George W. Bush
George W. Bush; drawing by David Levine


President George W. Bush has made a fatal change in the foreign policy of the United States. He has repudiated the strategy that won the cold war—the combination of containment and deterrence carried out through such multilateral agencies as the UN, NATO, and the Organization of American States. The Bush Doctrine reverses all that. The essence of our new strategy is military: to strike a potential enemy, unilaterally if necessary, before he has a chance to strike us.

Mr. Bush has replaced a policy aimed at peace through the prevention of war by a policy aimed at peace through preventive war. He did this quietly, smoothly, and skillfully, without calling undue attention to so fundamental a revision of foreign policy or provoking a national debate over his drastic change of course.

The combination of containment and deterrence was initiated over half a century ago by President Truman. It was confirmed as a bipartisan policy by President Eisenhower and thereafter sustained by Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (with modifications), Carter, Reagan (with deviations), George H.W. Bush, and Clinton. During the long years of the cold war, preventive war was unmentionable. Its advocates were regarded as loonies.

In the Truman administration, Francis P. Matthews, a secretary of the Navy, called publicly for war on the Soviet Union as a way to compel cooperation for peace. He was immediately rebuked by the President. “I have always been opposed, even to the thought of such a war,” Truman wrote in his Memoirs. “There is nothing more foolish than to think that war can be stopped by war. You don’t ‘prevent’ anything by war except peace.”1

In 1954 James Reston of The New York Times asked President Eisenhower in a press conference what he thought of preventive war. “A preventive war, to my mind, is an impossibility,” Eisenhower said. “…I don’t believe there is such a thing, and frankly I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”2

In 1962, when the Kennedy administration was wrestling with the threat of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended removing the missiles by preventive attack. Robert Kennedy called the Joint Chiefs’ idea “Pearl Harbor in reverse.” He added, “For 175 years we had not been that kind of country.”3 President Bush, it seems, would like to make us that kind of country today.

Looking back over the forty years of the cold war, we can be everlastingly grateful that the loonies on both sides were powerless. In 2003, however, they run the Pentagon, and preventive war—the Bush Doctrine—is now official policy. Sixty years ago the Japanese anticipated the Bush Doctrine in their attack on the US Navyat Pearl Harbor. This was, FDR observed, an exploit that would live in infamy—except now, evidently, when employed by the United States.

Given the disrepute attached to the idea of “preventive” war, the Bush administration prefers to talk about “preemptive” war. There is indeed a difference between the two concepts. “Preemptive” war refers to a direct, immediate, specific threat to the US that must be crushed at once; in the words of the Department of Defense manual, “an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent.” “Preventive” war refers to potential, future, therefore speculative threats.

“Preemptive” war hovers on the margin of legitimacy. International lawyers still cite Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s 1841 statement that preemptive attack could be justified if the attacker showed “a necessity of self-defence, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”4 Preventive war has no such claim to legitimacy.

The rise of international terrorism underlies the Bush administration’s shift from containment plus deterrence to preventive war as the basis of US policy. The cold war, after all, was an old-fashioned rivalry among sovereign states, visible entities with governments accountable for their decisions. But international terrorists are invisible and unaccountable. They strike from the shadows and recede into the shadows. International terrorism consequently calls for new strategies.

In his West Point speech of June 1, 2002, Mr. Bush explicitly rejected containment and deterrence as sufficient weapons for the war against terrorism. “We must,” he said, “take the battle to the enemy…and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.” On July 19 that year, at Fort Drum, New York, he said again: “America must act against these terrible threats before they’re fully formed.”

Such speeches prepared the way for a formal statement, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, issued by the White House in September 2002. “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists,” this document says,

the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.

In addition to police and CIA methods of combatting international terrorism, the National Security Strategy calls for preemptive military action justified by vaguer and looser standards than those laid down by Daniel Webster. Actually the only serious application of US force thus far has been an old-fashioned attack on a sovereign state. The war against Iraq was not preemptive. It was not a war “initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent.” It was a preventive war; to use a ponderous euphemism, an exercise in “anticipatory self-defense.”


Where did Mr. Bush get the novel idea of preventive war as the basis of US foreign policy? His conviction apparently is that the unique position of the United States as the planet’s supreme military, economic, and cultural power creates an unprecedented opportunity for America to impose its example on other countries and thereby save them from themselves.

