The Bush Doctrine After Iraq

David H. Bennett

The hottest part of the war in Iraq is over. Three weeks after it began, the images of joyous crowds destroying statues of Saddam Hussein and looting mobs ravaging neighborhoods and museums in Baghdad and Mosul (“this is what freedom looks like” observed Donald Rumsfeld) signal the American military success.
The easy victory over a disorganized and inept Iraqi army comes as no surprise to any observer, particularly those who opposed this whole dubious venture. For example, the Syracuse Post-Standard printed these words from me in early February: “It is true that Saddam will be quickly crushed if war comes; his forces are a paper tiger and are now only one-third the size they were during their ignominious collapse in the 1991 war.” But the issue was never whether the United States’ armed forces could smash the shrunken and ill-equipped Iraqi army; it was whether the United States should unilaterally launch such an unprovoked attack. Contemptuous of the UN after key members of the international organization refused to be coerced into agreeing to the attack, they went forward only with some troops from Blair’s Britain and the rhetorical support of a few others in an illusory “coalition of the willing.” All the questions raised by the opponents of this war remain: why was it started, what might be the next step by this White House in the international arena, what may be the inadvertent consequences of this action

Surely the war was not started because of what was heard from the Administration before it began: it had little to do with “weapons of mass destruction,” with the “war on terror” or with bringing freedom to oppressed victims of Saddam’s tyranny.

There is scant evidence that there were any “weapons of mass destruction” in Saddam’s arsenal. The International Atomic Energy Agency demolished the argument that Iraq had a nuclear weapons program well before the attack. The chemical weapons that had been used by Saddam in the eighties were nowhere to be found during the brief war nor were any biological weapons. Now we are being told that he shipped them off to Syria before the American attack.
The links between Saddam and Al Qaeda (occasionally alleged by George W. Bush and others when they sought support for their war) were never proven. Indeed the argument for any connection between the secular despotism of Hussein and the religious fanatics (who reviled him) behind 9/11 ceased to be a serious argument as the war began.

That left “freedom for Iraq” as the reason for the assault; it became the name of the operation. But the present White House/Pentagon leaders have not shown an interest in shaping foreign policy in service of liberal democracy. These are men who had decried using the US military for “nation building” in the past (when the rape/genocide camps in Bosnia were the issue), who had reached out to Saddam Hussein in the eighties, who have forged links with the autocratic leaders of Pakistan and other undemocratic regimes in the Middle East and parts of the former Soviet Union.

Then why was there the war in Iraq? It had to do with implementing “The Bush Doctrine,” the policy issued as “The National Security Strategy of the United States” in 2001. The Doctrine is the product of a group of hawkish defense intellectuals at the Pentagon and other parts of the Administration. It calls for unquestioned American military dominance in the world, for pre-emptive military force to be used against states considered a threat to the nation, and for such action to be taken alone if necessary.

Those who shaped this Doctrine have argued that regime change in Iraq could lead to a domino effect across the Middle East and South Asia. The Arab-Israeli conflict might be resolved as governments that had supported Palestinian resistance changed their ways. Indeed, “rogue states” across the world, including North Korea, would be disciplined by the demonstration of US firepower. It could lead to what one conservative columnist characterized as the extension of a “uniquely benign” American imperium. And, of course, with the United States now controlling, through its new Iraqi client state, some ten per cent of the world’s known oil reserves, the US might no longer be subject to the whims of the OPEC cartel.

As the war ends in Iraq, there already are indications that more “Bush Doctrine” actions might be on the near-term agenda. Menacing words by Administration figures or those close to them have been directed at Syria, Iran, North Korea and even Cuba. Will the American armed forces be used for more efforts at “regime change” or will the threat of such action have the same effect? There is no way of knowing at this time.

But what is clear is that, if past is prologue, little can be expected of Congress or the Democratic opposition in helping to shape a debate about future US military/foreign policy. With the exception of Al Gore’s one speech in San Francisco, Democrats were eerily silent on the Bush Doctrine, and Congress timidly endorsed the resolution used by the Administration to go to war. Save for public reaction in community forums, in newspaper articles and letters, and in street demonstrations, there was no public debate. It was a sorry moment for American democracy.

What will happen next? To get a preview, read a work authored in 1996 by Richard Perle (until a couple of weeks ago Chair of the Defense Policy Board), Douglas Feith (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy) and David Wurmser (now at the State Department), titled “A Clean Break.” They were writing a position paper for the newly elected Likud government in Israel. According to their report, removing Saddam Hussein from power will be followed by rolling back Syria as the key to peace in the Middle East.

Other writers, working outside the Administration, have added to this call for “a war against the terror masters.” William Kristol and Lawrence Kagan (before 9/11), Michael Ledeen as well as Robert Kagan (this year) have all authored widely reviewed books calling for a muscular US foreign and military policy along the lines of the 2001 Bush Doctrine that can reshape the region and the world, ensuring American security and world dominance. At the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the key figure in creating this vision, sits at the side of Donald Rumsfeld.

Indeed, many of the major players in the Bush Administration, as well as many in that chorus of neoconservative writers cheering them on, are part of the Project for the New American Century, which called, long before 9/11, for “substantial American force presence in the Gulf [which] transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

Does this mean that military action against Syria or Iran or North Korea is on the agenda? Not necessarily. But the triumphalist hubris of Administration leaders suggests that they believe the Doctrine is working and they may be tempted to push it further. At least, it has served to increase the public support for this White House at a time when the economy is suffering, making it easier to push through a domestic program featuring massive tax cuts for the wealthy.

No one can say what the next move will be for this Administration and its foreign/military doctrine. But the inadvertent consequences of the action in Iraq still trouble many. Saddam is gone and so is his tyrannical regime; that is a very good thing. The loss of life (and we many never know the toll of dead or maimed in Iraq) was one immediate cost. The long term effects may be of more consequence.

First, there is the possibility that a new generation of terrorists will be recruited by the televised images of the war. Humiliated by yet another Arab military disaster, will some of the angry youth in the “Arab street” respond to those who characterize the war as the consequence of an arrogant, imperial America and who are calling for murderous retaliation? No one knows.

Second, there is the danger of nuclear proliferation. Will some relatively small states fear that “The Bush Doctrine” might be used by the US or some other large nation claiming the right to pre-emptive action in the future, threatening them with a violent, unilateral “regime change?” Might they believe that only “the bomb” will give them security? Letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle will put all of us at dire risk in the future.

Third, there is the future of the UN and the multilateral arrangements that Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt shaped, that the US created and largely supported until the actions of this Administration. Will America really continue to appear a “benign superpower” in the age of the Bush Doctrine and the arrogant, bellicose rhetoric that has accompanied it? What will be the impact on our friends in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, particularly in a world in which the US current account deficit is enormous, and we do not appear as strong in economic affairs as in military matters.

Fourth, in the longer run could the present use of American military power stimulate a rekindling of a new kind of arms race by nations not willing to accept American hegemony? Only time will tell. Surely the Chinese, the Russians, and even the Europeans have the capacity to challenge the US advantage in military technology.
Finally, what does the future hold in Iraq for America and the Iraqis? Will the victors have the staying power (unlike in Afghanistan) to bring order out of chaos and to head off ethnic strife between Sunni, Shiites and Kurds? Will the costs of reconstruction be unduly burdensome for a weakened American economy? Will the oil wealth of Iraq be used for its people? Will American energy and construction companies with ties to the Administration view this a great barbecue, with all that will mean for America’s reputation in the region and the world? No one knows.

After Iraq, more questions remain than have been answered but many of the ones that troubled opponents of the war are still before us.

David is the Meredith Professor of History in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.