Shock, awe and Hobbes have backfired on America's
Iraq has shown the hubris of a geostrategy that welds the philosophy
of the Leviathan to military and technological power
By Richard Drayton
Guardian" -- -- The tragic irony of the 21st century
is that just as faith in technology collapsed on the world's stock
markets in 2000, it came to power in the White House and Pentagon.
For the Project for a New American Century's ambition of
"full-spectrum dominance" - in which its country could "fight and
win multiple, simultaneous major-theatre wars" - was a monster borne
up by the high tide of techno euphoria of the 1990s.
Ex-hippies talked of a wired age of Aquarius. The fall of the Berlin
wall and the rise of the internet, we were told, had ushered in Adam
Smith's dream of overflowing abundance, expanding liberty and
perpetual peace. Fukuyama speculated that history was over, leaving
us just to hoard and spend. Technology meant a new paradigm of
constant growth without inflation or recession.
But darker dreams surfaced in America's military universities. The
theorists of the "revolution in military affairs" predicted that
technology would lead to easy and perpetual US dominance of the
world. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters advised on "future warfare"
at the Army War College - prophesying in 1997 a coming "age of
constant conflict". Thomas Barnett at the Naval War College assisted
Vice-Admiral Cebrowski in developing "network-centric warfare".
General John Jumper of the air force predicted a planet easily
mastered from air and space. American forces would win everywhere
because they enjoyed what was unashamedly called the "God's-eye"
view of satellites and GPS: the "global information grid". This
hegemony would be welcomed as the cutting edge of human progress. Or
at worst, the military geeks candidly explained, US power would
simply terrify others into submitting to the stars and stripes.
Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance - a key strategic document
published in 1996 - aimed to understand how to destroy the "will to
resist before, during and after battle". For Harlan Ullman of the
National Defence University, its main author, the perfect example
was the atom bomb at Hiroshima. But with or without such a weapon,
one could create an illusion of unending strength and ruthlessness.
Or one could deprive an enemy of the ability to communicate, observe
and interact - a macro version of the sensory deprivation used on
individuals - so as to create a "feeling of impotence". And one must
always inflict brutal reprisals against those who resist. An
alternative was the "decay and default" model, whereby a nation's
will to resist collapsed through the "imposition of social
All of this came to be applied in Iraq in 2003, and not merely in
the March bombardment called "shock and awe". It has been usual to
explain the chaos and looting in Baghdad, the destruction of
infrastructure, ministries, museums and the national library and
archives, as caused by a failure of Rumsfeld's planning. But the
evidence is this was at least in part a mask for the destruction of
the collective memory and modern state of a key Arab nation, and the
manufacture of disorder to create a hunger for the occupier's
supervision. As the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in May 2003, US
troops broke the locks of museums, ministries and universities and
told looters: "Go in Ali Baba, it's all yours!"
For the American imperial strategists invested deeply in the belief
that through spreading terror they could take power.
Neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and the
recently indicted Lewis "Scooter" Libby, learned from Leo Strauss
that a strong and wise minority of humans had to rule over the weak
majority through deception and fear, rather than persuasion or
compromise. They read Le Bon and Freud on the relationship of crowds
to authority. But most of all they loved Hobbes's Leviathan. While
Hobbes saw authority as free men's chosen solution to the
imperfections of anarchy, his 21st century heirs seek to create the
fear that led to submission. And technology would make it possible
On the logo of the Pentagon's Information Awareness Office, the
motto is Scientia est potentia - knowledge is power . The IAO
promised "total information awareness", an all-seeing eye spilling
out a death-ray gaze over Eurasia. Congressional pressure led the
IAO to close, but technospeak, half-digested political theory and
megalomania still riddle US thinking. Barnett, in The Pentagon's New
Map and Blueprint for Action, calls for a "systems administrator"
force to be dispatched with the military, to "process" conquered
countries. The G8 and a few others are the "Kantian core", writes
Barnett, warming over the former Blair adviser Robert Cooper's
poisonous guff from 2002; their job is to export their economy and
politics by force to the unlucky "Hobbesian gap". Imperialism is
imagined as an industrial technique to remake societies and
cultures, with technology giving sanction to those who intervene.
The Afghanistan war of 2001 taught the wrong lessons. The US assumed
this was the model of how a small, special forces-dominated
campaign, using local proxies and calling in gunships or airstrikes,
would sweep away opposition. But all Afghanistan showed was how an
outside power could intervene in a finely balanced civil war. The
one-eyed Mullah Omar's great escape on his motorbike was a warning
that the God's-eye view can miss the human detail.
The problem for the US today is that Leviathan has shot his wad.
Iraq revealed the hubris of the imperial geostrategy. One small
nation can tie down a superpower. Air and space supremacy do not
give command on the ground. People can't be terrorised into
identification with America. The US has proved able to destroy
massively - but not create, or even control. Afghanistan and Iraq
lie in ruins, yet the occupiers cower behind concrete mountains.
The spin machine is on full tilt to represent Iraq as a success.
Peters, in New Glory: Expanding America's Supremacy, asserts: "Our
country is a force for good without precedent"; and Barnett, in
Blueprint, says: "The US military is a force for global good that
... has no equal." Both offer ambitious plans for how the US is
going to remake the third world in its image. There is a violent
hysteria to the boasts. The narcissism of a decade earlier has given
way to an extrovert rage at those who have resisted America's will
since 2001. Both urge utter ruthlessness in crushing resistance. In
November 2004, Peters told Fox News that in Falluja "the best
outcome, frankly, is if they're all killed".
But he directs his real fury at France and Germany: "A haggard
Circe, Europe dulled our senses and fooled us into believing in her
attractions. But the dugs are dry in Germany and France. They
deluded us into prolonging the affair long after our attentions
should have turned to ... India, South Africa, Brazil."
While a good Kleinian therapist may be able to help Peters work
through his weaning trauma, only America can cure its post 9/11
mixture of paranoia and megalomania. But Britain - and other allied
states - can help. The US needs to discover, like a child that does
not know its limits, that there is a world outside its body and
desires, beyond even the reach of its toys, that suffers too.
· Dr Richard Drayton, a senior lecturer in history at Cambridge
University, is the author of Nature's Government, a study of
science, technology and imperialism
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
(In accordance with Title 17
U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the
included information for research and educational purposes.
Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the
originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House
endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)