The case for global hegemony through unilateral action was first presented in 1992 in a mysterious Pentagon paper apparently approved by Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney and rapidly suppressed by the Bush I administration. Wolfowitz opposed President Bush’s 1991 decision not to press on to Baghdad and get rid of Saddam Hussein forever. In 1996 a document prepared by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and half a dozen others for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli hard-liner, called for, among other things, a “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq”—a thought that hard-liners considered to be much in the Israeli interest. In 1998 Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Perle were among the eighteen signers of an open letter to President Clinton arguing that regime change in Iraq “needs to become the aim of American foreign policy.”5

America Unbound, by Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, two Brookings Institution political scientists, is a useful analysis of what the authors term “the Bush revolution in foreign policy.” Their approach is clinical, incisive, and workmanlike. Their emphasis is less on the shift to preventive war than on the administration’s doctrinaire unilateralism and its moralistic arrogance.6

Daalder and Lindsay see two sets of presidential advisers united in immediate policy but divided in ultimate objectives. One set consists of the now all-too-familiar “neocons”—Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, Elliott Abrams, and, outside the government, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, and Joshua Muravchik. The second is led by the “assertive nationalists”—Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. The neocons are visionaries who want to remake the world in the American image; the assertive nationalists are hard-boiled politicians who want to use American power to intimidate rival nations and to crush potential threats to American security. Both factions are currently allied in their contempt for international institutions and their advocacy of preventive war.

They also presumably agree on what might appear to be an exploratory drift toward an American first-strike nuclear strategy. On May 20 a fascinating debate, not much covered in the press, took place in the Senate. The Bush administration sought the repeal of a provision in the 1994 defense authorization act stipulating that “it shall be the policy of the United States not to conduct research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon.” Low-yield nuclear weapons fondly known as mini-nukes are defined as under five kilotons.

The Senate Armed Services Committee having voted for the repeal of the prohibition on mini-nuke research, Dianne Feinstein and Edward Kennedy submitted an amendment restoring the original language. Supporters of the Feinstein-Kennedy amendment pointed out that mini-nukes were not toys, that five kilotons represented one third of the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, that the activation of research on mini-nukes would run counter to US anti-proliferation policy and would “release a chain of reactions across this world in nuclear testing” (Kennedy), that there was “no such thing as a ‘usable nuclear weapon'” (Feinstein) and that “the United States should not follow a policy that we do not tolerate in others” (Senator Carl Levin of Michigan).7 Nevertheless the Feinstein-Kennedy amendment was tabled by a vote of 51–43. The House meanwhile eliminated mini-nuke research, but on September 16 the Senate defeated a revived Feinstein-Kennedy amendment.


After September 11, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, who regarded Iraq as unfinished business left over from Bush I’s administration, lost no time in placing Iraq on the presidential agenda. Rumsfeld favored war on Iraq because he had convinced himself that Saddam Hussein actively possessed weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam Hussein was actively allied with Osama bin Laden, and that the transfer of America’s Middle East military base from unstable and two-faced Saudi Arabia to a compliant Iraq was desirable. Wolfowitz believed those three things and, in addition, cherished the neocon fantasy that establishing Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq could modernize and democratize the entire Muslim world, which would then be less hostile to Israel. In an interview with Sam Tanenhaus published in the June 2003 Vanity Fair, Wolfowitz listed the imagined weapons of mass destruction and the imagined partnership with al-Qaeda as the two compelling reasons to go to war against Iraq. He added a third reason—the liberation of the long-suffering people of Iraq from a monstrous tyrant. But, he said, that by itself was “not a reason to put American kids’ lives at risk.”


Now that evidence of weapons of mass destruction and proof of collaboration between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden have failed to materialize, the Bush administration is left with liberation, once deemed an insufficient justification for the war. Nonetheless, it is a powerful argument. Had the government followed the policy that many Americans, including this writer, advocated, the policy of containment and deterrence, the policy of putting Saddam Hussein “in a box,” he would probably still be in power in Baghdad. This is an unsettling thought for opponents of the war. However, there are a lot of bad guys in the world. Is the US obliged to eliminate them all?

Still, why did Mr. Bush and his close advisers decide to go to war against Iraq? I don’t think he went to war in order to gratify the Halliburton Company or to please Israel or to avenge the attempted assassination of his father. He is a president who exults in big ideas. “I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals,” he told Bob Woodward.8 I suspect that he dreams of making his place in history by converting the Arab world to representative democracy.

If he does, this may partly explain the confusion of priorities by which the war against terrorism metamorphosed into a war against Iraq. Senator Bob Graham of Florida is the only aspirant for the Democratic presidential nomination to have joined Robert Byrd, Edward Kennedy, and twenty other senators in voting against the resolution authorizing Bush to attack Iraq. As chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham said he had seen no persuasive evidence for the alleged partnership between Saddam Hussein, a militantly secular Muslim, and Osama bin Laden, a fanatical Muslim fundamentalist. (Observers noted that Saddam Hussein practically always appeared in Western suits, Osama bin Laden always in Arab costume.) The war against Iraq, Graham feared, meant a diversion of attention, resources, and military might from the main target—the war against al-Qaeda. Far from a finishing blow against terrorism, victory over Iraq might well end by producing a new generation of terrorists. We know today that Graham’s forebodings, which received little attention when he expressed them, turned out to be vindicated.

