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MICHAEL BURNS: In the Crosshairs of Preventive War.

"I made this film because I feel a sense of responsibility as an American.  Here we are, living in a place of enormous wealth, opportunity, beauty and privilege, where alongside those things, and to preserve those things, our government engages in extremely dangerous behavior. Here, if you choose, you can ignore US foreign policy. Meanwhile, around the world, American foreign, economic and military policy, is not something you can ignore. In fact, it is determining the course of your life, your aspirations and your potential. So, as an American, I have the chance to try and do something about that..."

Michael Burns is the producer/director of two films on American politics, Third Party and Preventive Warriors.  He’s a native of Connecticut and a veteran of the US student anti-sweatshop movement.  He's given many talks and presentations on his films, US foreign policy, and related issues. 

Preventative Warriors is an in depth look at the Bush Administration's  blueprint for pre-emptive wars for the present and future. Focussing on a little known strategy document called The National Security Strategy of 2002 released by the White House in September of that year, the film shows how this paper encapsulates the current direction in US foreign policy at it advocates a pro-active military posture bent on confronting threats "before they have emerged." Touching on several themes in curreny affairs, such as WMD, rogue states, terrorism and the war in Iraq, the film uses world-class scholars and think-tank members to drive a discussion on the issues likely to frame the legacy of the 21st Century.

Michael Burns says: I made this film because I feel a sense of responsibility as an American. Here we are, living in a place of enormous wealth, opportunity, beauty and privilege, where along side those things, and to preserve those things, our government engages in extremely dangerous behavior. Here, if you choose, you can ignore US foreign policy. Meanwhile, around the world, American foreign, economic and military policy is not something you can ignore. In fact, it is determining the course of your life, your aspirations and your potential. So, as an American, I have the chance to try and do something about that and try to make a small change in consciousness here that could possibly mean something for those struggling to get through life abroad. I, and of course your readers, along with more and more people around the world, choose not to ignore what is going on."
 - from the interview with the Director | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In the Crosshairs of Preventive War

March 2006 Update of :

Bush Pre-emptive War National Security Strategy Targets Iran: An Interview with Preventive Warriors director Michael Burns

Interviewer is Sara K. Wood, University of Birmingham UK

Michael, your film on the National Security Strategy of 2002, the document that served as the official written basis for the pre-emptive war policy of the White House, came out in May of 2004. What’s happened since then?

Several things have happened worth paying attention to. The first is that we have continued to wage a war in Iraq that has turned parts of that country into the terrorist havens George Bush told us were there before the war but weren’t. Since the film came out, over a thousand coalition troops have died, and, according to conservative estimates, tens of thousands of Iraqis have been murdered, putting the country on the brink of civil war (or actually in one according to Iraqi former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi). Along side these awful events, none of the lies that the war was based on have been apologized for, from Bush’s assertion that the war’s purpose is to “uphold the integrity of the United Nations” which he hates and acted against the wishes of, to Jack Straw’s famous line that the “single question” in Iraq is ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction. Really? Why are British soldiers still fighting then? Because as we know that question has long been settled.

Another important thing that’s happened is that defense spending all around the world is way up, including places like Russia and China. This tends to happen when the world’s biggest power says that military solutions conceived by it and it alone will settle major world problems. The message of lawlessness is clear to the rest of the world, and they respond the way you would expect. They’ve learned the lesson from Iraq that guns speak louder than words.

So these are important, albeit profoundly frightening developments that have occurred or were underway and have continued since the documentary came out.

What did you make of the new updated 2006 National Security Strategy (NSS) document, the first since the NSS of 2002?

In the March 16, 2006 unveiling of the new National Security Strategy, President Bush didn’t revise the stated policy of pre-emption, of attacking another country first (an action better described as preventive rather than pre-emptive, as they’re not quite interchangeable). The new NSS says the policy "remains the same,” and is a key component of US strategy in the "early years of a long struggle,” presumably the endless war on terror.

Specifically the new NSS elaborates by saying, "If necessary… under long-standing principles of self defense, we [the US government] do not rule out use of force before attacks occur, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack…. When the consequences of an attack with WMD are potentially so devastating, we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."

But here we face the same logical breakdown as we did with the 2002 version of the National Security Strategy.

Pre-emption, attacking someone before they have the opportunity to attack you, is nothing new. It’s a long-standing and widely accepted strategy employed by law enforcement against criminals, for example. With a pair of extremely important qualifications. The legitimate use of it depends on two things: the evidence of intent of the other to attack, and the capability of the other to attack. These qualifications mean all the world of difference. They separate legitimate self-defense measures to repel an attack from arbitrary use of force whenever you feel like it. Bush declares his right to use pre-emption divorced from these qualifications, under the guise of self-defense.

Returning to a sane use of the word pre-emption (rather than Bush’s, which is just another way of saying might equals right), I recommend Nicholas Berry’s look at the new 2006 NSS. Considering intent to attack and capability to attack as moral and legal necessities to a pre-emptive strategy, he asks: “What countries might attack the United States or its allies? Those with capabilities – Russia and China – have absolutely no intent. Those that might like to develop an intent – North Korea, Syria, and Iran – have either no or insufficient capabilities. Thus they have not developed any intention to attack.

