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Bully for the Bush Doctrine:
A Natural History Perspective

by Harold Williamson
June 14, 2004

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During an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes," Richard Clarke, the top adviser on counter-terrorism to President Bush, said that immediately after the attacks of 9/11, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to bomb Iraq. Even after he was told that Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld still insisted that bombing Iraq was a better idea: "There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan, and there are lots of good targets in Iraq," he told Clarke.

Rumsfeld's response was obviously irrational, and if the subject weren't so serious, even comical. Clarke said this would have been akin to Franklin Roosevelt wanting to attack Mexico after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. But giving Rumsfeld the benefit of the doubt, he was probably still in shock from the enormity of this unprecedented terrorist attack.

But what compels seemingly intelligent men to react this irresponsibly?

The answer lies deep inside our primate brain. This instinctive behavior is known as "displaced aggression," and a considerable amount of primate violence consists of bullying those who are smaller and weaker.

Since 1978, Robert M. Sapolsky, a noted primatologist and neuroscientist at Stanford University, has studied a troop of olive baboons living in Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve. Sapolsky observed that when assaulted by another adult male baboon, the first reaction is to find someone nearby who is smaller and weaker and make them pay. A subadult male is sought out and chased. The subadult male then lunges at an even smaller adult female. She in turn swats an adolescent who then knocks over an infant.

This same behavior is manifest in the Bush doctrine of preventive war. Iraq was weakened by its previous wars and U.N. sanctions, and even though there never has been any evidence connecting the secular regime of Iraq with the Islamic extremist group Al Qaeda, Iraq was an obvious target for the Bush administration's displaced aggression.

But it is interesting to note that shortly after 9/11, George Bush also labeled Iran and North Korea as belonging to the same "axis of evil." However, because neither country is militarily weak, they have not been so quickly bullied. Iran is probably developing nuclear weapons, and North Korea probably has them already. But can you blame them? At the present time there is no better way to avoid becoming a victim of displaced aggression than to be a nuclear power.

This is precisely why the Bush doctrine of preventive war is self defeating. In an eloquent statement delivered last year on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Senator Robert Byrd said, "Indeed, we may have sparked a new international arms race as countries move ahead to develop WMD as a last ditch attempt to ward off a possible preemptive strike from a newly belligerent U.S. . . ."

Thomas Friedman, the chief foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times, stated shortly after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations: "The real reason for this war, which was never stated, was that after 9/11 America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world. Afghanistan wasn't enough." Friedman continued, "Smashing Saudi Arabia or Syria would have been fine. But we hit Saddam for one simple reason: because we could."

Only a handful of people in positions of influence have managed to control their aggressive instincts. Even the great Mohandas Gandhi had a violent nature. But according to his biographer, his subsequent mahatma-calm was the product of long training and temperament-control. He did not easily become an even-tempered advocate of nonviolence; he had to remold himself.

Albert Einstein observed that everything has changed since the day that the power of the atom was unleashed except for one thing: the way we think. We have a terrible history of solving our problems with violence when we should know better, and he implied that we must think anew or we will end up being destroyed by our own folly. More recent technological advancements in chemistry and biology make Einstein's admonition more prescient than ever.

But how we think does not necessarily affect the way we will behave when circumstance creates new fears or awakens old ones. The human is primarily an impulsive and emotional animal, and considering life's long history on Earth, only recently was the ability for abstract thinking added to this mix. Forever present in the human brain are primitive instincts that were necessary for our survival while scavenging and hunting the same prey favored by lions and hyenas in Africa's sub-Saharan Savannah.

The ultimate solution will be for the aggressive instincts of all humans to evolve beyond that of baboons. But this is going to take a very, very long time. So in the meantime, we must make a conscious effort to debate our differences within the world body politic, the United Nations, instead of unilaterally killing each other with ever increasing efficiency. In this way our superior human intellect can suppress the violent impulses stalking within our primate brain. Our survival as a species may very well depend on it.

Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based evolutionary zoologist and independent scholar. He can be reached at: Copyright 2004, Harold Williamson