Jeffrey W. Legro: Bush Doctrine: Back from the Grave?


Last weekend President Bush returned to West Point to address the Class of 2006 and defend his foreign policy doctrine on the same podium he previewed it in 2002. He claimed to be on the same path as President Truman who transformed American strategy after World War II and laid the foundation for victory in the Cold War. Buy it?
The problem is the President had the wrong analogy. His foreign policy course is actually following the steps of Woodrow Wilson’s failed internationalism after World War I. Ironically, that same analogy has troubling implications for Bush critics who want a revival of liberal internationalism. Indeed it suggests the Bush ideas may even get a second shot.
The Wilson and Bush records are akin in four ways (and let’s leave aside here the obvious point on idealism/democratization).
First, both presidents sought to transform U.S. strategy, albeit in different directions: Wilson by pulling the United States into the institutions of world politics, Bush by taking the country out.
Second, both won the war but lost the battle of ideas. Curiously they could not make their preferred strategies stick even as military victors.
Third, they both sealed their own fate by raising expectations beyond what could be delivered. In entering World War I, Wilson promised to make the world safe for democracy, do reforms at home, and end “Old Europe’s” secret diplomacy and imperialism. But after the war, there was no spread of democracy, reforms at home were stifled by security concerns, and the Europeans did not change their ways.
Bush promised that preventive war, regime change, and unilateral action would stop proliferation, spread democracy, and lead to a new era of great power cooperation. Yet, Saddam didn’t have nukes, but now North Korea and Iran do. Democracy’s advances have been tepid with some of the main cases producing reactions that have hurt U.S. interests – from Baghdad to Palestine to Ukraine. And relations with Europe, China, and Russia have soured since 2002.
Fourth, the shortfall between rhetoric and results in each case led to popular disillusionment, a rejection of change, and a return to prior strategy. Wilson’s successors retreated to isolationism. Bush himself has made the pilgrimage back to multilateralism, containment, and deterrence. Iran and North Korea will be handled as was the Soviet Union. Forget the Iraq deviation.
End of story? Perhaps not.

Remember that Wilsonian thinking disappeared for twenty years but then returned in a lead role in the script FDR wrote for the country in World War II — one that Truman largely implemented. This occurred for a number of reasons (I’ve written a book on the subject). But here let us focus on the fate of the isolationism that thwarted Wilson after Versailles — one that sounds eerily familiar to the difficulties waiting a revival of internationalism today.
The main problem with America’s reflexive return to the no-entanglement tradition after Wilson was that such a stance was simply too brittle for the conditions faced. It did not fit either the changed international or domestic circumstances.
Internationally, the United States was such a powerful actor and Europe in such disarray that U.S. detachment was a recipe for disaster — as Americans discovered in the Great Depression and rise of Hitler. Likewise, the domestic support for isolationism was being hollowed out by the rise of new U.S. financial and economic interests abroad as well as intellectual movements such as geopolitics and international legal thinking.
Today the internationalism Bush’s opponents want to revive looks similarly brittle in international and domestic terms. Forget the new demands of the war on terrorism. Many of the institutions at the heart of the internationalist project — the UN, the NPT, the IMF, the ICC — are not working as envisioned. Even if some Democrat or soft Republican wants to revive them or build new ones, he faces an uphill struggle because of low American credibility abroad — thanks in large part to the Bush Doctrine. And due to financial problems at home, the United States has less booty to grease the wheels of major international deals with side payments. Finally, let’s not forget the domestic realignment towards ‘red states’ that have a taste for muscular unilateralism.
So, for we critics of Bush who have been pining for the ascendance of a more expansive internationalism, be careful, we may get what we ask for — at least for awhile. But delivering on expectations is the key to ideas that work and given the above there is hard work ahead.
And for you loyal Bush Doctriners, don’t despair; your day in the sun may yet come again, especially if the internationalists tie themselves to an inflexible mast suited to the winds of a different era.
Jeff Legro is author of Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order and a professor at the University of Virginia.


