Understanding the Bush Doctrine

George W. Bush and wife
Getty Images / Ronald Martinez

The term "Bush Doctrine" applies to the foreign policy approach that President George W. Bush practiced during this two terms, January 2001 to January 2009. It was the basis for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Neoconservative Framework

The Bush Doctrine grew out of neoconservative dissatisfaction with President Bill Clinton's handling of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein in the 1990s. The U.S. had beaten Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. That war's goals, however, were limited to forcing Iraq to abandon its occupation of Kuwait and did not include toppling Saddam.

Many neoconservatives voiced concern that the U.S. did not undermine Iraqi sovereignty to depose Saddam. Post-war peace terms also dictated that Saddam allow United Nations inspectors to periodically search Iraq for evidence of programs to build weapons of mass destruction, which could include chemical or nuclear weapons. Saddam repeatedly angered neo-cons as he stalled or prohibited U.N. inspections.

Neoconservatives' Letter to Clinton

In January 1998, a group of neoconservative hawks, who advocated warfare, if necessary, to achieve their goals, sent a letter to Clinton calling for the removal of Saddam. They said that Saddam's interference with U.N. weapons inspectors made it impossible to gain any concrete intelligence about Iraqi weapons. For the neo-cons, Saddam's firing of SCUD missiles at Israel during the Gulf War and his use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s erased any doubt about whether he would use any WMD he obtained.

The group stressed its view that containment of Saddam's Iraq had failed. As the main point of their letter, they said: "Given the magnitude of the threat, the current policy, which depends for its success upon the steadfastness of our coalition partners and upon the cooperation of Saddam Hussein, is dangerously inadequate. The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. In the near term, this means a willingness to undertake military action as diplomacy is clearly failing. In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power. That now needs to become the aim of American foreign policy."

Signers of the letter included Donald Rumsfeld, who would become Bush's first secretary of defense, and Paul Wolfowitz, who would become undersecretary of defense.

"America First" Unilateralism

The Bush Doctrine has an element of "America first" nationalism that revealed itself well before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the so-called War on Terror or the Iraq War.

That revelation came in March 2001, just two months into Bush's presidency, when he withdrew the United States from the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol to reduce worldwide greenhouse gasses. Bush reasoned that transitioning American industry from coal to cleaner electricity or natural gas would drive up energy costs and force rebuilding of manufacturing infrastructures.

The decision made the United States one of two developed nations not subscribing to the Kyoto Protocol. The other was Australia, which has since made plans to join protocol nations. As of January 2017, the U.S. still had not ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

With Us or With the Terrorists

After the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush Doctrine took on a new dimension. That night, Bush told Americans that, in fighting terrorism, the U.S. would not distinguish between terrorists and nations that harbor terrorists.

Bush expanded on that when he addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001. He said: "We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Economic incentives also were a major factor underlying the conflicts that came to be labeled the "War on Terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary factor, unsurprisingly, was oil. In April 2001, an "energy security" report, commissioned by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, was published by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James Baker Institute for Public Policy. In it, the unpredictability of Middle East oil resources was highlighted as a key "concern" for American energy policy.

"Iraq remains a destabilizing influence to U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as to regional and global order, and to the flow of oil to international markets from the Middle East. Saddam Hussein has also demonstrated a willingness to threaten to use the oil weapon and to use his own export program to manipulate oil markets," read one paragraph. The report recommended that "stabilizing" the flow of Iraqi oil to global markets should be a primary goal - with American and European companies profiting. In some ways, this facet of the Bush Doctrine became the 21st-century analogue to the Truman Doctrine. Both claimed to be fighting a global threat (terror or communism), but also destabilized regions around the world (especially Latin America and the Middle East) for the purposes of furthering American political and economic interests.

In October 2001, U.S. and allied troops invaded Afghanistan, where intelligence indicated the Taliban-held government was harboring al-Qaida.

Preventive War

In January 2002, Bush's foreign policy headed toward one of preventive war - an ironic term, to be sure. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" that supported terrorism and sought weapons of mass destruction. "We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," Bush said.

As Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin commented, Bush was putting a new spin on traditional war policy. "Pre-emption has in fact been a staple of our foreign policy for ages -- and other countries' as well," Froomkin wrote. "The twist Bush put on it was embracing 'preventive' war: Taking action well before an attack was imminent -- invading a country that was simply perceived as threatening."

By the end of 2002, the Bush administration was talking openly about the possibility of Iraq possessing WMD and reiterating that it harbored and supported terrorists. That rhetoric indicated that the hawks who had written Clinton in 1998 now held sway in the Bush Cabinet. A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, quickly toppling Saddam's regime in a "shock and awe" campaign.

Years later, it became public knowledge that the Bush administration had lied about the existence of the very weapons of mass destruction used as justification to invade Iraq. In fact, many of the statements about the "massive stockpiles" of weapons and weapon-making parts were in direct contrast with intelligence experts' findings.


Bloody resistance to American control of Iraq and attempts to eradicate the country's existing political systems in favor of American modes of governance damaged the credibility of the Bush Doctrine. Most damaging was the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Any "preventive war" doctrine relies on the support of good intelligence, but the absence of WMD highlighted a problem of faulty intelligence.

By 2006, the military force in Iraq was focusing on damage repair and pacification, and the military's preoccupation with and focus on Iraq had enabled the Taliban in Afghanistan to reverse American successes there. In November 2006, public dissatisfaction with the wars enabled Democrats to reclaim control of Congress. It also forced Bush to usher the hawk - most notably Rumsfeld out of his Cabinet.

These changes, however, did not mean the Bush doctrine truly "died" in 2006. In fact, it continued to color presidencies well beyond Bush. Marines caught Osama bin Laden in 2011. American forces didn't fully withdraw from Afghanistan until 2021. Three days into Obama's presidency, he started using drones to fight terrorism but they also killed civilians. By the end of his presidency, Obama issued over 500 drone strikes. The Trump administration did not require the government to publish the number of civilians killed in drone strikes outside of war zones. The Islamophobia that underpinned the Bush Doctrine still persists in American society. The legacy of the Bush doctrine, whether or not it is still a formal part of foreign policy, remains a major part of 21st-century America.

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Jones, Steve. "Understanding the Bush Doctrine." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/the-bush-doctrine-3310291. Jones, Steve. (2023, April 5). Understanding the Bush Doctrine. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-bush-doctrine-3310291 Jones, Steve. "Understanding the Bush Doctrine." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-bush-doctrine-3310291 (accessed June 7, 2023).