The militarism enters the picture when Bush can declare both intent and capability while manufacturing evidence for both. He did so with Iraq. He is doing so with Iran. Iran in the NSS is identified as the country likely to present the ‘single greatest future challenge to the United States’ and ‘threatens Israel.’ The NSS warns against states that ‘produce fissile material that can be used to make nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear power program.’ Not mentioned is the fact that IAEA inspectors can [find] no evidence that Iran has a weapons program. [But] for Bush, who needs evidence?”

I think Berry is right on the money. And he closes by noting that unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s formal military will not crumble, which I think he’s right about as well.

So, to get back to your question, when it comes to the Strategy as a whole, the 2002 version was geared toward Iraq, and this is geared toward Iran with very few changes or additions of substance. And again, as far as preventive war is concerned, there is no revision and certainly no apology for it.

Iraq was of course the first application of the preventive war strategy. Though the majority of Americans now say the war in Iraq is not worth it, many seem torn about the governmental outcome because you could say that regime change was welcomed in Iraq. What do you say to the people, including Iraqis of course, who are glad to have gotten rid of Saddam Hussein?

Who wouldn’t be glad? If I were Iraqi I would be thrilled that Saddam Hussein is behind bars and 74% of the population is. But let’s look at some other numbers from a 2005 poll of Iraqis undertaken for the UK Ministry of Defense that was leaked to British media:

Between 45 and 65% of Iraqis believe attacks on US and British troops are justified.

82% are strongly opposed to the presence of coalition troops.

Less than one percent of the population believes that coalition troops are responsible for any improvement in security.

67% feel less secure because of the occupation.

So what do these numbers tell us? They tell us that people hated Saddam but hate occupation too and that they refuse to be occupied by armies with no legitimate presence. They tell us that coalition troops are not welcomed and are part of the problem not the solution, if the opinion of the Iraqi people matters at all (after all the supposed aim is to bring them democracy and to respect their opinion, right?). These numbers also tell us that the way US and UK government officials try to frame the argument over and over again- that no matter what, Iraq today is better than under Saddam- is an absurd, false choice formulation that any child can recognize as a desperate attempt to spin a disastrous war. When your argument is that our mass violence is less worse than someone else’s mass violence, and that the recipients should be thankful not resentful for our reduced level of violence, then you’ve lost any conceivable moral authority or ground to stand on. Comparing two crimes’ severity in order to absolve one is a sick exercise in my opinion, and a purely academic one. They’re both crimes.

Picking up on Bush, and to play devil’s advocate for a second, if he’s been such a disaster, how could the war continue to be waged, and if confidence in him was shaky from the start, how could the US have followed him to war in the first place?

It’s important to keep in mind how the US built its case for war in Iraq. Lewis Lapham at Harper’s Magazine just wrote an article in which he counted 237 false or misleading statements, 55 by the President himself, where he linked Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Quotes like, in the War on Terror “you can’t distinguish between Ai Qaeda and Saddam.”

So what was the result of this PR offensive that conflated these sworn enemies into a single evil force?

In US opinion polls spanning 2003 to 2004, 76% of those responding said that Saddam Hussein provides assistance to al-Qaeda, with 45% believing that Hussein was personally involved in the attacks of September 11th. Forty-four per cent believed that some or most of the hijackers were Iraqis. And 25% of the US population believed that the US had publicly released evidence linking Iraq to the planning and funding of 9/11. Of course all of these are false. They also make my stomach turn. I can think of nothing more disgraceful than to use what happened on 9/11 for an unrelated political purpose, to use the anger, confusion, and vulnerability as an opportunity to be cashed in on. It’s like spitting on the graves of those office workers, cleaners, clerks, and business people who died in New York and Washington.

With these numbers it should be very clear as to how the war was allowed to start and why it continues. Combine these numbers with a February 2006 Zogby poll that 90% of US troops currently in Iraq think the war is in retaliation for Saddam’s role in 9/11 and you start to see how reality has been supplanted by government spin and propaganda. Most importantly you see that both US military and public support is based on the goal of preventing another 9/11. But sadly, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and our actions in Iraq are making terrorist attacks more likely, having invigorated and swelled the ranks of al-Qaeda.

So in order to understand the war and its origins, as far as US public and political permissibility is concerned, you have to understand the verbal effort to tie Iraq to 9/11 and terrorism, concluding with Colin Powell’s absurd presentation to the UN, and the whole “mushroom cloud over New York is next” statements: all of these “first-wave” public relations efforts. This rhetoric about spreading democracy, it’s important to remember, only surfaced after the supposed foundational pillars of rationale for the war collapsed one after the other. This is the second wave.

Iran is not Iraq, and of course has a much more robust infrastructure and greater military capability. Despite this, the rhetoric from the Bush Administration on stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power seems to be getting more hostile everyday. Do you see the possibility of a US first-strike attack on Iran?

