The Bush Doctrine in Historical Context

Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, recently made headlines by blundering through an answer to interviewer Charlie Gibson's question, “Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?” Because (lack of) experience is a concern for both Palin and her ticket’s opponent, Barack Obama, the mainstream media initially jumped all over the story. Notably, the story didn’t stick around that long, perhaps because most people also have no idea what the Bush Doctrine is.

Palin’s response to Gibson was, “In what respect, Charlie?” I must admit that I thought it was a pretty good response, because I have no idea how I would have answered the question either; not because I don’t know what the Bush Doctrine is, but because it has meant a number of things over the course of the Bush years, and Gibson could have meant any of them.

It's likely Palin didn't know anything about it, and Gibson was right to push further. He knew he had a good TV moment and stretched it out, eventually stating “The Bush Doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us.”

As Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post, that certainly was one of the meanings (or was close to it), but that was during the lead-up to the Iraq war, 5 years ago. Krauthammer says instead that the distinctive definition of the Bush doctrine is instead, "the idea that the fundamental mission of American foreign policy is to spread democracy throughout the world."

Leaving aside the question of Palin's intelligence, what I find most interesting about this episode is that it puts a new spotlight on the Bush Doctrine itself, providing the opportunity to place it in a historical context and to evaluate it within a larger picture.

As mentioned in a previous post, the history of presidential doctrines -- not foreign policy itself, but official or commonly accepted doctrines -- starts not long after the American Revolution with Monroe, and except for a blip 80 years later with Teddy Roosevelt, the next major milestone occurs with Truman after WWII.

1823 – Monroe
The Monroe Doctrine responded to the meddling of the European powers in the Americas by telling them to butt out or face the consequences; that any intrusion into our hemisphere would be taken as a direct threat to our national interests, and we would respond in kind. America was neither spoiling for a fight, nor looking to interfere in the sovereign operations of other American nations. We were simply saying “Back off!”

The context of this stand is quite amazing. Just a few decades before, America had fought off the strongest imperial power in the world to establish an independent constitutional republic. Soon after, in 1812, it fended off encroachments from Great Britain, and began to establish itself as a true global force to be reckoned with. Still, it was weakened by years of war. At the same time, Europe was in tumult. England, who had long ago thrown off the yolk of Catholicism, had lost its main colony. Soon after, France lost the monarchy to the bloody Revolution. Then Napoleon rampaged through much of Europe, spreading the anti-monarchy ideas of √©galit√© (admittedly, not on purpose). After Napoleon’s defeat, the old powers of Europe were in a panic. The Holy Alliance (Russia, Austria and Prussia) was established to fend off secularism and revolutionary ideas, and it went about trying to reestablish divine-right monarchy as the standard in Europe. As part of their machinations, they conspired to help Spain regain their lost New World colonies, which had recently fought for and won independence. Monroe, with the help of Jefferson and others, stood up and said “No!” (please forgive the long quotation below, but it is just too good to edit away)
Of events in that quarter of the globe, with which we have so much intercourse and from which we derive our origin, we have always been anxious and interested spectators. The citizens of the United States cherish sentiments the most friendly in favor of the liberty and happiness of their fellow-men on that side of the Atlantic. In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy to do so. It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense. With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. The political system of the allied powers is essentially different in this respect from that of America. This difference proceeds from that which exists in their respective Governments; and to the defense of our own, which has been achieved by the loss of so much blood and treasure, and matured by the wisdom of their most enlightened citizens, and under which we have enjoyed unexampled felicity, this whole nation is devoted. We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States. In the war between those new Governments and Spain we declared our neutrality at the time of their recognition, and to this we have adhered, and shall continue to adhere, provided no change shall occur which, in the judgement of the competent authorities of this Government, shall make a corresponding change on the part of the United States indispensable to their security.

The late events in Spain and Portugal shew that Europe is still unsettled. Of this important fact no stronger proof can be adduced than that the allied powers should have thought it proper, on any principle satisfactory to themselves, to have interposed by force in the internal concerns of Spain. To what extent such interposition may be carried, on the same principle, is a question in which all independent powers whose governments differ from theirs are interested, even those most remote, and surely none of them more so than the United States. Our policy in regard to Europe, which was adopted at an early stage of the wars which have so long agitated that quarter of the globe, nevertheless remains the same, which is, not to interfere in the internal concerns of any of its powers; to consider the government de facto as the legitimate government for us; to cultivate friendly relations with it, and to preserve those relations by a frank, firm, and manly policy, meeting in all instances the just claims of every power, submitting to injuries from none. [bold, emphasis added]

Imagine the outrage from the Old World powers. "Who the hell is the young upstart country of heathens and regicides to tell us what to do?" But England -- which despite its own monarchy was still a mortal enemy of the Holy Roman Empire and its descendants -- decided to side with America, and the Holy Alliance eventually backed off.

