Bush Doctrine

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The Bush Doctrine refers to the set of revised foreign policies adopted by President of the United States George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.


Initial formulation: No distinction between terrorists and those who harbor them

The term initially referred to the policy formulation stated by President Bush immediately after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack that the U.S. would "make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them". The immediate application of this policy was the invasion of Afghanistan in early October 2001 after the Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan refused to hand over al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden without being shown proof that he was responsible for September 11 attacks. This policy implied that any nation refusing to cooperate with American efforts to attack terrorists would be considered an enemy state. On September 20, 2001, in a televised address to a joint session of Congress, Bush summed up this policy with the words, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Broader formulation: The new role of the US as a collaborative power

The term now generally refers to the set of policies unveiled by Bush in a June 1, 2002, speech to the graduating class of West Point. Unlike the initial "harboring terrorist" formulation, which clarified rather than altered long-standing US policy, the new statements marked a major shift in US foreign policy.

The salient elements of the Bush Doctrine may be summarized as:


The right of self-defence should be extended in order to authorise pre-emptive attacks against potential aggresors cutting them off before they are able to launch strikes against the US. In the case of Iraq, American military action was preventive rather than pre-emptive.


  • The right of the US to pursue unilateral military action when acceptable multi-lateral solutions cannot be found.

Strength Beyond Challenge

  • The policy that "United States has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge", indicating the US intends to take actions as necessary to continue its status as the world's sole military superpower. This resembles a British Empire policy before World War I that their navy must be larger than the world's next two largest navies put together.

Extending Democracy, Liberty, and Security to All Regions

  • A policy of actively promoting democracy and freedom in all regions of the world. As Bush stated at West Point, "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves -- safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life."

The new policy was fully delineated in a National Security Council text entitled the National Security Strategy of the United States issued on September 17, 2002 [1] (http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html).

Roots of the Bush Doctrine

Paul Wolfowitz and the Defense Planning Guidance text of 1992

Tracing the history of the doctrine back through the Department of Defense it appears the first full explication of the doctrine was the initial revision of the internal Defense Planning Guidance guidelines written by Paul Wolfowitz, then in the role of Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, in 1992. When the guidelines were leaked to the press and a controversy arose, the George H. W. Bush White House ordered it re-written. The revised version did not mention pre-emption or unilateralism.

The debate within the Bush administration

In the months following September 11th two distinct schools of thought arose in the Bush Administration regarding the critical policy question of how to handle potentially dangerous countries such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea ("Axis of Evil" states). Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as well as US Department of State specialists, argued for what was essentially the continuation of existing US foreign policy. These policies, developed during the long years of the Cold War, sought to establish a multi-lateral consensus for action (which would likely take the form of increasingly harsh sanctions against the problem states, summarized as the policy of containment). The opposing view, argued by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and a number of influential Department of Defense policy makers such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, held that direct and unilateral action was both possible and justified and that America should embrace the opportunities for democracy and security offered by its position as sole remaining superpower.

President Bush ultimately sided with the Department of Defense camp (also described as the neoconservatives), and their recommendations form the basis for the Bush Doctrine.

Comparison with previous US foreign policy

A doctrine permitting pre-emptive strikes against developing threats can be seen as a change from focusing on the doctrine of deterrence (for instance, the Cold War policy of mutually assured destruction) as the primary means of self-defense. There are some who argue that preemptive strikes have long been a part of international practice and indeed of American practice, as exemplified by the unilateral US blockade and boarding of Cuban shipping during the Cuban Missile Crisis[2] (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/04/opinion/04BOOT.html?todaysheadlines). The Bush Administration's view is the legitimacy of preemption hinges on the existence of an imminent threat, a term that it seeks to define in what many see to be becoming increasingly broad ways.

The Bush Doctrine takes the view that the potential results of the use of a weapon of mass destruction are so grave that preemption is warranted, especially when such weapons could be acquired by hostile armed groups "whose so-called soldiers seek martyrdom in death and whose most potent protection is statelessness".

Supporters of the Bush Doctrine argue that the previous policy of deterrence assumes that a potential enemy is a coherent and rational state that would not launch an attack that would likely result in its own destruction, the core of the concept of mutually assured destruction, which helped keep an uneasy peace between the US and the Soviet Union for more than four decades after World War II.

The Bush Doctrine is seen by advocates as an appropriate response to revised concepts of asymmetric warfare, in which a militarily inferior power or an insurgent movement claims the right to use normally prohibited tactics, such as attacks on civilian targets and other actions prohibited by the laws of war, while assuming that the superior power will still be bound by them.

Implications of the UN Charter for the Bush Doctrine

Critics of the Bush doctrine argue that the United Nations Charter has been ratified by the United States, thereby making it a treaty binding of the US government as domestic law. Therefore, they say, the doctrine is in violation of Article 2 of the UN Charter, which states, "All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered."

Supporters of the doctrine quote Article 1 of the UN Charter: "To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace." Further, they claim, the United Nations is not a world government, the US is a sovereign nation with a Constitution that specifies the war powers of both the President and the Congress and is the supreme law of the US. As Article 2 of the UN Charter states: "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members."

With particular regard to the Iraq War, supporters find further support in Article 41 and 42 of the UN Charter, which lay out the gradual approach to "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression." Article 42 states that should the peaceful sanctions provided for by Article 41 be "inadequate or proven to be inadequate", military force may be used. They argue that after 12 years of ineffectiveness, the UN sanctions under Article 41 have proven to be ineffective and measures provided for under Article 42 should be enacted.

Criticisms of the Bush Doctrine

There are many who criticize the Bush Doctrine, suspicious of the increasing willingness of the US to use military force unilaterally. Critics believe that requiring any country (including the United States) to obtain international support before undertaking offensive military action is necessary to prevent the escalation of conflicts and the dominance of one nation over others.

In addition, many criticisms have arisen around the doctrine's assertion that the United States will never allow any potential adversary -- a term which is unlikely to exclude many states -- to develop the military capability of challenging the US as the world's sole superpower.

This doctrine is argued to be contrary to the Just War Theory. Though the clasical formulation evisages causes other than that of a defensive war, many theorists today are extremly reluctant to accept any cause other than a defensive war as satisfying its criteria.

The main argument against these criticisms is that the doctrine is concerned only with self-defence, but is simply re-interpreting the acceptable time horizon for a perceived threat. In other words the threat does not need to be imminent before self-defensive actions can be performed.

The Bush Doctrine has also been criticized for its purported "active promotion of democracy and freedom," as the United States deals with oppressive dictators on a regular basis. This includes the United States' largest trading partner, with "most favored nation" status, China, a communist dictatorship. The Bush Doctrine, has, thus far, only been applied to certain countries: Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Russia.

Also, many critics have noted the similarity between the countries in the Axis of Evil, and the goals of the conservative think-tank Project for the New American Century, which supports and advocates the dominance of world affairs by the United States- and many in the Bush Administration are, or have been, involved in the PNAC.


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