THE BUSH DOCTRINE: A Critical Analysis of the First Four Years (June 2006)

On the twentieth of September, 2001, President George W. Bush stood before a joint session of Congress and an anxious nation to deliver his first major prime time address since the terrorist attacks on the United States nine days earlier.  In this speech he set forth the first principles in what would come to be called the Bush Doctrine when he said “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.”[i]

This new foreign policy, articulated in a series of speeches over the next few months, (including the State of the Union Address in January 2002[ii], and the commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in June[iii]), was formalized on September 20, 2002 with the publication of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America[iv] (NSS).  This document marked the most dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy since President Reagan dispensed with détente in favor of a more confrontational approach to the Soviet Union in his bid to win the Cold War (exemplified, in part by the proxy war in Afghanistan, the arms build-up, and “non-diplomatic” rhetoric such as his reference to the “evil empire”); or perhaps the most drastic change since President Truman outlined U.S. strategy in the Cold War with his doctrine of “containment” of Soviet expansionism.

This historic and controversial modification of U.S. foreign policy priorities was precipitated by the dramatic events of September 11, 2001.  On that terrible autumn morning, fanatical Islamic enemies of freedom and modernity used the West’s own technology against it by turning commercial airliners into missiles.  The devastation that resulted – 3,000 innocent American’s incinerated, the great towers of the World Trade Center a smoldering ruin, and a massive breach in the country’s impregnable fortress- the Pentagon – served to awaken this mighty, yet complacent nation to the danger posed by Islamic extremists whose intent to subjugate the entire world or destroy it was made all too clear.  The attack served also to demonstrate that American’s are no longer insulated by vast oceans and peaceful neighbors from the danger posed by these new enemies of freedom and moderation.  This realization inevitably led the United States and the Bush Administration to swiftly transition from a period of mourning to one of introspection and finally grim determination.  The central result of this process was the promulgation and implementation of the Bush Doctrine.

The basic tenets of the Bush Doctrine are the linkage of radical terrorist groups such as al-queda with their state sponsors and the intent to hold both equally responsible for acts of terrorism against the U.S., its interests, and allies; the policy of pre-emption, or the right retained by the United States to attack any regime regarded as a threat before being attacked by the same; and support for the spread of democracy, freedom, and human rights, particularly in the Muslim world.

The principle of holding state’s accountable for aiding or harboring terrorist’s in their midst rests upon the belief that attacks of the magnitude of 9/11 are prohibitively difficult to plan and execute without state sponsorship, and the fact that the most efficient and least intrusive method of disrupting such planning is by “denying further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists by convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities.”[v]

The primary rationale for the policy of pre-emption, as articulated in the National Security Strategy is the fact that “The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.”[vi]  And as President Bush stated in his address in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002 “we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”[vii]  The danger of a mass-casualty event resulting from a successful attack by terrorists and/or rogue states armed with modern weapons technology is so great that a reactive posture would be irresponsible or worse—suicidal.  And the prevailing view among the President’s National Security team is that the dangers posed by pre-emptive military action, such as international condemnation or lengthy military commitments, are far outweighed by the dangers of inaction.

The commitment to the spread of democracy, freedom, and human rights is based upon the belief that democracies generally do not make war on one another.  And as the writer Turi Munthe has said “Democracy promotion in the region {the Middle East} is a historic reversal of 60 years of profoundly counter-productive policy, which saw successive U.S. administrations support pliable dictators over the wishes of their people. […] The West will save itself much terrorist wrath by convincing the people of the Middle East it stands with them: promoting the cause of democracy and calling Arab autocrats to account.”[viii]

As Munthe points out, the Bush Doctrine represents a radical departure from the foreign policy practiced by administrations of both parties since the end of the Second World War.  The old formula, what has been called “real-politic”, or “realism”, stresses the maintenance of a delicate balance of power among nation-states to ensure global political and economic stability.  In practice, it has frequently resulted in U.S. support for tyrannical and oppressive regimes to both check the Soviet Union and other belligerent powers, and to ensure the unimpeded flow of oil from the perennially unstable Middle East.  And while not a colonial power in the European tradition, the United States, as the world’s only super-power, wields disproportionate influence over the global order, and thus is often resented by the population’s living under the heel of the dictators and strongmen this policy has led us to support.

