The Blog

The Bush Doctrine Unfolds

From the March 4, 2002 issue: As the president tours Asia, the Bush doctrine is on display.

5:00 PM, Feb 22, 2002 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE FULL SWEEP of the new Bush Doctrine was on display this past week, as President Bush traveled through North Asia delivering a consistent and powerful message: American security and global security require a determined assault not just on terrorists but on the three-headed hydra of tyranny, terror, and weapons of mass destruction. The imperative of regime change was the core message of Bush's State of the Union address. This week Bush made plain that the implications of his doctrine go beyond North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, the "axis of evil." Just as the Reagan Doctrine-- primarily aimed at overthrowing Communist regimes--ended up toppling right-wing dictatorships in the Philippines and South Korea, so, too, the Bush Doctrine could help undo dictatorships not only in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but also in, for example, China and Saudi Arabia.

In South Korea, the president did not back down an inch from his characterization of the Pyongyang government as "evil." Unmoved by the international rehabilitation of the newly smiling Kim Jong Il, Bush spoke with Reaganesque simplicity: "I will not change my opinion on Kim Jong Il until he frees his people." Earlier in Japan, Bush went out of his way to declare his solidarity with and commitment to the democratic people of Taiwan, a stance he then forcefully reiterated in Beijing. Rather than kowtow in the fashion of Clinton, who used his visit to China as an opportunity to distance America from Taiwanese democracy, Bush told the Chinese government plainly that he intended to abide by the Taiwan Relations Act. Last spring, Bush promised to "do what it takes" to defend Taiwan. Beijing's leaders ought to be convinced now that he means it.

The most important part of Bush's Asia trip, however--the part that may best be remembered by future generations of both Americans and Chinese--came in his speech to students at Tsinghua University, which was televised live in China. Under the pretext of explaining to the Chinese people how the American system of government really works, Bush articulated a devastating critique of the Beijing dictatorship and called on the Chinese people to demand change. In the United States, he said, "No one is above the law . . . everyone stands equal." In the United States, "All political power . . . is limited and temporary, and only given by a free vote of the people." In the United States, Bush said, "You can support the policies of our government, or you are free to openly disagree with them." Every Chinese citizen who heard Bush's words understood the invidious comparison he was drawing between American freedom and Chinese tyranny. Everyone heard his message: that the tyranny under which they suffer must be changed or brought down. And to the old argument so often proffered by Chinese tyrants and their American apologists--that China is not "ready" for democracy--well, Bush had an answer for that, too. "Those who fear freedom sometimes argue it could lead to chaos, but it does not, because freedom means more than every man for himself."

It is hard to recall a more forceful statement of American democratic principles on Chinese soil, or a more pointed rebuke to the Beijing dictatorship. To find a historical precedent, one must go back to Ronald Reagan's 1988 speech at Moscow State University. And, of course, Bush's call for freedom and regime change in China marks a striking shift away from the "realist," commercialist orthodoxy that has dominated the Republican foreign policy establishment for more than a decade. You wouldn't have heard this kind of talk from the first Bush administration, and, in truth, you might not have heard it from this administration, either, before September 11.

But September 11 really did change everything. President Bush grasped that our response to the attacks must go beyond simply destroying some terrorist groups, important as that is. He also understood the underlying truth that there's no substitute for American leadership--a leadership that is willing not just to use our military strength, but also to defend and advance liberal democratic principles. George W. Bush is now a man with a mission. As it happens, it is America's historic mission.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol