this sounds like the raving of an unreconstructed socialist following the ravings of a shell-shocked Marine,  compare it to the ravings of someone whose establishment credentials are beyond question -- New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.  One wonders whether Friedman ever regrets having departed from the usual obscurantist demarche of the political columnist when he laid bare US foreign policy with this:  "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist -- McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps"? {10}

    The newly articulated national security strategy is simply a more ambitious Monroe Doctrine, aimed at establishing in every hemisphere the primacy of US business values of open markets, free trade, private ownership of the economy and low marginal tax rates. It is not, therefore, a radical break from American foreign policy, but a continuation, adapted to a new set of circumstances: the absence of any rival power capable of preventing Washington pursuing its long-standing ambitions to their logical end.  The enemy, in fact, is not terrorism per se (indeed what better description of the deployment of the US military than "premeditated, politically motivated violence against innocents"? as the Bush strategy defines terrorism) but anyone or anything that stands in the way of American values -- and in particular, American capital -- putting down roots world-wide. The goal is globalization, and one that's particularly congenial to the interests of US capital; the enemy is any obstacle, from socialism (Cuba) to nationalism, either secular (Iraq) or religious (al-Qaeda.)

    If globalization is to be opposed, in favor of something that doesn't put profits ahead of economic security for all, health care, education and freedom from exploitation, the means by which it is promoted must be understood, and "national security strategy" is one of the principle means. It may not be the major or even a subsidiary means by which globalization on American terms is advanced in the Western world -- that distinction falling to trade and investment agreements and neo-liberal "economic reform" programs -- but it does play a large role in Third World countries, especially those which haven't subscribed to the otherwise ubiquitous idea that the interests of US capital have senior claim over all others.

    {1} "Free trade" as Washington conceives it, is hardly "free trade" as the rest of the world understands it. It is, instead, trade arrangements which favor American capital; open markets for American firms without a necessary reciprocity. Thus, Bush's strategy can treat free trade as a moral principle, while at the same time cautioning that it must not be pursued at the expense of American workers. "The benefits of free trade depend upon the enforcement of fair trading practices. These safeguards help ensure that the benefits of free trade do not come at the expense of American workers."

    {2} "Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy." Bush's national security strategy can be read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.pdf

    {3} "America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property."  Washington invariably presents liberal-democractic values and private property-based, free market economics, as inseparable. It's to be understood that democracy, freedom of speech, freedom from religious persecution, freedom from arbitrary arrest, etc. somehow depend on markets being open to penetration by US firms.

    {4} "Rogue states....reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands". The strategy defines free market-democracy as a "basic human value" (as in "Russia's uneven commitment to the basic values of free-market democracy.") Clearly, in the Bush circle's view, America stands for open markets and private ownership of the economy. States which reject the model, therefore, "hate everything the United States stand for," and are, by definition, rogue states.

    {5} "We will promote economic growth and economic freedom beyond America's shores......including...tax policies -- particularly lower marginal tax rates -- that improve incentives for work and investment."

    {6} Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

    {7} Smedley Butler, War is a Racket, 1933. Http://www.twf.org/News/Y2001/0911-Racket.html

    {8}Ibid.

    {9} While Bush refers to private property, it's clear he's referring to private ownership of the economy in the main, not just to private ownership of one's toothbrush, car or house.

    {10}  Thomas L. Friedman, "A Manifesto for the Fast World," New York Times Magazine, March 28, 1999.

    ....

    You may re-post this article, providing the text remains unchanged.

    Join our e-mail list. Send an e-mail to What's Left and write "subscribe" in the subject line.

    What's Left