INFOinterventions # August 6, 2002
9-11: A Strategic Ontology: Pre-Emptive Strike and the Production of (In)Security
Solon Barocas, Research Assistant, ITWP
is the hot new ticket. Both President George
W. Bush and Director Steven
Spielberg have done
well in their respective deployments of the first strike policy. But let
us not be misled. Pre-emption in and of itself is no great political novelty.
It extends a strategic military legacy stretching back to the Cold War. For
the Bush administration to label pre-emptive strike a new doctrine is to expand
its power, extend its reach, and lobby for support. The great political liability
is not so much global security as it is domestic and international support.
How do you make pre-emptive strikes politically and socially palatable? To borrow
from Minority Report's promotional
pre-crime website, you promise everyone that it works and you promise that
it brings peace. The Bush administration does just that in full confidence of
technologies and global surveillance.
Not three weeks before the release of Spielbergs pre-crime blockbuster, Bush formalized a policy of pre-emptive attack during a graduation address at West Point:
"Our security will require transforming the military you will leada military that must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."
The rhetorical performance tactically and, it seems, convincingly aligned pre-emption
with the return of US military agency in a non-state conflict. It further appears
that the Bush administration has found a way to legitimate its continued existence:
pre-emption opens up a space of perpetual, potential military engagement. Political
leaders become necessarynot to mention powerfulin a security crisis
framed as a permanent state of exception; a
practice well theorized in Hardt and Negri's Empire. This is the
current-day story of pre-emption: the only viable defense in the post-Cold War
world is a pre-emptive offense.
And the future does not look very different. As Minority
Report would have it, we can only achieve security in pre-empting the
future. Cruisethe poster boy of a pre-crime program that arrests would-be
murderers before they are able to commit offensegives us just the guarantee
we are looking for: the
system is perfect. A set of three genetically modified pre-cognitives
(pre-cogs) has eliminated all homicidal activity in Washington, DC, 2054. We
should recall, though, that even without the help of clairvoyance, offensive
defense is no new thing. It was widely considered during Kennedys
term in office (with particular support during the Cuban Missile Crisis)
and has been used by Israel on a number of occasions (the
Six Day war, of course, but also in the now oft-referred bombing
of an Iraqi nuclear power plant in Osirak). At the international legal level,
pre-emptive attacks have been justified as acts of national
survival. At the literal level, these kinds of campaigns have often been
strategically named defensive, like the US Ballistic
Missile Defense or Israeli Operation
Protective Shield. Minority
Report, however, offers us a look at a pre-emption program geared toward
absolute security rather than basic survival and defense. The US, I believe,
is looking toward the former.
However, a shift in the nature and balance of power has raised new questions
about the legitimacy and efficacy of pre-emptive strategies. Consider the current
of US military troops through the Middle East (principally Saudi Arabia)
and East Asia. At what moment did these installationsboth on ground and
seabecome unquestionably defensive in nature? A military posture in stations
abroad has shifted from a symptom of a balance of power system to an expression
of hegemonic reach in a unipolar world. In a June 6 address to NATO,
Rumsfeld was at pains to suggest otherwise:
"If a terrorist can attack at any time, at any place, using any technique, and it is physically impossible to defend every place at every time against every technique, then one needs to calibrate the definition of 'defensive'. The only defense is to find these global networks and deal with them as the US did in Afghanistan. Now is that defensive or is it offensive? I personally think of it as defensive."
The semantic games employed by Rumsfeld, not unlike those
rattled off by Cruise in response to skeptics of the pre-crime program,
divert our attention from the larger historical and philosophical threads tied
into pre-emption. The policy is old hat and in keeping with a long-standing
military disposition toward hegemonic rule. It is rather the rhetorical response
to the current security crisis that is a novel logical leap. Step back to the
September 11 Department of Defense briefing and we find that Rumsfeld offers
us the same setup with a much different assessment:
"A terrorist can attack at any time and at any place using any technique. It is physically impossible to defend at every time in every place against every technique. It is not possible to give guarantees."
If there are, in fact, no guarantees, why is pre-emption guaranteed to work?
In this regard, the immediate media uproar over Bushs plans is doubly
misdirected: (1) it misses the larger history surrounding these security practices
and (2) wrongly identifies the policy, rather than the technology, as the central
innovation. Whats at stake is not so much the novelty of the military
campaign, but the way in which a faith in IT now substitutes for resolution
to ethical dilemmas rhetorically deflected or outright dismissed by our political
leaders. In framing the pre-emptive strike policy as a new move in strategic
security measures, the Bush administration has given new moral recourse to the
same old problem-solving tactics from the Cold War.
This seems particularly true of the impending
US strike against Iraq. Parties who have pressed the Bush administration
for tangible evidence of Iraqs weapons of mass destruction have all been
issued the same refrain: there is overwhelming, though classified, information.
Under such a system of logic, the political and ethical burden is transferred
onto an inaccessible complex of IT and surveillance. Would an attack on Iraq
be the direct result of a raw accumulation of information or can we locate a
moral agent somewhere in this system? At the recent TACT
symposium, Scott Ritter, former United
Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector to Iraq, argued that
the US has long
desired to topple Saddam Hussein. That the current plans conveniently fall
into a larger, technology-heavy doctrine of pre-emptive strike conceals the
longer history of aggression.
A policy of pre-emptive strike is indeed liable to translate into a unilateral expression of power, providing a murky platform for attacks against any would-be aggressor. There is much to fear about such abuse, and I believe Minority Report successfully addresses this problem. But I take exception with most critics' failure (particularly Anthony Lanes) to read beyond the films neat packagecould we have it any other way?as a serious, though ultimately flat, interrogation of disciplinary pre-emption. What might we have seen in Minority Report had conspiracy not been the motivating device? The real danger of any pre-crime program lies not, as Spielberg would have it, in megalomania, but in the inherent (dis)continuity of time and proof. What the film solves in a twist of plot, play on suspense, and rupture in character detracts from the larger issue at hand. What is most frightening, and perhaps most illusive, is the fundamental paradox at the heart of any policy of pre-emption: it is an exercise of knowledge and power without an epistemology. Pre-emption is the ultimate epistemological crisis where questions of proof become meaningless. The current first strike policy championed by the Bush administration would have us invest IT with that production of knowledge, that burden of proof. But we must remember that technology itself cannot be perfect; indeed, technology does not have any inherent value. It is a false equation: perfect technology is not perfect security. Such is the problematic at the intersection of information technologies, war, and peace: technology exercises only so much moral authority as our leaders.