Thus far, however, President Bush’s extraordinary reversal of the direction of American foreign policy has had little effective opposition. Voters rallied round the flag after September 11 when Americans felt, as never before, personal vulnerability to enemy attack. In this “homeland security” mood, Democrats believed that criticism of the President’s policies might be mistaken for a lack of patriotism.

I think the press and television are also to be blamed for the absence of opposition. Comments by Cheney and Rumsfeld were given top billing in most American papers, even The New York Times, while thoughtful and reasoned speeches by Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd opposing the rush to preventive war were consigned to a paragraph on the back pages or wholly ignored. A philanthropist had to pay the Times to print the full text of Byrd’s powerful February 12 speech against the war in a full-page advertisement on March 9. The failure to give equal time to the opponents of preventive war discouraged any national debate about the Bush Doctrine.

Moreover, a Washington Post poll, taken this August, reported 69 percent of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the attack on the Twin Towers. Where did they get that idea? Perhaps from the administration’s rhetoric as filtered through the press. Saddam Hussein is a great villain, but he had nothing to do with the attack on the Twin Towers, as Mr. Bush belatedly admitted on September 17.

And we must not underrate President Bush’s capacity for getting his way. He is a minority president who lost the popular election by more than half a million votes. The first minority president, John Quincy Adams, also a president’s son, said apologetically in his inaugural address, “Less possessed of your confidence, in advance, than any of my predecessors, I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence.” There were no such apologies in Mr. Bush’s inaugural address. He acted as if he had won in a landslide and had earned an electoral mandate—and he got away with it.

For all his buffoonish side, the President is secure in himself, disciplined, decisive and crafty, and capable of concentrating on a few priorities. He has maintained control of a rag-tag Republican coalition, well described by Kevin Phillips (author of The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969) as consisting of “Wall Street, Big Energy, multinational corporations, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Religious Right, the Market Extremist think-tanks, and the Rush Limbaugh Axis.”9 All these groups agree in their strong support of their president, though they sharply disagree among themselves.10

President Bush radiates a serene but scary certitude when confronted with complicated problems or disagreements. “There is no doubt in my mind we’re doing the right thing,” he told Bob Woodward. “Not one doubt.” Friends attribute this serenity to his religious faith. Woodward, who interviewed Mr. Bush for nearly four hours for his book Bush at War,11 came away with the clear impression that “the president was casting his mission and that of the country in the grand vision of God’s master plan.” “I’m here for a reason,” Mr. Bush told Karl Rove, his political wizard, “and this is going to be how we’re going to be judged.” A senior aide commented that the President “really believes he was placed here to do this [his military policy] as part of a divine plan.”

Though there is no doubting the sincerity of Mr. Bush’s religious beliefs, his faith also serves his political purposes. Religious statistics are notoriously unreliable, but perhaps a third of Americans are born-again, evangelical Christians. In my youth, Protestant fundamentalists could be depended upon to be anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. They led the campaign against Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. They had lynched Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915. In those days, fundamentalists were a disdained and isolated Bible Belt minority. But in the last generation the Christian right has formed an alliance with right-wing Catholics over abortion and an alliance with right-wing Jews over the Holy Land. In consequence, they are a far more potent political force today, perhaps affecting more than 40 percent of the electorate; they give a born-again president a built-in advantage.

As Eisenhower’s scrambled syntax misled people about his executive determination and political skills, so Mr. Bush’s scrambled syntax misleads people, especially liberal intellectuals. The late Murray Kempton was among the first liberals to spot Ike’s well-concealed political prowess—“devious” in the best sense of the word, as Nixon said.12 In an article in Time, “The Power of One,”13 Michael Kinsley correctly diagnosed Mr. Bush as “the real thing: a leader.” This is certainly not to suggest that Mr. Bush has the weight of experience and the circumspection of judgment that characterized Ike. But he is skillful at mobilizing opinion and brushing aside opposition.

Daalder and Lindsay agree with Kinsley:

George Bush assumed the presidency with many people openly questioning his ability to master foreign policy. By any reasonable standard, he proved his doubters wrong…. To an extent that surprised even his most ardent supporters, he was decisive, resolute, and in command of his advisers.