11 comments on “Jeffrey W. Legro: Bush Doctrine: Back from the Grave?

  1. Hydrocodone says:

    Welcome to Great Blog here!


  2. Pissed Off American says:

    ….if your post is satirical, you have perfectly demonstrated the insanity that is driving these fanatics in Washinington.
    If not, than you should be mercifully euthanized.


  3. zekiel says:

    Peed off,
    Has it ever entered your spitting devil mind that compromising and destroying just about every tenet that this country was founded upon IS in the best interest of MY country since we have gone evilly astray from the true intent of the founders, and the only way to bring the country back to its original intent is to destroy it and recreate it in its rightful image! Have YOU ever thought of THAT, because that’s what is going down. That is the true meaning of End Times. A clean sweep to get back on the straight and narrow, bub.
    GOD BLESS AMERICA !!!!!!!!


  4. Pissed Off American says:

    I am amazed that these kinds of intellectual opinions and arguments are still fodder for debate. There are some very simple and key facts that were arrived at LONG AGO, that should have resulted in the impeachment and criminal indictment of both George Bush and that satanistic bastard Dick Cheney. They have IRREFUTABLY sought to misinform the public through propaganda, BOUGHT AND PAID FOR, and represented to us as legitimate journalism and news reporting. They have IRREFUTABLY taken this nation to war with FABRICATED and MISREPRESENTED intelligence. They have IRREFUTABLY engaged in blatant and irresponsible CRONYISM, resulting in the disastrous effects of inept and unskilled leadership, costing both lives and money. They have IRREFUTABLY abbetted felonious and perjurious testimony in regards to the confirmation process, such as that slimey son of a bitch’s Gonzales perjurious testimony about his role in Bush’s recusal from jury duty. I could continue ad infinitum, but what is the point? We all KNOW that this Presidential Administration has repeatedly committed CRIMES, both domestic and international. Instead of arguing the POLICIES of this administration, it is time to CALL A SPADE A SPADE, and rise up in ONE VOICE, demanding accountability. Fuck this partisan bullshit, and the pseudo-intellectual bantering that seeks to debate premises that have long since been established as FACT. These mother fuckers in the White House have compromised and destroyed just about every tenet that this country was founded upon, and have proven time and again that they are not working in our best interests. Iraq is becoming a larger clusterfuck daily, and the deaths just keep escalating. Meanwhile, this hapless pseudo-cowboy prick in the Oval Office seeks to use a constitutional amendment to OSTRACIZE and SEGREGATE a huge segment of our population from the rest of our society, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN OUR CONSTITUTION’S HISTORY. Isn’t it about time to stop DEBATING established FACTS about this administration? Isn’t it about time we ACTED on those facts, and DEMANDED that our representatives give voice to the sentiments of the MAJORITY?
    These bastards belong in a FEDERAL PRISON……..they DO NOT belong, nor have the right to be, in OUR White House.


  5. dolores says:

    Bush cannot be the messenger for this new Cold War. He’s a joke. This is perfect for McCain; for McCain to become Reaganesque in his setting forth our new Cold War, city on the hill, morning in America moment. The next President will be he or she who can make Americans feel good about themselves again, and a Cold War nationalism will zing the strings of right wing hearts especially since it was successful in securing power before, never mind that the concept is correct. Their mantra is, Power. Strong and wrong beats weak and right every time. Real men vs. the effeminate gaze.


  6. gg says:

    The historical parallel for the Cold War nationalism being touted by Bush is the nationalistic rhetoric engaged in by Hitler in his rise to power when Germany was in the dumps.
    The USA now is similarly in the dumps at this time and in time the national self loathing will result in a fervent need for a new prideful identity which may come in the form of a Cold War like nationalism if there is nothing else to fill the emptiness.
    I think Bush’s Cold War rhetoric is an initiative by the Right to form the nation’s lost soul into a familiar image of bygone days when the USA was on top via the Cold War, a right wing playground. But will anybody play with us anymore?


