The War Behind Closed Doors
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assessing the bush doctrine

Released Sept. 17, 2002, twenty months after President Bush took office, the 33-page National Security Strategy (NSS) offers the administration's first comprehensive rationale for a new, aggressive approach to national security. The new strategy calls for preemptive action against hostile states and terror groups. It states that the U.S. "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively." The NSS also focuses on how diplomacy and foreign aid can and should be used to project American values, including "a battle for the future of the Muslim world." Here are the views of historian John Lewis Gaddis of Yale; defense policy expert Kenneth Pollack; Mark Danner of The New Yorker; William Kristol of The Weekly Standard; and Karen DeYoung and Barton Gellman of The Washington Post on the significance of this document.

Professor of Political Science, Yale University

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I think the statement is a grand strategy in several different senses. First of all, it responds to a crisis. And it is crises that generally generate grand strategies. So, just as the grand strategy that won World War II came out of the Pearl Harbor surprise attack, so this one did as well. This is not surprising that there would be a rethinking of grand strategic assumptions in the wake of something like the 9/11 attack.

Secondly, I think it's a grand strategy in the sense that it is comprehensive. It does not simply break up the world into regions and say that we have an approach for this region, an approach for that region, but these don't necessarily interconnect. I think that was often the tendency in the Clinton administration, a bunch of parts that did not completely add to a whole. And I think that this strategy does, in that sense.

I think it's also a grand strategy in the sense that it has both short-term and long-term objectives. This grand strategy is actually looking toward the culmination of the Wilsonian project of a world safe for democracy, even in the Middle East. And this long-term dimension of it, it seems to me, goes beyond what we've seen in the thinking of more recent administrations. It is more characteristic of the kind of thinking, say, that the Truman administration was doing at the beginning of the Cold War -- thinking not only about what do we have to do tomorrow, and what do we have to do next week, but where do we want to come out at the end of this process. So, that's why I think it qualifies as a grand strategy.

And how is it an historic shift?

The Bush strategy is an historic shift for American foreign policy because it really is the first serious American grand strategy since containment in the early days of the Cold War. We went through the Cold War, the Cold War ended, and we got into a new situation without a grand strategy. We didn't really devise a grand strategy in the early '90s in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. And that's not terribly surprising. We didn't do that either in the immediate aftermath of World War I. We went through the entire 1920s and even the 1930s without a coherent grand strategy. But the shock of Pearl Harbor forced us to devise one. And the shock of 9/11 did something like that as well.

And I would argue that the Bush grand strategy is the most fundamental reshaping of American grand strategy that we've seen since containment, which was articulated back in 1947.

Staff Writer, The New Yorker

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When you look at the administration's policy -- particularly the much-ballyhooed National Security [Strategy] -- which talks about preemption, the necessity of maintaining preponderant power, all of these very vivid phrases -- I think it's important to appreciate not only what is new about that, but what is old. What is old is the notion of the United States as an exceptional power, as the one good power on the scene, the necessity to divide the world into the United States and the good forces, and the rest of the world, which is seen as evil.

This is an administration, which, in some sense, shows great pessimism about the world, a great sense that the world is threatening this country. In that sense, 9/11 came as something of a godsend. Certainly they didn't welcome it. But in an ideological sense, this idea of threat, the necessity to prepare for constant threat, the idea of eliminating threats before they can strike us and, above all, this idea of unilateral strong action, that the most powerful must do all it can to avoid any strictures on its power -- these were elements that preexisted 9/11.

[The events of] 9/11 allowed them to come into force, to come out and take a public role, in a way they never could have otherwise. It's important to see those, I think, as something not entirely new at all. Indeed, those tendencies have a very obvious history in American foreign policy that dates from the Truman Doctrine, and that also dates from the proponents of rollback in the early 1950s, people who thought that the idea of containing communism was profoundly un-American. "We shouldn't be content to let communism exist and wait until it crumbles." -- which was George Kennan's idea -- "We have to go out and destroy communism, roll it back."

These were people like Gen. MacArthur, who tried to do that in the Korean Peninsula, and others, who advocated supporting the Hungarian revolution, for example, in 1956. They believed that the U.S. has to take an active role in pushing freedom forward, and even doing it through the ends of bayonets, through military force.