The preventive war against Iraq was a war of President Bush’s choice. It was not, as World War II was, forced upon the United States. It was not, like the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the war against the Taliban, a response to overt acts of aggression. Nor did the US drag itself incrementally into full-scale war, as in Vietnam. The professional military kept its enthusiasm for a war on Iraq well under control. There was no popular clamor for the war. If the US had never gone to war against Iraq, most Americans would hardly have cared, or even noticed. It took one man to decide for war and promote it, sending many thousands of troops there while most other nations doubted that a war was justified.

What is the status of the Bush Doctrine today? Practically speaking, it has been sorely damaged by Mr. Bush’s shrunken credibility. The entire case for preventive war rests on the assumption that we have accurate and reliable intelligence about the enemy’s intentions and military capacity—accurate and reliable enough to send our young men and women to kill and die.

But “instead of using intelligence as evidence on which to base a decision about policy,” as Robin Cook, the former British foreign secretary who resigned from Tony Blair’s cabinet over the war, said, “we used intelligence as the basis on which to justify a policy on which we had already settled.” We note now, as some of the press recovers its skepticism, the greedy zeal with which Bush and his allies seized upon crumbs of intelligence that supported their policy, some fake, some fallacious, some flawed, some out of date or plagiarized.

The Bush administration thus had “not one doubt” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Nor did it have any doubt about his partnership with Osama bin Laden, or about his capacity to quickly build a nuclear bomb, or about the joyous welcome as liberators that would be given our GIs. The collapse of such confident predictions suggests that the Bush Doctrine imposes a burden too heavy for our intelligence agencies to bear. For we can’t ever know all the things we ought to know before going to war. The administration’s credibility gap in Iraq may well undermine the preventive war policy.

Following the attack of September 11, the Afghan war was necessary, since the Taliban government refused to turn over bin Laden; but the Iraq war was optional. Mr. Bush has led us into a ghastly mess—a “quagmire”—as a result of his administration’s spectacular incompetence in planning for the aftermath. Richard Lugar, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said with nonpartisan candor that the poor postwar planning resulted from administration assumptions that “simply were inadequate to begin with.”14 Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, another Republican, put it more starkly: the White House “did a miserable job of planning for a post-Saddam Iraq.”15 Senatorial concern was supported by “Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned,” a classified Pentagon report conveniently leaked to the Washington Times of September 3. The report ascribed the guerrilla warfare against American troops, so brilliantly analyzed in the September 25 New York Review by Mark Danner, to Washington’s hurried and superficial planning. The first bill is in—$87 billion today, more tomorrow. Like Milton’s Samson in Gaza, we are eyeless in Iraq.

It is doubtful that President Bush could once again rally a “coalition of the willing” in a preventive war against Iran or North Korea. Is not the Bush Doctrine already obsolete? There are longer-range objections too. “It is not in the American national interest,” observes Henry Kissinger, “to establish preemption as a universal principle available to every nation.”16 But to reserve that principle to the United States alone is to make our nation the world’s judge, jury, and executioner. However virtuous some Americans may feel in assigning this triple role to an American president, less powerful nations are likely to hate us for it.

The recent survey by the German Marshall Fund, for example, reports an astonishing shift in European opinion of the United States. The majority of Europeans expressed strong disapproval of US foreign policy, with Italians and Germans increasing their disapproval by more than twenty points over a similar survey last year.17 After September 11, Le Monde of Paris, not notably pro-American, declared, “Nous sommes tous Américains.” After the Iraq war, Jean Daniel, in the pastpro-American, declared in Le Nouvel Observateur, “Nous ne sommes pas tous américains.” The Bush administration, following the counsel of Machiavelli—“far safer to be feared than loved”—dismisses world opinion as a matter for wimps.

They forget the wimps who fought the American Revolution and established the new republic. “An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons,” declared the 63rd Federalist:

The one is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed.

Moreover, by encouraging self-righteousness and arrogance, the triple role is bound to corrupt our own country. As John Quincy Adams, perhaps our greatest secretary of state, said on July 4, 1821, “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Once embroiled in foreign wars of interest and intrigue, Adams predicted,

the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.

The triple role also resurrects the imperial presidency. Again there are warnings from the American past. On February 15, 1848, during the war with Mexico, a young Illinois congressman sent a letter to his law partner pointing out the constitutional and practical flaws in what we now call the Bush Doctrine. “Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion,” Abraham Lincoln wrote William H. Herndon,

and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure…. If today he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us”; but he will say to you, “Be silent: I see it, if you don’t.”

The Philadelphia convention, Lincoln said, had “resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us.”

The American president as the world’s self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner? “We must face the fact,” President John F. Kennedy said,

that the United States is neither omnipotent or omniscient—that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population—that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind—that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity—and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.18

—September 24, 2003

This Issue

October 23, 2003