The Bush Doctrine

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

December 1, 2006

One has to admire Norman Podhoretz’s perseverance in continuing to believe in the viability of the Bush Doctrine long after the doctrine’s obsolescence has become apparent to just about everyone else [“Is the Bush Doctrine Dead?,” Commentary Magazine, September]. As he himself acknowledges, there is now “a consensus that has formed on the death of the Bush Doctrine,” one that “embraces just about every group all along the ideological spectrum . . . the realists, the liberal internationalists, the traditionalist conservatives, the paleoconservatives, and the neoconservatives.”

I am named as a part of this consensus along with people as diverse as William Kristol, Charles A. Kupchan, George F. Will, Richard Perle, and Mike Allen and Romesh Ratnesar of Time. But instead of seeing this remarkable convergence as a sign that these observers may be on to something, Mr. Podhoretz insists that the Bush Doctrine is alive and well. His refusal to allow pesky facts to get in the way of a good argument is akin to Bush’s own stubborn determination to talk as if his policies were on track even though reality clearly suggests otherwise.

Where Mr. Podhoretz and I agree is that Bush and his top advisers still believe in the Bush Doctrine’s basic assumptions—America is in a war against evil; all nations must choose to be for or against us in this struggle; we must act unilaterally or preemptively when necessary; and spreading democracy is the long-term solution to the problem of terrorism. But Mr. Podhoretz refuses to admit that the strategic, political, financial, and even moral basis for implementing this program has eroded. Since the Bush Doctrine was formulated, the U.S. military has become bogged down in Iraq, the federal budget has gone from massive surplus to massive deficit, international support and respect for America have fallen to new depths, and the President’s domestic support—especially for the war in Iraq—has fallen considerably.

It is not surprising that under these circumstances the administration has reached out diplomatically to allies, backed away from military interventions and regime change as a policy tool, put pragmatic foreign-policy professionals in top positions once held by hawkish ideologues, and set aside aggressive democracy-promotion (except at the rhetorical level). The reason so many of Mr. Podhoretz’s neoconservatives allies are now attacking Bush’s foreign policy is not that they have changed their views but that the policy has changed.

The Bush Doctrine is dying not only because support for it is eroding but because it is failing. On this point, Mr. Podhoretz takes issue with a recent article I wrote in Foreign Affairs, “The End of the Bush Revolution.” He accuses me of “rehears[ing] the by now familiar litany of alleged disasters . . . that have followed from Bush’s pursuit of a ‘transformative foreign policy’: failure in Iraq, a ‘decline in legitimacy and popularity abroad,’ and a waning of political support at home.” For my part, I would say that these items may be familiar, but they are also rather significant.

Mr. Podhoretz gives me some credit for acknowledging that Bush has seen some successes, including “elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, a revolution in Lebanon followed by Syrian withdrawal, nuclear disarmament in Libya, and steps toward democracy elsewhere in the world.” But given the fact that elections in Iraq and Afghanistan have not prevented rising violence in either place; that the revolution in Lebanon has led not to stability but to serious internal strife and Hizballah’s attacks on Israel; that Libya’s disarmament seems to have resulted more from enduring international sanctions than from the Bush Doctrine; and that the steps toward democracy elsewhere in the world have gone nowhere, it is hard to agree with Mr. Podhoretz’s conclusion that the “successes” outweigh the failures.

Let me also reassure Mr. Podhoretz that, contrary to what he claims, “renewed progress in these areas” is not what I “most fear”; indeed, I wrote that such progress would be “highly desirable.” I just do not think that we are likely to achieve our goals by following Bush’s approach. What I fear is more of the misplaced optimism and wishful thinking that leads to counterproductive policies.

Perhaps the best evidence that Mr. Podhoretz’s determination to support the Bush Doctrine blinds him to any reasonable assessment of it is that he “confess[es] to being puzzled by the amazing spread of the idea that the Bush Doctrine has indeed failed the test of Iraq.” I must in turn confess to being puzzled by his puzzlement. For the price of over 2,700 American lives, 20,000 injured soldiers, tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, over $400 billion and counting, and incalculable damage to America’s standing in the world, the Iraq war has produced a country on the verge of civil war, a regime under Iranian influence, inspiration to a growing number of violent terrorists, and an ongoing burden that limits America’s ability to exercise diplomatic and military influence elsewhere. If that is a success of the Bush Doctrine, I would hate to see what failure looks like.