THE NATIONAL Security Strategy of the United States, released in September 2002, contained the key elements of what was quickly dubbed the Bush Doctrine. The most headline grabbing of these was Bush’s brazen proclamation of a unilateral U.S. right to wage preventive war—to attack another sovereign nation not because it directly threatened the U.S. but because it could potentially pose a threat. What constituted a threat would be left to the U.S. president’s discretion—a nation could find itself in the crosshairs of the U.S. if it harbored terrorists, developed weapons of mass destruction, became a failed state, or otherwise simply pursued foreign policy goals at odds with the United States.
Although couched as a rethinking of U.S. strategic doctrine in light of the September 11 attacks, it was, in fact, a repackaging of a number of foreign policy ideas that had been kicking around the neoconservative ideological and think-tank circuit since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
The once-hidden, now openly stated, goal of U.S. foreign policy would be the prevention of the establishment of a “peer competitor” to the U.S. for the foreseeable future. The document proclaims: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” To neocon minds, one means to that end would be the establishment of a forward U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia—“hot spots” owing to their possession of the lion’s share of the world’s most important commodity, oil, and to their proximity to the most likely challengers to a U.S. dominated status quo, namely China, India, and Russia (or some combination of them). The U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq served to accomplish both of these ends.
The “preventive” war against Iraq—fought originally and ostensibly to prevent the regime of Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction that it could give to terrorists who might use them against the U.S. or regional allies (read -Israel)—provided the first test of this neoconservative theology. In attacking Iraq, Bush aligned himself with neocons like the Project for a New American Century and their Israeli Likudnik co-thinkers. The buildup and invasion of Iraq showed all the hallmarks of neoconservative fantasies—their disdain for “multilateral” action through institutions like the United Nations, their advocacy of forcible “regime change” against rogue states, and their rejection of the primacy of “stability” in international relations in exchange for decisive action to “transform” the Middle East and the world.
In the immediate sense, the war in Iraq was a success for Bush and the neocon ideologues who had advocated “taking out” Saddam for more than a decade. The U.S. was able to embark on a largely unilateral war, thumbing its nose at even its allies, and to win a quick regime change in Baghdad. But subsequent events have shown that Bush’s staged May 1, 2003, proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of the USS Lincoln may have been a high-water mark for the Bush Doctrine—at least in its ideologically purest form.
From almost that moment to the present, virtually nothing that Bush or his neoconservative acolytes have promised has come to pass. Instead of greeting their U.S. “liberators” with flowers and candy, a growing resistance has made the U.S. occupation a disaster. The U.S. found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—in fact, discovering that Iraq had given up pursuit of those weapons years before. Predictions that the occupation would pay for itself through a revived Iraqi oil industry marketed to the world have given way to billions in U.S. money spent and long gas lines for ordinary Iraqis.
Notwithstanding Bush’s recent crowing about bestowing “democracy” on Iraq, many reports in the mainstream media and in foreign policy specialist publications suggest the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq have dealt a cold blast of reality to the fantasists behind the Bush doctrine. Geoffrey Kemp, a former member of the Reagan National Security Council and currently director of regional strategic programs at the Richard M. Nixon Center told the Washington Post last June: “Of the four principles of the Bush doctrine, three have failed, and the fourth—democracy promotion—is hanging by a thread.”
This has forced a readjustment of the administration’s rhetoric and tactics, if not necessarily of its goals. After taunting the UN for its “inaction” for more than a year before the war, the U.S. returned to that supposedly irrelevant institution to receive its blessing for the U.S.-led occupation and its assistance in concocting a collaborationist Iraqi regime to take over from the failed U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority. Internationally, tough “axis of evil” threats against the regimes of Iran and North Korea have given way—for the time being—to talk of multilateral diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent trip through European capitals was aimed—rhetorically at least—at ratcheting down some of the rancor and overheated rhetoric that flew across the Atlantic in the buildup to the war.
So the exercise of the Bush Doctrine in Iraq proved to be a lot less successful than its Pentagon architects thought. While no one should minimize the power the U.S. still holds in Iraq, the disastrous occupation has led to strains on the U.S. war machine that will weaken its ability to accomplish the expansive goals the Bush Doctrine sets for it.
First, it’s clear that the active duty military is too small to carry out as ambitious an agenda as world policeman and slayer of dragons (if Bush’s inaugural address declaration of a U.S. “calling” to spread “liberty” is to be taken seriously). Marine and Army recruitment levels are down. The stop-loss program that prevents reservists from leaving the armed forces when their contracts expire is causing tremendous strain on military families. These problems led Lt. Gen. James Helmsley, the commander of the Army Reserves, to write in December 2004 that the reserves were “degenerating into a broken force….”
Second, the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures have cost something like $300 billion, with the price tag going up. While the U.S. economy is still in recovery from the 2001–2003 recession, this cost is putting strains on the ability of the economy to grow. Domestic programs are being squeezed and the financial position of the U.S., particularly as reflected in the value of the dollar against the euro and yen, is being eroded. Growth in the economy has slowed down to a little over 3 percent and huge trade and budget deficits continue to swell. As a result, two-thirds of the world’s central banks have increased their exposure to euros and lowered exposure to dollars, according to a report by the London-based Central Banking Publications Ltd.
Third, outside the United States, the Bush Doctrine and its twin, “the war on terror,” have proven to be ideological disasters for the United States. The scandal over U.S. torture of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere may have dealt a fatal ideological blow to Bush’s pretensions to winning Middle Eastern “hearts and minds.” Opinion poll after opinion poll documents that the majority of the world’s people consider the U.S. and the Bush administration to be a greater threat to world peace than Osama bin Laden or terrorism. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have actually handed jihadists the best recruitment tool they’ve had since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Although the U.S. continues to insist that the war on terror be the organizing principle of world politics, most of the world’s ruling classes—from Europe to the Islamic world—have more pressing matters on their minds. The war on terrorism simply doesn’t move the rest of the world the way the Cold War ideology of anticommunism did.