The United States has, in the past, lent its support to tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, (before his invasion of Kuwait) because of the cynical calculation that his barbaric regime posed a lesser threat to U.S. interests than the radical Islamic rulers of Iran, against whom he and the U.S. were sworn enemies.  This policy, which removed the oppressed people of the region from the equation led to the perception that America is an enemy to the people of the Middle East.  The resentment this caused has, in part contributed to the radicalization of brutalized people in the Muslim-Arab world.

The Bush Doctrine is a manifestation of the President’s determination not to condemn whole populations to despotism for the sake of stability or access to cheap oil.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 have, ironically afforded him the opportunity to reach out to the people of the Middle East in a way that would have been politically impossible before.

The American public is traditionally isolationist in its temperament, unwilling to intervene militarily in places where it perceives little or no benefit to U.S. interests.  And prior to 9/11, U.S. governments refused to intervene on behalf of the masses in the Middle East for fear of threatening its access to cheap oil and incurring the wrath of the international community, which tends to elevate stability over justice in international affairs and is always leery of U.S. hegemony.  The result has been a perpetuation of the status-quo, an unholy alliance of sorts between the liberal nations of the West and corrupt, oil-rich governments of the Middle East.

This dichotomy – the reluctance of the American people to involve themselves in foreign disputes vs. the necessity for U.S. power to guarantee liberty – has been a peculiarity of U.S. foreign policy from the very beginning:  George Washington, in his Farewell Address, warned of the danger of “foreign entanglements,” yet a few short years later, President Jefferson’s Navy and Marines were battling Barbary pirates and their Islamic state sponsors on the coast of North Africa.  In 1812 President Madison declared war on Britain, in part, because of the U.S. alliance with France; and when in 1823 President James Monroe issued the Doctrine that bears his name, warning European colonial powers to stay out of the western hemisphere, the U.S. became the guarantor of freedom in our part of the world.  It has since, reluctantly expanded that role to include the entire free world.

In the two World Wars of the twentieth century, the U.S., despite strong popular isolationist sentiment, provided the military and industrial might required to roll back fascist expansion and aggression.  The impetus required for U.S. involvement in both cases were attacks on its interests: the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat forced a reluctant nation to support President Wilson’s entry into World War I; and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor enabled President (Franklin) Roosevelt to rally an equally leery public to join World War II on the side of the allies.  The attacks on the American homeland on September 11th had a similar galvanizing effect on public sentiment, convincing the American people of the need to re-engage in the global struggle for freedom.

In the cold war, the U.S. again found itself leading the defense of the free world by default, this time against Soviet communist expansion and repression.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, our European allies began redirecting their resources from defense to domestic priorities.  Feeling secure under the umbrella of U.S. protection, nations such as France and Germany began triangulating – setting themselves up between the U.S. and various foreign threats – assuming they could insulate themselves from attack by appearing anti-American, while hedging their bets by maintaining formal military ties such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The United Nations, for its part, presided over the administration of the oil-for-food program, which was corrupted by the very tyrant it was intended to keep in check. (exposing the opposition to the war in Iraq by prominent member states as self-serving, not magnanimous.)  And whose ineffectiveness in peacekeeping efforts such as in the Balkans and Rwanda where genocides occurred without intervention, betrayed it as little more than a forum for debate and grandstanding.  The cynical, self-serving foreign policy of our putative European allies, coupled with the absence of effective leadership by the United Nations, leaves the U.S., the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy – and sole superpower – as the de-facto policeman of the world.

This does not mean, however, that the U.S. should use force to spread its system throughout the world in some exercise in Napoleonic megalomania.  The Bush Doctrine, like most pre-cold war foreign policy, calls for the use of U.S. power only when there is a convergence of vital U.S. interests and a belligerent foreign power oppressing its people.  Indeed, the NSS states “The U.S. national security strategy will be based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.”[ix]  U.S. policy, under the Bush Doctrine, has matured beyond the cynical, bi-polar, cold-war formula of real-politic, whereby the liberty and welfare of whole populations are sacrificed in the name of stability and cheap oil.

