The End of the Bush Revolution

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

July 1, 2006


Reading over President George W. Bush’s March 2006 National Security Strategy, one would be hard-pressed to find much evidence that the president has backed away from what has become known as the Bush doctrine. “America is at war,” says the document; we will “fight our enemies abroad instead of waiting for them to arrive in our country” and “support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture,” with the ultimate goal of “ending tyranny in our world.”

Talk to any senior administration official, and he or she will tell you that the president is as committed as ever to the “revolutionary” foreign policy principles he spelled out after 9/11: the United States is fighting a war on terror and must remain on the offensive and ready to act alone, U.S. power is the foundation of global order, and the spread of democracy and freedom is the key to a safer and more peaceful world. Bush reiterated such thinking in his 2006 State of the Union address, insisting that the United States will “act boldly in freedom’s cause” and “never surrender to evil.”

But if the rhetoric of the Bush revolution lives on, the revolution itself is over. The question is not whether the president and most of his team still hold to the basic tenets of the Bush doctrine—they do—but whether they can sustain it. They cannot. Although the administration does not like to admit it, U.S. foreign policy is already on a very different trajectory than it was in Bush’s first term. The budgetary, political, and diplomatic realities that the first Bush team tried to ignore have begun to set in.

The reversal of the Bush revolution is a good thing. By overreaching in Iraq, alienating important allies, and allowing the war on terrorism to overshadow all other national priorities, Bush has gotten the United States bogged down in an unsuccessful war, overstretched the military, and broken the domestic bank. Washington now lacks the reservoir of international legitimacy, resources, and domestic support necessary to pursue other key national interests.

It is not too late to put U.S. foreign policy back on a more sustainable course, and Bush has already begun to do so. But these new, mostly positive trends are no less reversible than the old ones were. Another terrorist attack on the United States, a major challenge from Iran, or a fresh burst of misplaced optimism about Iraq could entice the administration to return to its revolutionary course— with potentially disastrous consequences.