We see those tendencies in the present administration. They have historical roots in American thinking about foreign policy, and American thinking about the country's role in the world. All of this comes from the same well of American exceptionalism.

Reporter, The Washington Post

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The National Security Strategy is a document prepared for Congress to give them an idea what direction the administration is heading, what kind of resources they will need and how they see the long-term goals of America's security policy.

This document talks a great deal about preemption and the justification for preemption, military preemption, as well as other kinds of preemption. It talks about, again, this nexus between weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism as being the main global threat of the first part of this century. Many people said when the document was published that it appeared to be a very elaborate justification for attacking Iraq, that if you start with the premise that you really want to attack Iraq, you really want to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then you build around that a kind of intellectual justification not only for that act but to show how it fits into a much larger, much more well-thought-out strategy that could govern all kinds of policies in the future, then you have not only a doctrine, but you have essentially a strategy.

Since then this whole kind of preemption thing has taken on a life of its own and has gotten them a lot of criticism. Who are you to say that you can preempt whatever attack you see coming, when and from where, without having to give any evidence, without any proof that you're acting in self-defense? And the response has been, well, you know, if you look through the strategy document, you will see that we don't say that it's only military, we say, well sometimes we will operate through international financial structures. Sometimes we will use diplomacy, which is obviously what they're doing in North Korea.

Because the question arises, here you have a regime that we know has weapons of mass destruction, has already thrown inspectors out, has ballistic missiles, all of which Iraq doesn't really have, and Iraq has let the inspectors in. So how come you want to use diplomacy in North Korea and you think you need military preemption with Iraq?

Well, if you read the document carefully, you will see that we have many different tools that allow us to choose many different routes. We've always had diplomatic tools, we've always had financial tools. What's new about that document, I think, is the preemptive military strategy, putting it down on paper and saying, "We have the right and the obligation to move against people that we perceive to be a threat to this country."

Editor, The Weekly Standard

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It's bigger than Iraq, and it's bigger than the Middle East. I mean, the world is a mess. And, I think, it's very much to Bush's credit that he's gotten serious about dealing with it. But, Iraq's not going to be the end of it.

Obviously, there are exercises of American power that could be unwise. But, on the biggest question, is the great danger too little an exercise, too mean an exercise of American power, or too great, too forward leaning an exercise of American power? I think that's an easy question to answer. The danger is American withdrawal, American timidity, American slowness. The danger is not that we're going to do too much. The danger is that we're going to do too little.

I think when historians look at the last several decades, they'll say there was the Cold War period from the late 40s to 1989 or 1991. There was the 90s, the decade of peace and prosperity. And then there's now the post-9/11 period; we'll see what it gets called. But it is a new moment. And Bush believes it's a new moment. One can imagine an unbelievably dangerous world five, 10, 15 years from now, or one can imagine a much more hopeful world. But an awful lot of it depends on what the U.S. does, and how successful America is. And that, in turn, depends on what the Bush administration does, and how successful George W. Bush is.

Now, it's very much to his credit that on Sept. 11, very quickly after Sept. 11, he came to that understanding. And I don't think it was quite as inevitable as it now seems that he would understand that this was the defining moment of his presidency, and perhaps of American history for the next 10 to 20 years. But he came to that conclusion very quickly.

Barton Gellman
Reporter, The Washington Post

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I doubt there's any government in the world that guides itself primarily by strategy or conceptual documents or worldview. Anybody who has the reigns of power has to look at practical limitations and tradeoffs and the fact that you can focus at most on one or two things at a time, and that resources are limited and that there are conflicts of interest, for example, between your trade objectives, your human rights objectives, your nuclear nonproliferation objectives, and the desire to make sure you're the toughest kid on the block in every region of the world.

And so I see a strong element of pragmatism and realism that is in competition in the Bush White House with the grand strategy of maintaining global hegemony and the grand strategy of preempting the acquisition or development or use of certain classes of weapons by any other state.

