U.S. Foreign Policy and the Legacy of the Bush Doctrine

Lamont Colucci Foreign Policy Article in the Henry Jackson Society

Lamont Colucci

By kind invitation of David Gauke MP, the Henry Jackson Society hosted a discussion with Dr. Lamont Colucci, author of ‘Crusading Realism: The Bush Doctrine and American Core Values After 9/11’ and National Security Studies Co-ordinator at Ripon College, in the House of Commons on 20th October. Dr. Colucci addressed the society on the Bush Doctrine in foreign policy during the Bush years, its historic roots in the United States, and the prospects for American foreign policy beyond the next election.

‘A city upon a hill’

It is an honour for me to be here today and I would like to thank the Henry Jackson Society for organising this. Much of this talk is based on my recent book, Crusading Realism.

I would like to begin by asking you to picture yourself aboard a ship in the year 1630, sailing from Yarmouth, England to the colonies in America. On board the ship is John Winthrop and he delivered a sermon: ‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.’ This passage encapsulates my argument about the Bush doctrine. It is perhaps an odd beginning point for a discussion about national security policy; but it is the beginning point I make.

Through interviews with key figures in the Clinton administration and both Bush administrations, I tried to set out an architecture displaying the roots of the Bush doctrine. I would like to read you two quotes: ‘So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.’ The second quote: ‘But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.’

The first quote is George W. Bush in his second inaugural speech and the second quote is from the Declaration of Independence. My fundamental argument is that the goal of the Bush doctrine is to return American foreign policy back to its roots. The United States’ foundational roots are to be found in natural law. The Bush doctrine creates a ‘zero-hour’ in American foreign policy, as it liberates the United States from past paradigms in American foreign policy. It argues that deterrence and containment cannot work against a transnational enemy that in effect represents a culture of death. In fact, containment and deterrence may well play into the hands of such a philosophy.

International relations theory

To understand the roots of the Bush doctrine, we must talk briefly about international relations theory. There are three basic schools of thought: realism, liberalism and Marxism. For US foreign policy, the third one is not very relevant. The former two, however, represent the titanic battle in American foreign policy between so-called realists and liberals. Realism refers to foreign policy based on amorality. Liberalism takes the reverse view; that foreign policy should be driven by ethics and democracy promotion. Realists are comfortable with the use of force in the pursuit of national interests; liberalism shies away from the use of force unless it is a last resort. Looking at the Bush doctrine, it is clear it does not fit definitively into either category. The question is, therefore, ‘what is it’?

Crusading realism

I believe it should be categorised as a ‘crusading realism’. I believe that crusading realism deals with the moral bankruptcy of realism and the moral cowardice of liberalism. To understand the Bush doctrine, we must understand the Bush administration’s pre-9/11 policy. Was there a foreign policy philosophy that guided the Bush administration prior to the terrorist attacks? The answer, of course, is yes: it was guided by realists from the school of Henry Kissinger. Bush’s pre-9/11 foreign policy was often glibly characterised as ABC (Anything But Clinton); and Anything But Clinton was good. Although Bush’s pre-9/11 policy was predominantly realist in outlook, we did see glimmers of the Bush doctrine. In March 2001 at an NSC meeting, Bush stated that he wanted to ‘play offense’ with regard to al-Qaeda. In May 2001, Bush issued NSPD-5, where he ordered a broad review of American intelligence. On September 4, 2001, Bush ordered NSPD-9, which stated that the United States must seek to eliminate al-Qaeda. In 100 years, historians will wonder if 9/11 could have been prevented had NSPD-9 been issued earlier. The answer is that I do not know, but I doubt it. President Bush would have had to ask the American public in January or February of 2001, following a disputed election, to support a preventative war against a country that few Americans could find on a map, against a group few Americans had heard of, led by a man few Americans knew anything about. This would have been an impossibility. Could 9/11 have been prevented? Not during the beginning of the Bush administration, possibly during the Clinton administration.

The phases of the Bush doctrine

The Bush doctrine is divided into phases. The first phase is the reaction to 9/11 where Bush looks to deal with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This stage is characterised by rhetoric suggesting a black-and-white view of international politics – either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.

The first dispute over the Bush doctrine within the administration was between two groups in the NSC: the serialists and the parallelists. The former group argued that the US should go after al-Qaeda solely in Afghanistan and then assess whether to intervene elsewhere; the latter argued that the US should pursue al-Qaeda in multiple places simultaneously. Richard Armitage and Colin Powell were both serialists, while Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld were both parallelists. Condi Rice played the role of umpire and the president ultimately makes the decision. As we know, he decided to support the parallelists. In October, the US began operations in Afghanistan.

The second phase is the formalisation of the Bush doctrine, which occurred during the late period of 2001 and early period of 2002. It began with a reassessment of the Nuclear Posture Review and the 2002 State of the Union speech where Bush made use of the term ‘axis of evil’. The 2002 West Point speech emphasised pre-emption and in September 2002 the national security strategy was published, which discussed issues of democracy promotion and primacy.

