Bush Doctrine No More

The impracticality of preventive war
By Eric Paternot ‘09 and Richard Coffin ‘11
George W. Bush is still in office, but discussions of his legacy have already captured the attention of the country. Surprisingly, it isn’t so much the countless scandals that plagued his presidency that provoke debates or general unease; it is rather what many know as the Bush Doctrine. The American people will, in all likelihood, quickly forget Walter Reed, Alberto Gonzales, and Valerie Plame, but they will still articulate their concept of the international order in terms of preemption, Al-Qaeda, and the Axis of Evil. Or will the Bush Doctrine expire on Jan. 20, 2009?
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001 a country in shock looked to the president for guidance and security. The response came in the form of the National Security Strategy of 2002, otherwise known as the Bush Doctrine. The envisaged solution was simple, yet controversial. The American government gave itself the right to conduct preventive warfare, thereby ensuring that rising threats could be eliminated before they materialized. Under this framework, the government can resort to warfare in the absence of an imminent threat; all that is required is a rising threat. Seven years later, the Iraq War and the failure of the intelligence community to find weapons of mass destruction have overshadowed the practical use of prevention. The Iraq disappointment, combined with the international order’s unfavorable attitude towards preventive war, makes continued implementation of the Bush Doctrine highly improbable in the near future.
Historical Origins
Most citizens are quick to forget that prevention has been at the forefront of American strategy and foreign policy since the Second World War. Professor Steven Rosen, Harvard College faculty and member of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, told the HPR that “prevention has always been on the mind of American leaders ever since Munich 1938, and the reasons are the same now as they were back then. If an enemy of the United States is going to launch an attack, is it moral, is it ethical to allow many to die if instead one can intervene ahead of time to prevent such a catastrophe?” In that regard, President Bush has only set in stone what has been an option for decades.  The leadership of both political parties have also signaled that, in dealing with Iran, all the options would remain on the table. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is even supporting preventive strikes in Pakistan against Al Qaeda targets.
Strength of Character
That a Democratic candidate would adopt such a policy on the campaign trail demonstrates that reversing the Bush Doctrine may be considered an act of weakness and potentially constitute political suicide. The ghosts of appeasement and Sept. 11, 2001 will undoubtedly haunt any leader suggesting that America will be safer by ridding itself of an aggressive policy option. However, the war in Iraq has damaged the underlying justifications of prevention. Future presidents may thus choose to give lip service to preventive measures while never actually resorting to them, especially since the intelligence supporting preemption is frequently unreliable. As Rosen pointed out “the intelligence community was wrong about Saddam’s nuclear arsenal. In 1992, they underestimated Iraqi capacity. In 2002, they overestimated it.” So, while explicitly eliminating the Bush Doctrine may not be a politically viable option, resorting to it could well be practically inconceivable.
Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran?
This is particularly true in the case of Iran – and not only because of unreliable intelligence.  As Professor Robert Paarlberg, associate professor at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, told the HPR “if you were to strike Iran, you would only partially weaken [the regime].  Air strikes alone seldom change political circumstances.  You would need a large ground force to do that.”  However, as the War in Iraq demonstrated, regime change by means of military invasion requires an enormous commitment of financial, material, and human resources. With the US military stretched thin and crumbling domestic support, it may well prove impossible to embark on another war against a foreign power, even if the country meets the Bush Doctrine criteria of a rising threat.  And in terms of other potentially dangerous rogue nations “there are not too many instances left in which preventive war would be an option,” said Paarlberg.  He cited the detonation of a nuclear weapon by North Korea and the relinquishing of the nuclear program in Libya as reasons why preventive war is no longer a viable option to impel political change in either nation.
A Challenge to the International Order
Beyond strategic calculations, launching a preventive war represents an act of defiance towards the international order, making coalition building and cost-sharing ever more difficult.  The rest of the international community repudiates preventive war because it violates basic principles of just war as outlined by the United Nations Charter. The small amount of evidence presented to justify the War in Iraq also set a terrible precedent for American credibility. As professor Beth Simmons, Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, noted in an interview with the HPR “an administration that emphasizes multilateralism will rethink [preventive war],” and will “negotiate a new definition of preventive war among its allies.”  In order to continue using the Bush Doctrine, the United States may have to utilize, rather than circumvent, international law by legally redefining the accepted justifications for war.  However, the unilateralism of the Bush administration may hinder this process.  As Simmons explained, “what is extraordinarily corrosive is the double standard of ‘we get to do it but you can’t.’  We have lost credibility by not living by the same laws the rest of the world lives by.”  In time, the United States could strive to redefine both preventive war and the necessary justifications for war, but it is hard to believe that this approach would satisfy the international community in the current climate.
The upcoming transition to a new United States government—and a new foreign policy—will test the resiliency of the Bush Doctrine. However, in a post Sept. 11 world, it is only fair to assume that the use of preventive war will remain an option against clear and present dangers to America’s national security; but this may well be no more than an exercise in empty rhetoric. Unless the U.S. government wants to gamble on intelligence, military exhaustion, and coalition building, the Bush Doctrine will forgo practical implementation. Old wounds need to heal, but who knows how confidently the US will feel in a decade—by then, the doctrine may well be resuscitated.

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