The Resurgence of the Bush Doctrine?

Nikhil Sachdev

In his first 100 days, newly inaugurated U.S. President Donald Trump seems to be emulating the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. With unprecedented unilateral strikes in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, it seems that Trump’s foreign policy finds its foundations in the ‘Bush Doctrine’. Donald Trump’s moral basis for the missiles sent in response to Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Khan-Sheikhun can be seen in a similar light to Bush’s ideological shift away from ‘Cold War’ era foreign policy and towards direct intervention in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The diminished tolerance of the US towards anti-democratic actors such as the Taliban, which it had previously assisted in the achievement of its Cold War national interest of containing the Soviet Union demonstrates a key ideological shift towards promotion of democracy and US values. This shift from pragmatism to ideological dogmatism is perhaps reflective of America’s newfound unipolarity in the global arena, and Trump’s recent unilateralism shows a desire to capitalise on this.

The Bush administration did not target one particular state, but rather ‘terror’ as a concept. Any actor, state or non-state, which was perceived to be implicated in actions that were against US interests was a target of the Bush Doctrine, which focused less on deterrence and more on aggressive utility of American military might in both a proactive and reactive manner. The unilateralism exhibited by the Bush Administration in executing its policy objectives in the Middle East was in stark contrast to the approaches of Cold War Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Raegan and Bill Clinton. Under Bush, the US became more sceptical of the ability of multilateral international institutions to take decisive action in relation to its priorities of democracy promotion and combating terror, and thus subverted these authorities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump, in his criticisms of NATO, the United Nations, and his unilateral actions in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan certainly seems to be emulating this approach.

9/11 represented a paradigm shift for American foreign policy, in that it became more aggressive in nature. Indeed, “Bush decided to adopt the neoconservative vision embracing a far reaching and proactive foreign policy based on American military power”. It is important to note the distinction between America’s foreign policy in the Cold War context and in the post 9/11 context when highlighting the distinction between the two. The Cold War existed in a bipolar global system, whereby the USA and the Soviet Union were the opposing great powers. By 9/11, the global system was unipolar with the US as a global hegemon. This distinction is significant because following 9/11 “the Bush administration was challenged by the necessity to develop new responses and propose innovative patterns of behaviour in the political arena”. The actions of Al Qaeda elicited an unprecedented policy response from the USA in that direct military engagement to protect their interests was not applied to any one state or actor, but instead was to be an explicit exertion of authority at a global level. Whilst, in the Cold War the Soviet Union was a clearly manifested enemy, no one actor was targeted by the Bush doctrine. Instead of waging war against a state, the US begun to use its military might against any and all actors who stood against their core ideological values, in particular, that of democracy.

This was exemplified by President George W. Bush’s assertion that “Either you [states] are with us, or you are with the terrorists”. Indeed, the binary framework established by Bush defined the parameters of this doctrine as the ‘War on Terror’. Following a large scale attack on US soil, it is argued that this framework formed the justification for the unilateral military action of the USA in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, there can be understood to be “four major tenets in the Bush Doctrine: pre-emption, unilateralism, military supremacy, and the exporting of democracy”. This is perhaps reflected by the increase in military spending during the Bush Administration from USD 290.6 billion in the year 2000, to USD 606.5 billion in 2008. The US led wars in the Middle East against the state of Iraq, and against non-state actors of Al Qaeda and the Taliban were reflective of this more aggressive policy outlook.

The Bush Doctrine centred on aggressive policy of direct intervention against authoritarian states and other actors that did not support the US. This was fundamentally different to “the strategy that won the Cold War- the combination of containment and deterrence” in dealing with adversaries. In terms of the Middle East, the approaches of Cold War Presidents Carter and Reagan aimed to limit the Soviet Union and the spread of communism following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Consequently, it is argued that Middle Eastern nations or entities were not central to either of these Presidents policy objectives in and of themselves. Actions carried out in the Middle East as part of Carter and Raegan’s foreign policy doctrines were undertaken primarily in response to the Soviet Union. This viewpoint was enunciated by President Carter, in his statement that “The Soviet Union… [is] using its great military power against a relatively defenceless nation… an attempt by any outside forces to gain control of the Persian Gulf Region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the USA, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”. This threat of ‘military force’ was framed around the protection of the ‘Persian Gulf Region’ from ‘outside forces’. Whilst Carter was clearly not averse to using military power, the frameworks provided for foreign policy in this area were presented in a defensive manner. This perhaps further cements the idea that the Middle East was not the focal point of US policy, but rather, a geopolitical flashpoint in its aims to contain the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War.