9/11 signalled the emergence of a new security situation. Other writers have referred to this as the ‘toxic nexus’ involving rogue states, terrorist groups and WMD proliferation. This triumvirate presents a nightmare scenario for the United States. The potential interaction between these three factors is influential in the practical development of the Bush doctrine.

Four pillars of the Bush doctrine

There are four pillars to the Bush doctrine: prevention, pre-emption, primacy and democracy promotion. Pre-emption is nothing new: every state has used it and will continue to use it. The bold part to this is the decision to formally state it as a part of American strategy. However, this is the least controversial aspect of the four.

The next pillar is prevention and refers to the eradication of a threat that is not immediate. Prevention is fuelled by the threat of WMD. Al-Qaeda has been trying to access a nuclear weapon since 1993. George Tenet believes that this is the number one threat faced by the West – nuclear weapons in the hands of al-Qaeda. He believes that this is an inevitable scenario. This fear provides the rationale for a policy of prevention.

The third pillar is primacy, which dictates that if the US is to pursue the other three pillars of the Bush doctrine, it must uphold its status as the world’s only superpower. This goes back to the DPG written by Paul Wolfowitz in 1992 and the 1998 letter by PNAC. It is also translated into the 1421 military strategy which states that the United States must be able to fight multiple wars at the same time.

The most radical and interesting pillar of the Bush doctrine is that of democracy promotion. The roots of democracy promotion go back to the beginning of the country. One can talk of the Puritans and the Founding Fathers. A key question is does President Bush really believe in this pillar of the Bush doctrine and in interviewing key administration figures it became clear that he does. Those who hate the Bush doctrine do not argue that Bush does not believe this. Brent Scowcroft, for example, would argue that this is the problem; that Bush believes in it so much. Natan Sharansky and his book, The Case for Democracy, influenced Bush’s views on democracy promotion. Bush’s belief in the universal nature of democratic values is heartfelt. He believes in the ‘non-negotiable demands of human liberty and human dignity.’ This returns the US to the natural law of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Barack Obama and the Bush doctrine

It would be problematic for the next American president, whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain, to go against the philosophy of the Republic. Certainly they could alter the implementation of policies. During the third presidential debate both candidates danced around the subject of the Colombian free trade agreement. Not only economics, but also security and foreign policy issues are at stake over the Colombia free trade agreement. If it were abandoned, it would be disastrous for the United States. Is there a way to sabotage the Bush doctrine through implementing specific policies? I definitively think so. The rhetoric will remain the same, but certain policies may change.


The problem ultimately in Iran is that democracy and civil society in that country are a window dressing. Iran is a mullocracy in which Ayatollah Khomeini pulls the strings. Iran is a theocratic, authoritarian society which does not grant its own people its own version of democracy. For the United States to dignify the regime with formal relations would not be proper. The Iranians must make concessions first. It is the Iranian regime that is causing the fundamental problems concerning nuclear weapons and they are the number one sponsor of terrorism. Once they stop their reprehensible behaviour, perhaps we can start low-level talks with the regime.


One of the negative aspects of the American focus on the war on terror has been an ignorance in the electorate and parts of the American government regarding other important strategic issues that have not gone away. The ‘tunnel-vision’ focus on the Middle East has meant that the American electorate was shocked and surprised, for example, by Russia’s recent actions in Georgia. We have spent so much capital and time focusing on the war on terror that we have ignored other areas. If strategic planners are serious about maintaining American primacy, they cannot focus purely on countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The election

I have been amazed by the lack of questions on national security in the US election. The US media have almost entirely ignored matters of foreign policy and security strategy. We have two problems: if we want to maintain primacy, we must deal with multiple issues such as Russia and China, as well as the Middle East; at the same time, we must reenergise the American public as to the security threats facing America. The issue of terrorism is essentially playing no role in the US election.

International law and the Bush doctrine

The Bush administration has never stated that it does not want to be in-sync with international law. However, there is a recognition that some aspects of international law are counter-productive to the philosophy of the Bush doctrine. This conflict may produce philosophical and public policy problems if the US continues to pursue certain aspects of the Bush doctrine. The fundamental issue between the Bush doctrine and international law is that of state sovereignty. It is incorrect to accuse the Bush doctrine of being unilateralist: the Bush administration has always attempted to garner international allies and friends. The difference between the Clinton and Bush administrations is that Bush will not allow the coalition to determine the mission; instead, the mission determines the coalition.

The legacy of the Bush doctrine

I would argue that if the Bush doctrine was called the American doctrine, it would be entirely acceptable. The ideals of liberty and democracy are core values in America. If it was repackaged as the American doctrine, it would receive an entirely different reaction.

The possibility of the next American president to go against the strategy of the Bush doctrine is fantastical. Tactics may change, but the overall strategy will remain. Bush’s main legacy is that the philosophical foundations of the Bush doctrine will inform American national security policy into the future. The belief that allowing people a civil society with elections will drain the swamps of extremism in the Middle East will endure beyond the next election.

I will finish with a quote from President Bush: ‘America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and earth.’ In this sense the Bush doctrine offers a sense of real hope concerning foreign policy philosophy and foreign policy architecture. Thank you very much.

© 2009 The Henry Jackson Society, Project for Democratic Geopolitics. All rights reserved.

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