Where is the debate over the Bush Doctrine?

Until Sarah Palin made clear she had never heard of it, nobody -- including the presidential candidates -- had trouble understanding what it was.

Published September 14, 2008 2:48PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III - Update IV - Update V)

Before it became clear that Sarah Palin had never heard of it, nobody -- including the presidential candidates themselves -- ever had difficulty answering questions about what they believed about the Bush Doctrine, nor ever suggested that this Doctrine was some amorphous, impossible-to-understand, abstract irrelevancy. Quite the contrary, despite some differences over exactly what it means, it was widely understood to constitute a radical departure -- at least in theory -- from our governing foreign policy doctrine, and it is that Doctrine which has unquestionably fueled much of the foreign policy disasters of the last eight years.

In 2003, the American Enterprise Institute's Thomas Donnelly wrote an article entitled "The Underpinnngs of the Bush Doctrine," and argued that "the Bush Doctrine, which is likely to shape U.S. policy for decades to come, reflects the realities of American power as well as the aspirations of American political principles"; that it "represents a reversal of course from Clinton-era policies in regard to the uses of U.S. power and, especially, military force"; and "the Bush Doctrine represents a return to the first principles of American security strategy." Donnelly had no trouble understanding and articulating exactly what the Bush Doctrine meant: namely, a declaration that the U.S. has the right to -- and will -- start wars against countries even if they have not attacked us and are not imminently going to do so:

Taken together, American principles, interests, and systemic responsibilities argue strongly in favor of an active and expansive stance of strategic primacy and a continued willingness to employ military force. Within that context, and given the ways in which nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction can distort normal calculations of international power relationships, there is a compelling need to hold open the option of -- and indeed, to build forces more capable of -- preemptive strike operations. The United States must take a wider view of the traditional doctrine of "imminent danger," considering how such dangers might threaten not only its direct interests, but its allies, the liberal international order, and the opportunities for greater freedom in the world.

Put more simply: " The message of the Bush Doctrine -- "Don't even think about it!" -- rests in part on a logic of preemption that underlies the logic of primacy."

A few months earlier, Norman Podhoretz wrote a long cover story for Commentary -- entitled "In Praise of the Bush Doctrine" (sub. rq'd) -- in which he argued that "To those with ears to hear, the State of the Union address should have removed all traces of ambiguity from the Bush Doctrine." He, too, pointed out the obvious: that from this point froward, the U.S. "would also take preemptive action whenever it might be deemed necessary." The extreme deceit that lies at heart of neoconservativism is vividly illustrated by the willingness of their leading lights -- such as Charles Krauthammer and NYT "reporter" Michael Gordon -- suddenly to proclaim that the Bush Doctrine is far too amorphous for Sarah Palin or anyone else to be able to opine on it, even after their Godfather years ago declared that "all traces of ambiguity from the Bush Doctrine" have been removed for "those with ears."

That the Bush Doctrine is both clear and central had continued to be accepted fact into the 2008 election. In January of this year in New Hampshire, Charlie Gibson himself asked the presidential candidates about their views of the Bush Doctrine during the primary debates he hosted. Nobody had any trouble answering it:

GIBSON: Congressman Paul, let me ask you, do you agree with the Bush doctrine, or would you change it?

CONG. RON PAUL, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Bush doctrine of preemptive war is not a minor change; this is huge. This is the first time we, as a nation, accept as our policy that we start the wars. I don't understand this.

Earlier in the debate, Gibson had this exchange with John McCain:

GIBSON: Let me just ratchet up the question slightly and ask you if you believe in the Bush doctrine.

Because in September 2002 -- up for years, our foreign policy has been based on the idea that we form alliances, international consensus. We attack -- retaliate if we're attacked.

But in 2002, the president said we have a right to a pre-emptive attack; that we can attack if this country feels threatened. . . . Do you agree with the doctrine, Senator McCain, if you were president, or would you change it?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN,(R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I agree with the doctrine. And I'd also like to give President Bush a little credit, as we have this discussion. Right after 9/11, every expert in the world said there would be another attack on the United States of America. There hasn't been.