Well, there are several things to consider. The first thing to look at, I think, is something that’s been slightly overlooked. One reason often put forth as evidence that the US is just posturing and won’t actually attack Iran is that Iran’s capability of retaliation regionally is much stronger and its role in global petro-politics too prominent. But this type of thinking could be a mistake. Remember that before attacking Iraq, there were no shortage of mainstream commentators from multiple sides of the political spectrum who accurately predicted disaster in the country and just the kind of al-Qaeda recruiting exercise it has become. This suggests that logic should not be given too much credence when you’re talking about the Bush Administration. They’ve proven very willing to take massive risks with American dollars and lives in pursuit of their incredibly ambitious aims. Dismissing the possibility that they will attack Iran, therefore, because it doesn’t make sense and may increase violence in the region and beyond is, I think, unwarranted.

The truth is that no one knows what the US will do in Iran. One of the most astute political analysts and public intellectuals in the country, Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies, put together a list of key points to keep in mind that I think are extremely important regarding Iran.

She writes:

- Escalating rhetoric, continued losses in Iraq, Bush's political problems, and an ideologically-driven pursuit of power make the possibility of a U.S. military attack on Iran - however reckless and however dangerous its consequences - a frighteningly real possibility.

- Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not violated the Treaty. While there appear to be unresolved issues regarding full transparency, its nuclear program, including enriching uranium, is perfectly legal under NPT requirements for non-nuclear weapons states.

- Iran does not have nuclear weapons; even if it is trying to build a nuclear weapons program, it could not produce weapons for five to ten years or more.

- There is a dangerous, unmonitored and provocative nuclear arsenal in the Middle East; it belongs to Israel, not Iran. U.S. hypocrisy and double standards in nuclear policy, accepting Israel's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and rewarding India's nuclear weapons status while threatening war against Iran and denying its own obligations under the NPT, has undermined Washington's claimed commitment to non-proliferation.

- U.S. officials claim they are not considering an invasion of Iran but "only" surgical air strikes against known nuclear facilities; they have not explained what their military response will be when Iran retaliates, whether against U.S. troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, against U.S. oil tankers in near-by shipping lanes, or against Israel.

- Global suspicions remain regarding U.S. claims because of Washington's lies leading to the invasion of Iraq, but international conditions regarding Iran are significantly different; many governments appear more willing to consider Iran a "threat."

I think these observations are highly relevant as tension heats up. Personally, I don’t feel confident to venture a guess either way on whether the US will attack Iran. There are persuasive arguments for and against the likelihood. While unelected political operatives in the White House may have fantasies of leaving office by striking the country they hate the most, the possibility of retaliation and unforeseen consequences may prove too risky to Republicans terrified of further domestic political fallout as we move into the 2008 election cycle. So domestic electoral concerns may play a significant role in what happens. Only time, and the extent of the willingness of citizens and politicians to expose lies and argue for peace, will tell.

When it comes to preventive attacks, often you hear people suggest that to end the suffering of oppressed people in other countries, sometimes our international system fails, and unilateral action is necessary. What do you say to that?

That’s just not how states behave if you look at the world. Just to take a few obvious examples. Look at the number of deaths in The Republic of Congo, 38,000 a month right now according to the BBC. And of course you have Rwanda back in the 90s, 850,000 dead during the presidency of Bill Clinton who ceaselessly repeats these days how much he “loves Africa.” I highly recommend the book Shake Hands with the Devil, Romeo Dalliare’s book on the failure of the world yet again to take action to prevent mass killings in that country. Or take the fact that according to the UN over 29,000 children die everyday of hunger and preventable disease. Or look at Hurricane Katrina in the US last summer. Looking at just these four events, ask yourself, is ending suffering a priority for states that can do anything about it? Or is it more the case that when other interests arise so does the rhetoric about liberating the oppressed?

As the war continues and potential conflicts loom, where do progressive-minded reformers go from here?

I think the shock of terrorism understandably causes populations to give governments leeway where they wouldn’t otherwise- to respond to and address the situation and increase security. This is what’s happened in the US and UK obviously. But now we see that we are less safe, hatred of Western governments is way up, and terrorism is more likely than ever. So those who so quickly proposed militarist solutions to the terrorist problem have proven themselves failures and their tactics counterproductive in the one arena they were given the benefit of the doubt in- increasing security. The part of the world’s population that gave them benefit of the doubt in this respect is now waking up to the reality that others suspected from the beginning: their choices are making things worse, not better.

I see justice-minded activists’ main job as making sure of something. We must make sure that the betrayal and justified disgust directed at the free-market fundamentalists and war-loving zealots presently in office do not translate into further disengagement with the critical struggle for political reform. Our present leaders want compliance, but if they can’t get it, the next best thing is our tacit agreement out of frustration, it’s for us to give up on politics because of our realization of their incompetence and dishonesty. We can’t let this happen. Political office has to be a centerpiece to long-term democratic renewal. If there could be a wake up call louder than the tragic events of our times for the need for more, not less, political participation with the aim of urgent electoral regime change at home, I don’t know what it could be.

Thanks very much Michael and congratulations on the continued success with the film.

More about Preventive Warriors is available at its website

Michael Burns' current projects are Majority Rules and Laban: The Meaning of the EDSA Revolution.

To book a speaking engagement or interview contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..