The moral of the story is that America, led by President James Monroe, took a supremely principled stand against the greatest military and political powers in the world, in the name of protecting the individual rights of American citizens and thus the national self-interest, and came out on top. Over nearly a century, despite periodic quibbling, this was the rule of the land; the de facto American foreign policy.

1947 Truman
The Progressive trend toward global interventionism had its first major boost in 1904 with the Roosevelt Corollary, and then there were ups and downs between then and WWII (see earlier post). Then came Harry Truman.

Rather than confront the Soviets directly when they were terribly weakened right after the the war and before they developed nuclear weapons, he put the US on the course of fighting proxy wars against communist influence in places like Greece and Turkey. His unspoken guiding principle was altruism, telling him that America is its brother's keeper above all else. To him, that meant helping them fight off totalitarianism in countries around the globe whether they wanted the help or not, while tragically avoiding the real threat. Contrast this with Monroe, who said, "It is only when our rights are invaded or seriously menaced that we resent injuries or make preparation for our defense."

Before we return to the Bush Doctrine, it is instructive to read exactly what Truman said in 1947. He spoke to a joint session of Congress about the growing communist menace in Greece and Turkey, appealing to them for funding and aid. The ideas he outlined formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine:
One of the primary objectives of the foreign policy of the United States is the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion.

We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.
To put it simply, Truman said, “The objective of U.S. foreign policy is to help other nations from falling to communism. (we are our brothers’ keeper) In order to accomplish this, we must be willing to help. The reason for this is that the communists threaten international peace, and thus, somehow, U.S. security. Because of this, we must help.”

It’s rather circuitous logic, and he never proves his assertions, but the message is clear. The U.S. must help “free peoples” fend off communists.

Later, Eisenhower replaced the idealistic notion of altruism with pragmatism, simply trying whatever worked at the time to stop communism, ignoring inconveniences like principles. Over the course of the next half-century, all presidents followed one or both of these two variants of the Truman Doctrine in developing their own foreign policies. Up until 9/11, that is.

Bush Before 9/11
Well before the attacks of 9/11, Bush and the Neocons had established a new take on foreign policy. In what seemed to be a dim recollection of the days of the Monroe Doctrine, the Bush foreign policy was suddenly “unilateral.” Note that in the cultural relativism of our age, this is actually just a catchphrase that means “self-interested,” and is used to undercut that idea as "unenlightened" or "mean-spirited".

Under this policy, which Krauthammer coined as the “Bush Doctrine,” the U.S. was acting on its own, in its own self-interest, and backing out of the horrific Kyoto protocol and the defeatist ABM treaty. True to our tragically mixed political and economic systems, Bush’s policies were by no means fully consistent with individual rights or national self-interest, but compared to Clinton’s schizophrenic actions, they were a breath of fresh air.

Then everything changed.

Bush After 9/11
Soon after the attacks, Bush came out with as a statement as good as, or better than, we could hope from a modern day politician: "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." This second iteration of the Bush Doctrine said, in no uncertain terms, that we were drawing a line in the sand, and were going to take the necessary actions against the Islamists and the states that harbored them.

After months of equivocations, National Prayer Meetings, and protestations that “we aren’t fighting Islam, the religion of peace… just the few really mean and nasty Muslims,” and an abortive war in Afghanistan that stopped short of it’s primary goal of killing Bin Laden, we eventually approached the run up to the Iraq war.

