The Blog

What Exactly Is the 'Bush Doctrine'?

2:08 AM, Sep 12, 2008 • By RICHARD STARR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

It's being taken in some quarters as revelatory of inexperience that Sarah Palin sought clarification when ABC's Charlie Gibson asked her about the Bush Doctrine. To review, here is the passage from the transcript.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His world view.
GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.
PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.
GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

Gibson should of course have said in the first place what he understood the Bush Doctrine to be--and specified that he was asking a question about preemption. Palin was well within bounds to have asked him to be more specific. Because, as it happens, the doctrine has no universally acknowledged single meaning. Gibson himself in the past has defined the Bush Doctrine to mean "a promise that all terrorist organizations with global reach will be found, stopped and defeated"--which is remarkably close to Palin's own answer.

Consider what a diversity of views on the meaning of the Bush Doctrine can be found simply within the archives of ABC News itself: September 20, 2001
PETER JENNINGS: . . . Claire, the president said at one point, 'From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.' Should we be taking that as the Bush doctrine? CLAIRE SHIPMAN reporting: I think so, Peter,

September 21, 2001
CHARLIE GIBSON: The president in his speech last night, very forceful. Four out of five Americans watched it. Everybody gathered around the television set last night. The president issued a series of demands to the Taliban, already rejected. We'll get to that in a moment. He also outlined what is being called the Bush Doctrine, a promise that all terrorists organizations with global reach will be found, stopped and defeated.

September 21, 2001
CHARLIE GIBSON: Senator Daschle, let me start with you. People were looking for a Bush Doctrine. They may have found it when he said the war on terror will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped or defeated. That's pretty broad. Broader than you expected?

December 9, 2001
GEORGE WILL: The Bush doctrine holds that anyone who governs a territory is complicit in any terrorism that issues from that territory. That covers the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Second, the war on terrorism is indivisible, it's part of the Bush doctrine.

December 11, 2001
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Two years ago, September 1999, Bush gave his first speech when he was running about terrorism. And his first--had the first explanation of the Bush doctrine, that if you harbor a terrorist, you're going to be attacked. The Bush White House is putting this out, saying it shows that Bush was very prescient, but that was only one speech given in the campaign.

January 28, 2002
BOB WOODWARD: This is now the Bush Doctrine . . . , namely that if we're attacked by terrorists, we will not just go after those terrorists but the countries or the people who harbor them.

January 29, 2002
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: It was striking and significant that the president really expanded the Bush doctrine. If a nation builds a weapon of mass destruction--Iraq, Iran or North Korea--we will reserve the right to take out those weapons even if we're not attacked or even if there's not a threat.

March 19, 2004
TERRY MORAN: That was the Bush doctrine we just heard. On this one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, President Bush offered a very broad justification of American leadership in the world under him since 9/11. Not just since one year in Iraq. For American voters as an argument that the country is safer, but more as you point out, for the world, which has been divided by his leadership, that Iraq is knit, in his mind, very firmly into that war on terrorism. One omission which I believe will be noted around the world, he made no mention of the role of multilateral institutions, the UN and others, in this fight against terrorism. In his mind, it's clear it's American leadership with others following along.

May 7, 2006
GEORGE WILL: Now the argument from the right is the CIA is a rogue agent because it has not subscribed to the Bush doctrine. The Bush doctrine being that American security depends on the spread of democracy and we know how to do that. The trouble is, Negroponte, who is considered by some of these conservatives the villain here and an enemy of the Bush doctrine is the choice of Bush, which makes Bush an insufficient subscriber to the Bush doctrine.

I'll stop there, although anyone with a Nexis account can find far more where that came from. Preemptive war; American unilateralism; the overthrow of regimes that harbor and abet terrorists--all of these things and more have been described as the "Bush Doctrine." It was a bit of a sham on Gibson's part to have pretended that there's such a thing as 'the' Bush Doctrine, much less that it was enunciated in September 2002.