The current threat to freedom and the global order is three-fold: rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism.  Terrorism is loosely defined as (to paraphrase the U.S. State Department definition) the use of violence against non-combatant targets by individual persons or sub-national groups as a means to exert influence over or effect change of the policies of government(s)[x].  To the standard definition, I would add that the actor may be a nation-state in such cases where the violent act is aided or committed by a sovereign nation in a manner that is covert and absent a formal declaration of war.  The key motivation that distinguishes a terrorist act from a mere crime is the intent to influence political realities.  Does this mean that all manifestations of terrorist violence are purely reactionary in nature, pursuant to the satisfaction of a list of political grievances?  Hardly; because though it is manifest that Arab-Muslim antipathy towards the United States was exacerbated by its cold-war era foreign policy, there is an underlying, fundamental force at work there which pre-disposes the people of the Middle East to resentment of the West, repressive governments, aggressive wars, and terrorism: Islam.

Islam is defined as the absolute submission to the will of God.  Islamic law was developed on the bases of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and the hadith – which is a collection of reliable accounts, or sunna of the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad.  These sources, in Islamic tradition are considered infallible as the Koran is believed to be the very word of God himself as revealed, verbatim to the last of His prophet’s.  And the Prophet himself is considered to be rightly guided by God, thus also infallible.

The (infallible) Koran itself contains scores of verses that command the faithful to commit violence and make war, or jihad until all people accept the true faith or the suzerainty of their Muslim overlords.  The verse of the sword in sura (chapter) 9:5, for example states “slay the idolaters wherever you find them.  Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.”[xi]  This verse was among several cited by the terrorist Osama bin-Laden in his Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice in which he called September 11th “that blessed Tuesday.”[xii]  These verses are not historical narratives of past battles as in the Old Testament, but rather mandates for right behavior in God’s service.  And the life of the Prophet, in contrast to Jesus, was one dominated by raiding, war, and conquest in the name of Allah.  The goal of Islamic terrorists is not merely to effect local or even regional political change, but to unite the entire world into the Dar al-Islam, or the house of Islam, under a reconstituted Caliphate, and to institute repressive Islamic law, or sharia, in the place of consensual and elected governments.

To the extent Islamic terrorists can be called political actors attempting to correct perceived injustices it is largely because Islam allows no distinction between religion and politics.  Unlike Christianity which suffered three centuries of persecution before the Emperor Constantine embraced it, and has a doctrinal pre-disposition towards secular government (“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” {Matthew 22:17}, Islam was almost immediately burdened with temporal governance due to its stunning early military successes.   For this reason Islam became very early on more than just a faith, but a comprehensive set of rules on everything from inheritance to war-making.  And the Prophet Mohammad, unlike Jesus, served as both spiritual guide and head of state.

Religion more than politics motivates Islamic terrorists: The men who attack children and their parents shopping in a market do not shout “freedom”, or “justice”, or some other political motto as they detonate their suicide vest; instead they yell “Allah akbar!” (God is great) And their supporters who cheer these killers do not call them “patriots” who died for national liberation, but martyrs who died for their faith.  Indeed, after the recent success of U.S. and Iraqi forces in killing the leader of al-queda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of his supporters was quoted as saying “The death of our leader is life for us.  It will only increase our persistence in continuing holy war so that the word of God will be supreme.”[xiii]  The factor that motivates Islamic terrorists is indeed politics; however their political beliefs are drawn directly from their religion.  And their fanaticism is not just a reaction to the past injustices of colonialism or the prevalence of U.S. influence; it is an aggressive ideology bent on world domination.  The Bush Doctrine’s one flaw is its stubborn refusal to acknowledge the true nature of Islam and how it motivates its most rigorous adherents.  Without a full appreciation for what motivates our enemy, our ability to combat the threat is reduced.

The most obvious manifestations and successes of the Bush Doctrine thus far have been the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the toppling of their respective regimes; the establishment of representative democracies in the place of brutal dictatorships; and their new governments’ transformation from state sponsors of terrorism to U.S. allies.  However it has had ripple effects throughout the region, bringing hope to tens of millions in the Middle East.