The same night, Gibson hosted the Democratic candidates in a debate, and after Obama explained his belief that the U.S. should bomb locations in Pakistan if we know where Al Qaeda elements are and the Pakistani Government won't act against them, this exchange occurred:

GIBSON: I'm going to go the others in a moment, but what you just outlined is essentially the Bush doctrine. We can attack if we want to, no matter the sovereignty of the Pakistanis.

OBAMA: No, that is not the same thing, because here we have a situation where Al Qaida, a sworn enemy of the United States, that killed 3,000 Americans and is currently plotting to do the same, is in the territory of Pakistan. We know that. . . .

Let me just pick up on a couple of things that have been said. And I think people are in broad agreement here. But I think one of the things that's been left out is Iraq. And part of the reason that we neglected Afghanistan, part of the reason that we didn't go after bin Laden as aggressively as we should have is we were distracted by a war of choice. And that's the flaw of the Bush doctrine. It wasn't that he went after those who attacked America. It was that he went after those who didn't.

It's certainly reasonable to argue that, in some respects, the Bush Doctrine has no precise meaning and is subject to debate, and Gibson provided some vague definitional parameters when asking the presidential candidates about it. None of that negates that Palin appeared quite clearly never to have even heard of the term "The Bush Doctrine" before ("His world view?"), leading one to wonder if she has paid any attention at all to the central foreign policy debates over the last eight years and whether she even watched or was vaguely aware of the presidential debates this year and many of the most critical expressed differences between the candidates -- including the one with whom she's running.

* * * * *

Personally, I'm not particularly bothered by Palin's so-called "lack of experience." I considered the fact that Obama hadn't spent large amounts of time enmeshed in our horrific Washington Establishment to be one of the strengths of his candidacy, and I largely view Palin's lack of Washington experience the same way. The difference isn't their "experience," but the fact that one has had almost two full years to judge Obama's views, positions, approaches, thought-processes and capacity for judgment as he's been subjected to the glaring scrutiny of the campaign, and a complete picture of Obama, for better or worse, has emerged.

By stark contrast, Palin is a blank slate -- not just in terms of what we know about her, but worse, in terms of what her beliefs are. Outside of a few discrete issues of interest to her (drilling for oil and opposition to environmentalism), and aside from some deep religious fervor and trite right-wing slogans that have been implanted in her brain during these last several weeks, she doesn't really appear to have any actual thoughts about most political matters. As John Cole put it: "Sarah Palin is the distilled essence of wingnut. She has it all. She is dishonest. She is a religious nut. She is incurious. She is anti-science. She is inexperienced. She abuses her authority. She hides behind executive privilege. She is a big spender. She works from the gut and places a greater value on instinct than knowledge."

To see why that matters, look at this excerpt today from a new book by The Washington Post's Barton Gellman, which details how Dick Cheney's office exerted virtually exclusive control over large numbers of key U.S. programs, and specifically over the illegal warrantless eavesdropping program -- facts that Gellman had previously documented. There is every reason to believe that Palin, too, would wield very substantial power as Vice President.

In general, the White House is now far and away the most powerful branch of our government -- state power is centralized there to an unprecedented degree. The presidency is so powerful that it's almost impossible for a President not to share substantial responsibility with the Vice President. Moreover, if McCain wins, he is quite likely to perceive -- accurately -- that his victory was due in large part to Palin and the enthusiasm she generated. Independently, her immense political popularity among key GOP factions will empower her. The fact that McCain seems completely uninterested in any issues other than fighting and starting wars and his petty fixation on earmarks -- underscored by his acute indifference to domestic policy -- will leave vast areas for her to manage. His advanced age and previous health problems makes it far more likely than usual that the Vice President will become President.

More alarming than the extremism of the positions that she has clearly formed is the fact that, as her startling ignorance of "the Bush Doctrine" reflects, she doesn't seem to have clearly formed positions on very much of anything. She's clearly willing to spout standard right-wing talking points, and perhaps that's all she'll ever end up embracing, but it's one's inability to know any of that, and the McCain campaign's commitment to ensuring that we won't find out between now and November, that makes her potential ascendancy to that office so deeply disturbing.

* * * * *

One last point, perhaps the most important one: as the above-excerpted exchanges from the debates make clear, both Obama and McCain understand what "the Bush Doctrine" is and have fundamentally different positions on it, at least as they've expressed those positions during the campaign (whether that would translate into any real differences is a separate question). McCain supports the Bush Doctrine and Obama opposes it. Where is the debate over that fundamental difference? Why isn't the Obama campaign making an issue of John McCain's hair-trigger willingness -- desire -- to start even more wars against countries that haven't attacked us?