You saw it in the interception of a North Korean supply ship on the way to Yemen with a load of missiles. If there was any case study in which you'd expect to see the application of a Bush preemption doctrine -- and let's remember, this happened literally on the day that this preemption doctrine is released -- you'd have thought that American policy under this White House would have taken these missiles, either seized them or sunk them on the high seas and said, "We're not going to tolerate North Korean missile exports." And what do they do? They get a very strong protest from Yemen, on which they are depending in another security interest entirely, which is the war with Al Qaeda, and they cave. They say, "Oh, excuse me, we didn't realize it was for you, here are your missiles."

So grand strategy can't guide every decision and certainly isn't guiding every decision in the Bush White House.

Dennis Ross
Former State Department official and Mideast envoy

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The 2002 [National Security Strategy] is an effort to look at national security with a very broad set of brushstrokes. In effect, there's an effort to look at national security and look at some of the threats that are not even traditional threats: to look at health issues like AIDS that could be a threat, to see that in a place like Africa that there has to be an approach to trying to transform the reality there. This is something that you didn't find at all in the 1992 document, because it was a narrow DOD approach designed to try to anticipate what were new kinds of military threats that the military would have to plan against.

The National Security [Strategy] is comprehensive, in the sense that it incorporates that, but it tries to look more broadly. The controversial elements of it [are] the United States' necessity to be the sole power, the necessity as that power to deal in a different way than in the Cold War world, that sometimes means preemption and such. Having said that there are real differences between the two documents, there's also a certain continuity to them, as well.

In 1992, what was clear is that the Cold War was over and we had won it. We didn't know exactly what the shape of the new world was going to be, and this was an effort to look at the nature of the threats, but we were the predominant power. That was unmistakable then. So there was an effort to look at new threats, but to look at them through the lens of how could you use the power that we had to deal with those, recognizing that we had no peer, no real competitor, as a power?

So that's where I think some of the intellectual wellsprings of the 2002 document do emerge from, because 2002 is making it very clear, very explicit, that we will use our power to pursue these objectives, to pursue objectives that we consider to be important for American interests, but for the world's interests. In many respects, the character of this document is in keeping with what might be described as America's image of exceptionalism: that we always use power for good, that we have selfless purposes. This is the way we see ourselves. It's not necessarily the way the rest of the world sees us.

Kenneth Pollack
Former analyst, CIA and National Security Council

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Why is it a terrible notion [to use Iraq as a test case for a new foreign policy doctrine of preemptive military intervention?]

Saddam Hussein's Iraq does pose a threat to the vital interests of the United States, and of the entire world. And that means that Iraq is, in some ways, a unique threat that does require an extraordinary response, a preemptive response by the United States and its allies to prevent Saddam Hussein from ever acquiring the weapons of mass destruction, in particular the nuclear weapons that would make him perhaps an insurmountable threat.

But, because Iraq is a unique threat, it also means that Iraq should not become the basis for a broader policy. And, in particular, this shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all policy. What's right for Iraq isn't necessarily what's right for the problems that we have with Iran, or North Korea, or Cuba, or Syria or Libya or any of these other countries, with whom we do have very serious problems.

In many cases, a war would be the worst possible solution for these countries. Going to war with North Korea right now might be horrific, because the U.S. Intelligence Committee seems to believe that North Korea already possesses nuclear weapons. In other cases, as in Iran, probably the last thing we want is to try to occupy a country of 70 million people in Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq.

By the same token, though, I think that the Bush administration is actually hurting its case for war with Iraq by pushing a strategy of preemption more broadly. My own sense is that talking with Europeans and our other allies, they are often very deeply concerned about a war with Iraq, not because of the specifics of the Iraqi circumstance, but because they're afraid of setting a precedent. They're afraid that this will become the first of many preemptive wars fought by the United States. And I think that the administration could probably do a much better job in building support for a war with Iraq, if they did make the case that Iraq is, in fact, a unique threat which requires a unique response and that we aren't planning on mounting preemptive wars against any of a series of other countries.

Most of the countries around the world recognize that Saddam Hussein's regime is one of the most odious of the last 100 years. They recognize that this guy is a threat, that we've had to go to war with him once before and that ridding the world of this regime would make the world a much better place. But, they're very nervous about giving the United States carte blanche for a policy of preemption. And, I think, in many cases they're trying to throw the brakes on Iraq, and hope that this throws the brakes on this larger policy.


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