HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS Elements of the Bush Doctrine Will Outlive the Bush Presidency
World Politics Review | 5.5.08
By Alan W. Dowd

President George W. Bush has been dismissed as a lame duck, but it appears that significant elements of the doctrine that bears his name will endure long after he leaves the White House.

Although we haven't heard much about the Bush Doctrine in recent years, its impact on American foreign policy -- both positive and negative -- is as significant as it is misunderstood.

The doctrine is generally associated with the preventive war against Iraq, but it has more than one component. The first was unveiled during Bush's address to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, long before the U.S. swept into Iraq. "From this day forward," Bush explained, "any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Few had a problem with the Bush Doctrine in this, its fetal stage. Most observers concluded that Bush was aiming his rhetoric -- and America's military might -- at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which indeed he was.

But then, in those heady days after the U.S. military's rapid defeat of the medieval Taliban, Bush began to outline something far more radical than simply rolling back terrorist organizations and the states that harbor and fund them.

In Bush's view, Iran, Kim Jong Il's half of Korea, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, "and their terrorist allies" comprised "an axis of evil" that had to be confronted. "The United States will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," he declared in his 2002 State of the Union. By autumn of that year, with the release of a new National Security Strategy, the doctrine was complete: "As a matter of common sense and self-defense," the document explained, "America will act against such emerging threats before they are fully formed."

Phase One of the Bush Doctrine was applied in Afghanistan, where it succeeded at taking down the Taliban and scattering and weakening al-Qaida. However, the Taliban continues to fight, al-Qaida's fragmented leadership survives in Pakistan, and the war goes on.

Phase Two of the doctrine was applied in Iraq, where it succeeded at eliminating a looming threat and preventing Hussein's thugocracy from reconstituting, redeploying or sharing its WMD program. Along the way, the ouster and capture of Hussein persuaded Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi to give up his WMD program in what might be called an act of preemptive surrender. However, the war against Hussein seemed to have the opposite effect on the other major pieces of the axis of evil, as Iran and North Korea pushed ahead with nuclear programs and Hezbollah launched a war against Israel. Worse yet, the preventive war in Iraq led to a postwar insurgency that has claimed 4,000 Americans.

In short, neither part of the Bush Doctrine has been a complete success -- that is, unless one defines success as protecting the American homeland from another 9/11. And by this measure, it has been an unqualified success.

It pays to recall that polls taken immediately after 9/11 show 80 percent of Americans were bracing for more attacks. In September 2002, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials were worried about "low-level . . . but deadly attacks" against the United States.

The enemy promised as much. But the follow-on attacks did not materialize. Instead, as historian Paul Johnson has observed, "America obliged the leaders of international terrorism to concentrate all their efforts on preventing democracy from emerging in Iraq."

In a wordless way, many Americans understand that the Bush Doctrine's proactive posture has put the enemy on the defensive and shifted the battlefront away from New York and Washington and Shanksville. They understand the harsh but sound calculus of this doctrine and the war it directs -- that it is better for American troops to fight and die in places like Kandahar and Basra than it is for American civilians to die in places like Manhattan. In fact, American troops call the war on terror their "away game."

Perhaps the Bush Doctrine's success at protecting the homeland is why some of Bush's harshest critics -- the people vying to become his successor -- have embraced, unwittingly or otherwise, elements of the Bush Doctrine.

Sen. John McCain was a rival to Bush long before Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama. But if elected, the Arizona senator will carry the Bush Doctrine mantle with gusto.

Although he was an early critic of how the postwar war in Iraq was prosecuted, he was an early supporter of both elements of the Bush Doctrine, and continues to embrace them today. As he put it earlier this spring, "We have enemies for whom no attack is too cruel, and no innocent life safe, and who would, if they could, strike us with the world's most terrible weapons. There are states that support them, and which might help them acquire those weapons because they share with terrorists the same animating hatred for the West."

Sounding like Bush did on the eve of the Afghanistan campaign, McCain believes the U.S. "must also have an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate, and deny them bases in failed or failing states."

Plus, McCain is realistic about the looming threat posed by Iran. "There's only one thing worse than military action against Iran," he soberly concludes. "And that is a nuclear-armed Iran."

Clinton falls somewhere between McCain and Obama on the Bush Doctrine metric. She represents New York, the very epicenter of the enemy's war on America, the place where the ground smoldered with fire and smoke for almost three months. She walked the ruins of the World Trade Center and weathered the salvos of the anthrax blitz in the weeks that followed. If she was not a hawk before that fateful fall, one can understand why she is more hawkish now. History's pivot points have a way of changing and focusing the mind.

In fact, she staked out a decidedly hawkish position on Iraq from 2002-2006. When Howard Dean and others raised the prospect of pulling out of Iraq, she argued, "We need a bigger presence." But she is running for the Democratic nomination, and as a savvy politician she knows her party is not full of hawks. Thus, she has vowed to withdraw U.S. forces and foreswear preemptive war.

However, Clinton goes off the charts on the Bush Doctrine metric in her ultra-hard line with the Iranians, threatening that "their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States." She even suggests creating a Cold War-style U.S. nuclear umbrella for Israel and "other countries that might be intimidated and bulled into submission by Iran," promising to "make it very clear to the Iranians that they would be risking massive retaliation were they to launch a nuclear attack on Israel."

Not even Bush has gone that far.

Indeed, at times, Clinton has sounded more like Bush than Bush himself. Echoing the impatient Bush of late 2002 and early 2003 -- when the president was primed to unleash the U.S. military against Saddam Hussein, only to be delayed by a detour through the U.N. -- Clinton has argued that the U.S. "lost critical time in dealing with Iran because the White House chose to downplay the threats and to outsource negotiations."

Obama would dismantle more of the Bush Doctrine than the other two candidates. He says he would begin withdrawing from Iraq "immediately" and would talk to -- rather than threaten -- Iran. But even in the post-Bush foreign policy envisioned by Obama, one can see traces of the Bush Doctrine.

For example, Obama proposes deploying "a counterterrorism force to strike al-Qaida" in Iraq. He argues that "we cannot tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten America's homeland. . . . If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al-Qaida targets in Pakistan's border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot."

Like it or not, that's the Bush Doctrine, at least Phase One of the Bush Doctrine. As Bush promised after 9/11, the U.S. would take "decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and sponsor them."

To be sure, it is unlikely that the next president will invoke the Bush Doctrine by name -- after all, President Dwight Eisenhower didn't throw around the words "Truman Doctrine." But the next president will employ elements of the Bush Doctrine, if for no other reason than this: it has succeeded at protecting the U.S. homeland.

This article was also featured on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.