  7. lonestar#3 says:

    Maybe most who read this blog won’t fall for the Cold War sequel, but those numbskulls who voted for Bush sure will and many of them for the political deja vu all over again of putting the Left on permanent defense unto death. God and country, Christian Nationalism, is what the Right has always been about, and Bush’s Cold War nostalgia is aimed at that political base. Lucky for us the pitch is being delivered by a clown, heh, heh, heh.


  8. booth says:

    There will be no revolutions against the new push for a re-invigorated right-wing Cold War mentality. The people will ignore it as rhetoric this time around considering the source. We are laughing already. No ass ass sin nations; useless, useless; and nobody’s going to be just walking up to a somebody anymore. The same thing with riots; useless, useless; especially when you only destroy your own neighborhood in protest.
    Historical parallels are bunk for the most part; brain teasers whose exterpolations are random hits or misses; food for thought, but no more. We are in real time and the world has changed much. No tellin’


  9. hoplite says:

    Nice post.
    Thank you!
    Bush’s invasion of Iraq is undoubtedly having the precisely opposite effect it was suppose to (e.g. democratic empowering of extremists factions Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Egypt).
    In US history, has a major policy initiative blew up in the face of lady Liberty as Iraq is now?


  10. Zathras says:

    Wilson is always getting credit for being a visionary internationalist, but the isolationism that defeated approval of the League of Nations in the Senate was virtually indistinguishable from Wilson’s own position barely four years before.
    After World War I began Wilson not only strove to keep the United States out of war, he made no effort to prepare the United States for war. He rejected calls to train officers, enlarge the Navy and build up armaments. As a result American soldier who did finally make it France in 1917 were undertrained and under-equipped. They relied on French and British artillery and aircraft for the whole of the time they were in Europe. And, of course, Wilson resolutely snubbed the leading advocate of American preparedness, Lodge’s great friend Theodore Roosevelt.
    Wilson presented neutrality as America’s moral obligation. After entering the war he presented reforming Europe as America’s moral obligation. That was what we would call today a “flip-flop,” of historic proportions — almost as great as George W. Bush’s change from denouncing nationbuilding in the Balkans in 2000 and borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars to build a nation in Iraq. While calling for the transformation of the Middle East and maintaining the Balkans commitments too, no less.
    Truman, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, built support for his postwar foreign policy patiently over many years. Like Roosevelt, he reached out to Republicans willing to put country before party, and it didn’t trouble him that the signature policy initiative of his administration — the Marshall Plan — was named after one of his subordinates. Truman’s administration made its case to the public, frankly and in detail, over and over, taking criticism much worse than any Bush has ever gotten without whining about the hostile media or fretting about the President’s image. And Truman worked against Communism without ever showing he was frightened by it.
    Not that I think history would record George W. Bush and Harry Truman as similarly historic Presidents. But I’m reasonably familiar with Truman’s foreign policy, and thought it worthwhile to mention a few things, just for the record.


  11. Hoplite says:

    Truman vs Bush?
    Look at what each has done:
    In 1941, Japanese `suiciders’ bombed Pearl Harbor.
    In response, Truman eventually ordered that atomic bombs be dropped on Japanese cities.
    RESULT: The Japanese surrender quickly followed.
    In 2001, nineteen men fundamentalist Islamic `suiciders’ hijacked planes and bombed the WTC, Pentagon, and a field.
    In response, Bush ordered a preemptive attack on Iraq.
    RESULT: Islamic fundamentalists (namely, Al Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq) with speed and force seized the reins of power in Iraq after having been exiled in Iran (axis of evil) during the twenty years prior to the deposing of SH.
    9/11 + Iraq = Bush’s fundamentalist Islamic republic?
    Where’s the outrage?


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