The Bush Doctrine contains two strands of analysis that, pushing in opposite directions, have produced gigantic failures in American policy. The doctrine’s first strand affirms that the United States and the world are threatened by rogue states and some dangerous non-state actors, whose motivations are, at bottom, self-interested. These enemies ought to be brought to heel by swift military action, keeping the power of command in American hands and relying on the latest gizmos of high-tech weaponry.
The Bush Doctrine’s second strand asserts that the United States and the world are threatened by full-scale ideological movements calling for aggressive violence and random slaughter, and resembling in some ways the classic totalitarian ideologies of the past. These movements, being popular, will never be defeated by armies alone. They will be defeated, instead, by countermovements that will engage the totalitarians in argument and that will secure their triumphs only by constructing the kinds of institutions that favor liberal and rationalist ideas. The countermovements will have to build, in short, a new political culture in key regions. Military force might well be required to give the anti-totalitarians a boost—to lift them into power, in certain cases, and to help them stay there. But ultimately the victories will have to be political and ideological.
The champions of the Bush Doctrine, to my knowledge, have never laid out the principles of this second strand of thought in much detail. President Bush has delivered some intelligent speeches about totalitarianism and “ideologies of hate,” but when he has spoken off the cuff he has sometimes recast the ideological battle in terms that might seem appropriate to a rustic Christian preacher, all of which suggests a somewhat casual or non-committal attitude.
In any fight against mass movements that are animated by mad ideological beliefs, the first thing to do is to mount a campaign of ideas—a campaign to identify the totalitarian doctrines and expose their flaws. The Bush administration has never managed to mount anything of the sort, at least not on the eye-catching and ambitious scale that our current predicament would seem to require (though I’m aware that, here and there within the government, some people are doing their best). Instead, the administration has launched public-relations programs in the Muslim world, which have been laughable—reinforcing the impression that the Bush Doctrine’s second strand has been conceived as an afterthought and is valued mainly for its oratorical opportunities.
The second strand does have military implications, and these are easy to identify, even to a military non-expert like me. The main purpose of military action, from this viewpoint, ought to be to support the political development and popular strength of the anti-totalitarian movements. Toward this end, military action ought to be designed to promote liberal and rationalist goals—and therefore ought to be consistent, as much as possible, with liberal principles. There is an obvious way to go about launching military actions that deploy large numbers of troops and observe liberal principles and encourage a new political culture, and this obvious way is to make use of the elephantine mechanisms of law and multilateral institutions. The first strand of the Bush Doctrine emphasizes the military value of being sleek, agile, and indifferent to world opinion, but the second emphasizes the military value of actions that are plodding, punctilious, and popular.
President Bush has tried to meld these strands together. It can’t be done. He has described the enemy every which way, and in so doing has left most of the world, including our own part of it, fatefully confused. It is shocking to me that, four years after 9/11, the White House has generated no consensus, none at all, about the general nature of the enemies we face. We invaded Iraq on the military basis of the first strand, only to discover our urgent need for the military qualities implied in the second. And disasters have followed.
The first Bush administration, back in 1991, badly underestimated the Baathists and ended up allowing Saddam to achieve a victory, if only by allowing him to remain in power. The administration thereby betrayed the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, who were slaughtered in droves. The second Bush administration has committed precisely the same error. Thus the United States has for the second time created a situation in which huge masses of Iraqis, our own allies, have been slaughtered by their and our enemies. This is surely one of the worst things the U.S. has ever done in modern times—something disgraceful yet somewhat understandable the first time, and beyond disgraceful the second time.
If I had my druthers, I would love to see President Bush fire every one of his top advisers, and keep on firing them, the way that Lincoln did during the Civil War, until a new Ulysses Grant, or several of them, civilian and military, somehow emerged. I would love to see the President reach out to those people within the European Left, not to mention the American Democrats, who share the values of the second strand. Okay, I’m dreaming. This administration is much too sectarian to do anything of the sort. Besides, the administration radiates an air of “what, me worry?” incompetence, which will inhibit any effort to undo the disasters of the past.
Is there something to be said, at least, for the Bush Doctrine’s expansive vision of American responsibility? In my view, it is a mistake to bang too heavily on an American drum. The administration has managed to reduce the gigantic question of resisting the totalitarian and fascist movements of our time to a simple question of American hegemony. We should be emphasizing something else—the need for liberal and democratic societies of many kinds to establish a hegemony of principles of human decency and mutual respect. We ought to rid ourselves of every single aspect of what is called the Bush Doctrine, except for those aspects that could just as well be called the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine of the Four Freedoms. The United States with its wealth and power and military capabilities should certainly make outsized contributions to the foreign-policy programs of the future, but these programs ought to be conceived in a light of practical internationalism instead of incoherent nationalism.
PAUL BERMAN, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Terror and Liberalism and, most recently, Power and the Idealists: Or, the Passion of Joschka Fischer and Its Aftermath.