Whilst Reagan’s policies can be seen to be more aggressive than Carter’s, and adopted a conservative ideological viewpoint, in both situations there was a clearly defined state enemy in the Soviet Union. Reagan differed from Carter in actively supplying weapons to ‘freedom fighters’, whilst there was less conclusive action in the Middle East despite interventionist rhetoric from Carter. In both situations, it is clearly evident that Middle Eastern states were seen as the battle ground against Soviet aggression, and not critical to any policy objective in and of themselves. The binary mentality of the Bush Doctrine could be seen as less evident in the Cold War context than in the Middle East. This is shown by the willingness of Reagan in particular to utilise Middle Eastern paramilitary forces, such as the Afghan Mujahedeen, who despite a radical Islamist ideology, shared a common anti-Soviet mentality. Whilst the USA in the Cold War period wanted to contain the Soviet Union “by any means necessary”, Bush sought to promote democracy.

In terms of Middle Eastern policy, the presidency of Bill Clinton is also said to contrast that of Bush in that it was less reactionary. Throughout Clinton’s presidency, attacks against American targets increased. These included the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000- where a US Navy ship was bombed in Yemen’s Port of Aden, killing 17 US Soldiers and injuring 39 people. It was retrospectively determined that Al Qaeda were responsible for this attack. Clinton’s response to this was criticised by neoconservatives in the USA as lacking, in that there was no direct repercussions for the perpetrators. However, it has been suggested that “If the agencies had given him a definitive answer [as to who the perpetrator of the USS Cole attacks were]… he would have sought a UN Security Council Ultimatum… before taking further action against both al Qaeda and the Taliban”. When comparing this to Bush, it can be said that Clinton was less willing to act unilaterally in that Clinton sought a conclusive justification for retaliatory action.

The Bush Doctrine’s most significant diversions from traditional “containment and deterrence” policies were the notions of unilateral intervention and pre-emptive conflict, which manifested themselves in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The National Security Strategy released by the Administration in 2002 can be seen as a formalised move away from previous American foreign policy. Whilst Iraq was not understood to have been directly implicated in the 9/11 attacks, the Bush Doctrine defined a prospective threat in that nation, based on what it considered to be a combination of “radicalism and technology”. Indeed, the National Security Strategy states:

“In the Cold War, we faced a generally status quo, risk averse adversary… but deterrence based only on the threat of retaliation is less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks… traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy”.

The Bush Administration rightly took the position that Cold War techniques of containment would not work against “rogue states” seeking Weapons of Mass Destruction, and would be irrelevant against non-state actors such as Al Qaeda. This is a significant diversion from Cold War policy given the distinction between the nature of the enemy and the asymmetric tactics they employed. This understanding is similar to Bush’s remarks that “containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons or missiles secretly and provide them to terrorist allies”. Here, pre-emptive conflict in Iraq was framed as critical to protect the interests of the USA against a ‘terrorist’ enemy in the Middle East. Whilst no WMD’s were found in Iraq, there exists today an imperative to pre-empt against an imminent risk of terrorism on the Western world, and combat oppressive and anti-democratic ideologies. Donald Trump has taken this mantle both in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula.

The price of inaction in the face of defiant enemies is detrimental towards American and Western interests. The Bush Doctrine, particularly in its justification of the invasion of Iraq, was centred on the events of the 9/11 attacks. Neither a lack of substantial evidence that Iraq had WMD’s, nor international law regarding invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan, mattered as the cost of inaction could manifest itself in further attacks on the USA. This outlook was perhaps cemented by the sense of unilateralism that the USA exhibited as part of the Bush Doctrine. There was no United Nations (UN) resolution authorising the war in Iraq. Whilst UN resolution 1441 required Saddam Hussein to disarm, it did not specifically authorise military action. America’s unilateral undertakings, both in Iraq and Afghanistan, are further seen to go against UN General Assembly resolution passed on 17 December 1984, which states that “all States take no actions aimed at military intervention and occupation… overthrow of their governments and, in particular, initiate no military action to that end under any pretext whatsoever”. So, the multilateral international process, as embodied here, was not considered by the US and direct military force was preferred. The National Security Strategy can be seen as promoting this unilateral approach through its support for pre-emptive action. It states that:

“Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker… and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first”.

The unilateralism of the Bush Doctrine, in stark contrast to previous administrations policy, is evident here. Perhaps also notable in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq was a normative element of democracy building. That is to say, Bush Doctrine promoted the idea of development of democracies and the overthrowing of despotic regimes. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was seen as a dictator who was committing mass atrocities, such as the use of chemical weapons and nerve gas on the Kurdish population. The moral imperative for the US to assist the Iraqi people was evident here. The same can be found in Syria today, for which reason Trumps’ missile strikes following the Khan Shaykhun attack were supported by world leaders. Regardless of the success or failure of the Bush policy, or that of Donald Trump, there is a normative element here that did not exist in previous President’s policies towards the Middle East.

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