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The Bush Doctrine

A Combination of Unilateralism and Preventive Warfare


The Bush Doctrine

President George W. Bush addresses a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.

Photo by Eric Draper/White House

The term "Bush Doctrine" applies to the foreign policy approach that George W. Bush practiced during this two terms as president, 2001-2009. It was the basis for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Neoconservative Framework

The Bush Doctrine grew from neoconservative dissatisfaction with President Bill Clinton's handling of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. The U.S. had beaten Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. That war's goals, however, were limited to forcing Iraq to abandon its occupation of Kuwait and did not include toppling Hussein.

Many neocnservatives, and indeed many Americans in general, were unhappy that the U.S. did not depose Hussein. Post-war peace terms also dictated that Hussein allow United Nations inspectors to periodically search Iraq for evidence of programs to build weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which could include chemical or nuclear weapons. Hussein repeatedly angered neo-cons as he stalled or prohibited U.N. inspections.

Neoconservative Letter to Clinton

In January 1998, a group of neoconservative "hawks" (who advocated warfare, if necessary, to achieve their goals) sent a letter to President Clinton calling for the removal of Hussein. They explained that Hussein's interference with U.N. weapons inspectors made it impossible to gain any concrete intelligence about Iraqi weapons. For the neo-cons, Hussein's firing of SCUD missiles at Israel during the Gulf War and his use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s erased any doubt that he would use any WMD he obtained.

The group stressed that "containment" of Hussein's Iraq had failed. In the main point of their letter they said, "Given the magnitude of the threat, the current policy, which depends for its success upon the steadfastness of our coalition partners and upon the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, is dangerously inadequate. The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy."

Signers of the letter included Donald Rumsfeld, who would become George W. Bush's first secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz, who would become undersecretary of defense.

"America First" Unilateralism

The Bush Doctrine has an element of "America first" unilateralism that revealed itself well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the War on Terror, or the Iraqi War.

That revelation came in March 2001, just two months into Bush's presidency, when he withdrew the United States from the U.N.'s "Kyoto Protocol" to reduce worldwide greenhouse gasses. Bush reasoned that transitioning American industry from coal to cleaner electricity or natural gas would drive up energy costs and force a rebuilding of manufacturing infrastructures.

The decision made the United States one of two developed nations not subscribing to the Kyoto Protocol. The other was Australia, which has since made plans join protocol nations.

With Us or Against Us

After Al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the Bush Doctrine took on a new dimension. That night, Bush told Americans that, in fighting terrorism, the U.S. would not distinguish between terrorists and nations that harbor terrorists.

Bush expanded on that when he addressed a joint session of Congress on September 20. He said, "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

In October 2001, U.S. and allied troops invaded Afghanistan, where intelligence indicated the Taliban government was harboring Al Qaeda.

Preventive War

In January 2002 Bush's foreign policy headed toward one of preventive war. Bush described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" that supported terror and sought WMD. He said, "We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin commented, Bush was putting a new spin on a traditional war policy. "Preemption has in fact been a staple of our foreign policy for ages -- and other countries' as well," he said. "The twist Bush put on it was embracing 'preventive' war: Taking action well before an attack was imminent -- invading a country that was simply perceived as threatening."

By the end of 2002, the Bush administration was talking openly about the possibility of Iraq possessing WMD and reiterating that it harbored and supported terrorists. That rhetoric indicated that the "hawks" who had written Clinton in 1998 now held sway in the Bush cabinet. A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, quickly toppling Hussein's regime.


A bloody insurgency against American occupation of Iraq and U.S. inability to quickly prop up a working democratic government hurt the Bush Doctrine. Most damaging was the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Any "preventive war" doctrine relies on good intelligence, but the absence of WMD highlighted a problem of faulty intelligence.

The Bush Doctrine essentially died in 2006. By then the army in Iraq was focusing on damage repair and pacification, and the military preoccupation with Iraq had enabled the Taliban in Afghanistan to reverse American successes. In November, public dissatisfaction with the wars enabled Democrats to reclaim control of Congress. It also forced Bush to usher the "hawks" -- most notably Rumsfeld -- out of his cabinet.

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