McCain was one of the most vocal boosters of the attack on Iraq, which most Americans still believe was a grave mistake. He has sung songs about bombing Iran. His leading foreign policy ally, Joe Lieberman, explicitly advocated a new war against Syria. His Vice Presidential selection openly and blithely mulls the potential need to start a new war against Russia. And in general, McCain advocates the right and need of the U.S. to start wars against any country even if it hasn't attacked us or imminently intends to do so.

That difference affects every last issue. Having the U.S. start new wars that way, occupying and re-building more countries, will almost certainly bankrupt the U.S. It will at least destroy any prospects for domestic investment. It will demolish the military capability of the U.S. It will mire us further and further in a state of endless and permanent war and all of the liberty abridgments that accompany that. Sarah Palin may not have any opinions on the defining Bush foreign policy doctrine, but the voting population has vehemently rejected George Bush and it stands to reason that McCain's expressed embrace of his central foreign policy doctrine and Obama's expressed opposition to it is one of the most important differences in the election -- both politically and substantively. Palin aside, isn't that something that one ought to hear much more about from the Obama campaign?

UPDATE: Matt Yglesias:

Once again registering my rote objection to describing the Bush/McCain Doctrine of preventive war as "preemption" (the point of the doctrine is to eliminate the normal standard of preemption) this is why I think it’s important to go beyond mocking Sarah Palin for not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is to pointing out that John McCain is very much a believer in the Bush Doctrine and the Bush Doctrine is incredibly dangerous for the country.

One of McCain's greatest political weaknesses as a candidate is the fact that he's even more willing and eager than Bush was to involve America in new wars -- to start new wars. The virtually complete absence of that vulnerability -- in stump speeches, ads and news reports -- is quite glaring and difficult to understand. The fact that Obama has committed himself to more imperialistic and militaristic approaches than many people would like doesn't negate the fact that McCain has explicitly embraced the underlying premises of the Bush foreign policy -- the Bush Doctrine -- and Obama hasn't.

UPDATE II: The genesis for this overt, formal change to the Government's doctrinal position on the use of force is found in the September, 2002 National Security Strategy, which provided:

For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of preemption on the existence of an imminent threat -- most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.

We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries. Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning. . . .

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction -- and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

That's the Bush Doctrine -- an abandonment of the centuries-long consensus about the right to attack "preemptively" and an embrace of this "right" against countries for which there is no clear evidence of an actual "imminent" attack.

UPDATE III: Just to be clear, when I say that there should be debates over "the Bush Doctrine," I don't mean esoteric, academic doctrinal discussions of what "preemption" is and when it's justified. What I mean is this and this.

UPDATE IV: As Cernig notes, George Will today went on ABC News' Sunday Show and defended Sarah Palin by claiming that even he, Will, didn't know what this bizarre, confusing thing called "the Bush doctrine" is -- that's the same George Will who, in 2003, wrote an Op-Ed entitled "The Bush Doctrine at Risk" in which he understood the term perfectly well and defined it exactly how Gibson did: namely, the right of the U.S. to attack even in the absence of an imminent threat. For years, controversy over "the Bush doctrine" fueled our foreign policy debates. Now, Sarah Palin reveals she's completely ignorant of the term and, suddenly, right-wing hacks everywhere are screaming, in unison: "The Bush Doctrine? What is that?"

UPDATE V: For those claiming that the Bush Doctrine is far too ill-defined for anyone to have opined on it coherently, this -- as far as I'm concerned -- resolves the issue decisively (h/t Eric Schmeltzer):

In 2005, McCain -- like George Will, Norm Podhoretz, McCain in the January 2008 debate, Ron Paul and AEI's Tom Donnelly -- all understood what the Bush Doctrine was, understood it how Charlie Gibson defined it, and were able quite readily to opine on it, notwithstanding any doctrinal ambiguity on the margins or different versions that have appeared over the years. If it would have been irresponsible and incoherent for Sarah Palin to say what she thought about the Bush Doctrine, why was John McCain, and seemingly everyone else, able to do so?

By Glenn Greenwald

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