Politics & Policy

The “Radicalism” of Preemption

In the spirit of Lewis and Clark.

One of the underlying assumptions about the Bush administration’s policy of preemption is that it’s new — and, as such, a grave threat to the postwar international system.

Never mind the obvious: The Soviet Union is dead, the Cold War is over, and the most-serious challenge to our national security comes not from other nation-states but from nebulous networks of Islamic terrorists. In short, never mind that something new may be called for.

The chorus of would-be Cassandras assailing the president’s “unilateralism,” “triumphalism,” and “cowboyism” complain that preemption is destabilizing, hegemonic, and — worst of all — unprecedented.

Decrying the administration’s “first step toward a new American imperium,” Anthony Lewis, writing in the New York Review of Books, dubbed Bush’s policy a “radical transformation.” Al Gore, in his speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, called preemption “a brand new doctrine” and drew an implicit parallel between a possible invasion of Iraq and the Soviet Union’s “preemptive war in Afghanistan.” David Broder called preemption a “new development” while soberly noting that this “does not make it right or wrong.”

Coincidentally, all the talk about the newness, the boldness, the radicalness, of this “first step toward a new American imperium” comes at the same time that Americans are preparing to commemorate the bicentennial of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s cross-country voyage.

The commemoration — beginning in January with a six-day event at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., and attended by historians, filmmakers, representatives from various Indian tribes, and possibly the president — will focus on the cultural contributions Lewis and Clark’s 8,000-mile, roundtrip trek made to American life.

Special attention at Monticello will be paid to “Jefferson’s empire”; cooking with Lewis and Clark; flora and fauna from the trail; Lewis’s slave, York; and early 19th-century music. The event will include performances by the Monacan Indian nation’s Muddy Creek Drummers and the Show-Me Opera from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

But all these cultural festivities shouldn’t obscure the geopolitical significance of Lewis and Clark’s trip. Setting aside the drummers, the opera singers, the food and wine, and the “literary” aspects of the search for a northwest passage, the Lewis and Clark expedition represents what may be the first preemptive campaign in the nation’s history.

Granted, preemption à la 1803-1806 hardly resembles that of today: Lewis and Clark were not soldiers invading a foreign country; and the expedition’s many goals did not include toppling a hostile regime. Still, it’s worth pointing out that chief among Jefferson’s concerns (indicated in his January 18, 1803, secret letter to Congress seeking $2,500 for the expedition) was the growing threat to American settlers posed by angry Indians.

“The Indian tribes residing within the limits of the United States have, for a considerable time, been growing more and more uneasy at the constant diminution of the territory they occupy, although effected by their own voluntary sales,” he wrote, “and the policy has long been gaining strength with them, of refusing absolutely all further sale, on any conditions; insomuch that, at this time, it hazards their friendship, and excites dangerous jealousies and perturbations in their minds to make any overture for the purchase of the smallest portions of their land.”

Certainly, the letter makes it clear that the perceived Indian threat had more to do with commerce than with security. Fair enough. But the letter also contends that the expedition could have a civilizing effect on the Indians, “preparing them ultimately to participate in the benefits of our government” and containing, even reversing, their “suspicions, fears, and irritations towards us.” To put it more squarely, the suggestion seems to be that Lewis and Clark could preempt future violence by extending American civilization beyond the Mississippi River.

The critical point here is that Lewis and Clark’s expedition, like the president’s policy of preemption, represents a bold, American effort to confront history instead of simply letting history happen to us.

As with the journeys of Lewis and Clark, the policy of preemption looks to be but an extension of self-government — a free people acting aggressively to secure its freedom — commercially, strategically, or otherwise.

There are without a doubt some who sniff at this sort of confrontation. Like many in the Old World, they prefer a feebler, less-assertive America. According to this worldview, it would be better if Washington simply waited for trouble and uncertainty to grow and fester — somewhere in the “uncultivated wilds” of the Louisiana Purchase or, perhaps, the oilfields of Iraq. Thomas Jefferson knew better. So does George W. Bush.

Peter Savodnik is a staff writer at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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