Libyan strongman, Moammar Gaddafi, long recognized as a leading state sponsor of terrorism, and long alienated from the world community has relinquished his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. (Negotiations began in March of 2003 as the war began) And the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations with Libya as a result.

Pakistan, once the only nation with diplomatic ties to the Afghan Taliban, has joined the U.S. as an ally in the global war against terrorism; the nuclear proliferation market run by Pakistani scientist A.Q Khan has been shut down; and thanks to U.S. diplomacy Pakistan has seen a modest thaw in its relations with India, its traditional enemy.

Saudi Arabia is coming to the realization that the radical brand of Islam that it has been fostering for years is even more dangerous to the Islamic Kingdom’s survival than it is to the secular West.  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinians have held elections and, with the Palestinians as an exception, are moving modestly towards more open societies.

In Lebanon the “Cedar Revolution” forced the Syrians out after more than two decades of occupation and oppression.  And the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine saw the democratic movement throw off the yoke of tyranny.

And the current saber-rattling coming from Tehran, with their pursuit of nuclear weapons and promise to “wipe Israel off the map,” has been met by an increasingly united global community.

None of these developments would have taken place without the chain of events that began on 9/11 and culminated with the Bush Doctrine.  Senator John Kerry (like President Clinton) promised if he became President to seek international consensus rather than providing global leadership.  He promised, also like President Clinton, to treat the terrorist menace brought to our shores on 9/11 as a law enforcement issue rather than the act of war it clearly was.  This narrow approach to the global scourge of Islamic terrorism would have precluded the liberation of tens of millions of people; emboldened our enemies who had regarded the U.S. as pampered and unwilling to fight prior to 9/11; and presumably resulted in more attacks on the U.S. homeland by an enemy who would have been safe to plot further treachery in any number of terrorist states.

Instead we have enjoyed nearly five years of relative peace (in the homeland) because unlike in the 1990’s, the terrorist’s are now on the run globally.  And because of the aggressive, forward deployment of American troops, the terrorist’s are being drawn not to vulnerable American cities, but into the teeth of U.S might where they are quickly dispatched.   And several former state sponsors of terrorism with aggregate populations in the tens of millions are now reliable allies of the West in its effort to defeat the repressive and bloody ideology radical Islam represents.

Today, four and a half years after the events of  September 11, 2001, the United States is still a beacon of liberty in the world, but thanks to the Bush Doctrine, that beacon has been temporarily augmented by a flood light fixed to the business end of an Abrams tank.  And that light, in the great American tradition, and as the result of foreign provocations, is spreading liberty across the globe rather than just beckoning to our shores those yearning to breathe the fresh air of freedom.  And ultimately, not only is our nation much safer for it, but in the years to come the whole world may enjoy the fruits of liberty thanks, once again, to the selfless bravery of the U.S. military and the bold vision of an American President.


[i] Bush, George W., “Address to a joint Session of Congress and the American People”, the White House, 20 September, 2001.

[ii] Bush, George W., “State of the Union Address”, the White House, 29 January, 2002.

[iii] Bush, George W., “Graduation Speech at West Point”, the White House, 1 June, 2002.

[iv] National Security Strategy, the White House, 20 September, 2002.

[v] National Security Strategy, the White House, 20 September, 2002, 5.

[vi] National Security Strategy, the White House, 20 September, 2002, 1.

[vii] Bush, George W., “President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat”, the White House, 7 October, 2002.

[viii] Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “War for the Soul of Iraq”, 2 December, 2005.

[ix] National Security Strategy, the White House, 20 September, 2002, 2.

[x] Whittaker, David, “The Terrorism Reader.”  London; New York: Routledge, 2003, 3

[xi] The Koran.  Translated by N.J.  Dawood.  London: Penguin, 2003, 133


[xii] The Middle East Media Research Institute, “Bin Laden’s Sermon for the Feast of the Sacrifice”, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 476, March 5, 2003.

[xiii] Soltis, Andy, “Evil Zarqawi Blown to Hell”, New York Post Online Edition, 9 June, 2006

About michaelstjoseph

Michael St. Joseph is the pen-name of a Catholic conservative citizen of the greatest country in the history of civilization. He has a law enforcement background and lives with his family in the New York area. He can be reached at
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