For all of these reasons, a chorus of establishment critics of the war has grown. Even hawks like former Bush Sr. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski have called for the U.S. either to reinforce the occupation with 400,000 more troops or to get out of Iraq. The January/February 2005 Foreign Affairs carried two major articles on Iraq: Edward Luttwak’s urging “disengagement” from Iraq and James Dobbins Jr.’s declaring the U.S. has already lost the war.
The current confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program is a good illustration of the limitations reality has imposed on the exercise of the Bush Doctrine. With the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, it is in no position to pull off an Iraqi-style invasion of Iran. The U.S. is also leaning on Shiite political parties aligned with Iran to stabilize an Iraqi society chafing under the U.S. occupation. All of this may limit U.S. action to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to pressure Iran and maybe even launch air strikes or commando raids against it. The Bush administration has remained standoffish to the European effort to negotiate Iran’s abandonment of its nuclear program. Britain, Germany, and France, who are leading the negotiations with Iran, know that the support from the U.S.—the chief enforcer of sanctions on Iraq—is crucial for the “success” or “failure” of the European effort. And if the European effort fails, then the U.S. can step in with a more belligerent plan. Exactly what this would be isn’t clear yet, although Seymour Hersh’s January New Yorker report predicts U.S. attacks against Iran in the summer of 2005.
No doubt developments in Iraq over the next few years will determine whether the Bush Doctrine can be declared dead or alive. But it would be wrong to conclude that the U.S. is in some kind of spiral downward that is inevitably leading to a major reversal of the Bush Doctrine.
For one thing, much of what was considered controversial or revolutionary about the Bush Doctrine has largely been accepted across the U.S. political establishment. During last year’s presidential election, John Kerry didn’t run against the Bush Doctrine. In fact, he often pledged to “win” the war on terror and the war in Iraq. One can only think of all the Democrats who would fall all over themselves to praise Bush if he launched a strike against Iran. Most mainstream commentary—and most likely, much of the support Kerry received from major editorial pages and from foreign policy professionals—reflects an acceptance of the tenets of the Bush Doctrine. These experts just think someone who isn’t as crude and messianic as Bush would be better at carrying out U.S. interests in the world.
What is more, there is still no serious military competitor to the U.S. and there won’t be one for several decades. The real content behind the Bush Doctrine is about preempting a global competitor: China, for instance, in the future. Even though a December 2004 CIA report predicted the U.S. position in the world (politically, economically, and militarily) will decline somewhat over the next fifteen years, as China and India move into more prominent positions in world politics, it still did not consider that any country would threaten U.S. military predominance.
Economically, the U.S. depends on the willingness of the central banks of Japan, China, and other countries to buy more than $1 billion a day in treasury notes to support the U.S. budget deficit. But that is a far cry from the notion, promoted by figures such as left-wing intellectural Immanuel Wallerstein who claim the U.S. is an empire in decline and that the U.S. sustains a hollow economy that, like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, only depends on the “kindness of strangers.” Despite years of riding on the edge of disaster, the economy still hasn’t taken the dive that it could. And it may have a respectable performance in 2005.
The U.S. still has plenty of resources to call on to boost military recruitment and to support the occupation of Iraq—much more than Britain did when it tried to conquer and rule Iraq in the early part of the twentieth century. On a global scale, the U.S. manages to retain its ability to spend beyond its means because other countries (especially China and Japan) depend on U.S. consumers to buy the products that they manufacture. So these countries’ central bankers and capitalists continue to see an advantage in recycling their profits into U.S. Treasury securities, even though they receive a lower return on their investment than even the U.S. does when they invest overseas. They may actually fear what would happen if they didn’t continue to support the ability of the U.S. to act as buyer of last resort. It’s a giant game of “chicken” the U.S. plays: daring other countries to rearrange these setups in the world economy.
So despite the obvious problems with the Bush administration’s ability to pursue its doctrine, the U.S. empire won’t fall on its own. The subjective factor of a politics and practice of anti-imperialism is also crucial. When the ISR first began to analyze the Bush Doctrine three years ago, we emphasized the subjective factor of the weakness of anti-imperialist movements and politics as one way to understand how Bush could resurrect this openly imperialist policy—a throwback to the nineteenth century. This continues to be a key factor.
When U.S. imperialism received its last major setback, when it lost the Vietnam War, it came as a result of three factors: the struggle of the Vietnamese, as part of the long tradition of anti-colonial movements after the Second World War; the upsurge of the social protest movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s that solidarized with the Vietnamese; and the upsurge of class struggle (expressed around the world in 1968), that could be felt in the workpieces and the military in the United States. These types of struggles have been at a low ebb for a while as the U.S. has clawed back its imperial dominance. Ideologically, there has been a major setback in the politics of anti-imperialism—seen most obviously in the fact that the majority of the U.S. Left and antiwar forces campaigned for prowar John Kerry. The heirs of the historic national liberation movements—from the African National Congress in South Africa to the Chinese Communist Party—are the enforcers of neoliberalism in their countries.
But signs of change on these fronts—from the Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation, to mass opposition to Yankee neoliberalism in Latin America, to the beginnings of antiwar organizing in the U.S. military—point the way to the rebirth of anti-imperialism in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, this opposition will determine whether the Bush Doctrine, however repackaged, triumphs or fails.
Lance Selfa is a member of the ISR editorial board.