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What Is the Bush Doctrine, Anyway?

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 12, 2008; 11:32 AM

Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's evident cluelessness when asked in an interview yesterday if she agreed with the Bush Doctrine is appropriately being seen as emblematic of her ignorance of foreign policy.

But as it happens, I'm not sure anyone is entirely clear on what the Bush Doctrine is at this particular moment.

When Palin asked ABC anchor Charlie Gibson what he meant by the Bush Doctrine, Gibson clarifed: "The Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war." That should have helped. After it was obvious Palin still didn't know what he was talking about, Gibson ventured further: "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. Do you agree with that?"

Palin's reply: "If there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."

But Gibson was making a common error, and what Palin said in her response did not actually address what was so radical about Bush's contribution to American foreign policy. Preemption has in fact been a staple of our foreign policy for ages -- and other countries' as well. The twist Bush put on it was embracing "preventive" war: Taking action well before an attack was imminent -- invading a country that was simply perceived as threatening.

And to be completely accurate, there have been several Bush Doctrines over the years. Another dramatic announcement, you may recall, was his declaration on Sept. 20, 2001: "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." (Or, as he put it on Feb. 11, 2002: "You're either with us or against us; you're either evil or you're good."

And then there was Bush's second inaugural address, when he pledged himself to spreading freedom and ending tyranny in the world.

The one thing all these Bush Doctrines have in common is that they are, at this point, utterly inoperative.

As I suggested in my August 18 column, the current Bush Doctrine could perhaps best be described as "Incompetence and Internal Warfare."

Back in March 2006, when Bush officially reasserted his doctrine of preventive war in a reissued National Security Strategy document, it was a bit surreal. The Bush administration had by then, of course, lost any credibility in making the case to attack another country with anything short of incontrovertible evidence of an imminent threat.

And Bush's vaunted democracy initiative was never anything but a farce, as he cozied up to one dictator after another as long as they helped us with other strategic goals, including fighting terrorism and providing us with energy.

Jacob Weisberg, in his book "The Bush Tragedy," actually identified six Bush Doctrines: Bush Doctrine 1.0 was Unipolar Realism (3/7/99--9/10/01); Bush Doctrine 2.0 was With Us or Against Us (9/11/01--5/31/02); Bush Doctrine 3.0 was Preemption (6/1/02--11/5/03); Bush Doctrine 4.0 was Democracy in the Middle East (11/6/03--1/19/05); Bush Doctrine 5.0 was Freedom Everywhere (1/20/05-- 11/7/06); and Bush Doctrine 6.0 (11/8/06 to date) is the "absence of any functioning doctrine at all."


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