In the months after 9/11, many Americans had what I call a “sense of life reaction” to the events. Despite all the bad philosophical premises that have seeped into our thinking, the horrific attacks on our nation and our very way of life brought out a righteous anger and a thirst for justice, founded in the American sense of life – that underlying premise and view of the world that is unique to our culture, that special American spirit of rugged individualism. As Ayn Rand said:
A culture, like an individual, has a sense of life or, rather, the equivalent of a sense of life—an emotional atmosphere created by its dominant philosophy, by its view of man and of existence. This emotional atmosphere represents a culture’s dominant values and serves as the leitmotif of a given age, setting its trends and its style. [AR, “The Age of Envy”]

A European is disarmed in the face of a dictatorship: he may hate it, but he feels that he is wrong and, metaphysically, the State is right. An American would rebel to the bottom of his soul . . . Defiance, not obedience, is the American’s answer to overbearing authority. [AR, “Don’t Let It Go”]
As the intense emotions slowly calmed in the ensuing years, the prevailing philosophies of altruism and pragmatism reasserted themselves in our culture and our politics. Calls for moderation, tolerance and “multinational consensus” grew louder as rumors of new military action started to surface. Bush and his people were steadfast, however, and put forth yet another evolution of foreign policy doctrine, stating that America had, as Charlie Gibson put it, “the right of anticipatory self-defense… the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us.”

While taking certain liberties and glossing over differences in context, I see this as not drastically out of touch with the Monroe Doctrine. As Jefferson did with the Barbary pirates, when faced with a threat and in the name of national security and the responsibility of government to defend its citizens, we have a right to defend ourselves, regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.

Unfortunately, something – whether it was pragmatism, emotionalism, stupidity, what have you – caused the Bush administration to focus on Iraq. By picking an enemy that was not an immediate threat, and certainly not a sponsor of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, Bush essentially discredited any positives that might have been gained from advancing the Bush Doctrine. And after throwing America into what appeared to be a Vietnam-like quagmire while ignoring the real threat of Iran -- one that had menaced us openly since 1979 -- he bowed to pressure again and issued another revision to the Bush Doctrine.

Everything Old Is New Again
In Bush’s second inaugural address, he outlined a foreign policy approach that has survived the last four years of his presidency. He said, “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Charles Krauthammer said of this statement that is was, “the most sweeping formulation of the Bush approach to foreign policy and the one that most clearly and distinctively defines the Bush years: the idea that the fundamental mission of American foreign policy is to spread democracy throughout the world.” {emphasis added}

Does this sound familiar?
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. (Truman Doctrine, 1947)
Truman, in trying to stop the spread of communism, felt it was America’s moral obligation, by the self-sacrificial code of altruism, to assist any nation’s fight, spending American lives and American treasure, regardless of whether it was in our own interests. In 2005, George W. Bush said that our moral obligation is to spread democracy for the same reasons.

Implicit in his view, and as made painfully obvious by the evidence over the last few years, is that we will foist democracy on anyone and everyone regardless – and perhaps in spite of – whether they want it or not, and whether it has anything to do with our national interests.

So after the rationally self-interested views following 9/11 “wore off”, Bush has simply recycled the same old foreign policy of altruism and pragmatism that has been serving us so poorly for over 60 years.

Palin, Gibson, and the Bush Doctrine
What does it say about Sarah Palin that she wasn’t able to rattle off a quick sound bite answer to Charlie Gibson’s question? Did she know so much about the topic that she couldn’t respond to the ambiguities of his question? Is she a total moron who has no foreign policy experience and is unfit to lead?

I have no idea. Also, as mentioned before, I don’t think it matters. There is no evidence from history or from any of the candidates that they would stray significantly from the Trumanesque view of America’s role in the world. Perhaps McCain/Palin will lean more towards pre-9/11 Bush policy of unilateralism. Or maybe McCain’s POW experience will make him worse than the weakest of doves in the face of a threat. Perhaps Obama/Biden will whore out our foreign policy to the multilateral UN, begging and pleading that China, France, and Russia forgive us for being strong. Or maybe, as others have said, Obama would be the "Blank Screen President" and would bend to the will of prevailing D.C. winds and take the relatively sane middle road.

The most likely scenario, regardless of who is elected, is that things will largely go on as they have. (assuming there is not another 9/11 any time soon)

I must admit that I had an oh-so-brief moment of hope when I heard the following exchange:
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine as I understand it is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any country that we think is going to attack us.

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligent and legitimate evidence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country.
Those are pretty good words there, Sarah; not great, but pretty good. If I only could believe that you’d stick to them, or even knew what was required to implement them fully in defense of the nation, its rational interests, and its citizens' individual rights.


John F. Schmidley said...

Excellent post - I am glad to have been able to read it. Having the whole of the situation put together in such an efficient manner does wonders to aid in one's understanding of it.

C. August said...

Thanks, John. I'm glad you found it informative. Writing it helped me organize my thoughts and gain a fuller understanding of the situation as well.

Chet said...

This is awesome!