Gaddis: Bush Pre-emption Doctrine The Most Dramatic Policy Shift Since Cold War

February 10, 2004

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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John Lewis Gaddis, a noted historian of U.S. foreign policy, says the Bush administration’s pre-emption doctrine is “the most dramatic and most significant shift” in Washington’s international strategy since the outbreak of the Cold War following World War II. While the implementation of the policy can be faulted, Gaddis says, the approach overall is succeeding.

“This is an administration, I believe, which is thinking in global terms,” says Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett professor of military and naval history and acting director of the international security studies program at Yale. “I think it is thinking in integrated terms, in the sense that the various parts of the strategy interconnect with each other in a fairly impressive way.”

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on February 6, 2004.

What do you think about the Bush administration’s foreign policy so far?

Several things impress me about it— some favorably, some non-favorably, some historically. Let me begin with the historical. As a result of September 11, I think that the shift in foreign policy to a strategy of pre-emption— that supplements but doesn’t replace the Cold War strategies of containment and deterrence— is the most dramatic and most significant shift in American foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War.

In terms of how it is going, I would like to begin with the downside and then shift to the upside, as I see it. It seems to me, in terms of execution there have been a lot of problems. First of all, the rhetoric has often undermined the objectives of the administration. And this was a problem even before September 11. The language was not deployed as carefully as the military forces were.

Are you talking about the axis of evil speech?

I am talking about the axis of evil speech [the January 2002 State of the Union address]. I am talking about the initial pronouncements [on] the [administration’s rejection of the] Kyoto Protocol [on Climate Change], the [rejection] of the International Criminal Court, the assertions of unilateralism that were so carelessly made in the early days of the administration, and certainly the axis of evil speech and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s relegation of portions of Europe to old status, et cetera. These generated more friction than was necessary, and that certainly is a downside. Also falling in the category of faulty execution is the occupation and administration of Iraq. The administration surely did not give as much attention to that as they did to how they were going to invade Iraq in the first place.

At the same time, if you back off from these things and simply ask the question, “What is the larger objective of this strategy?” [the answer is,] this is an administration, I believe, which is thinking in global terms. It is thinking in integrated terms, in the sense that the various parts of the strategy interconnect with each other in a fairly impressive way.

And if you ask about the overall objectives of the strategy, it seems to me that the picture is better and a good deal more successful. The logic of the administration’s strategy has been to say that pre-emption is necessary to deal with adversaries like the 9/11 terrorists because you not only have to find these people themselves, but you also have to either intimidate or, if necessary, take out those states which might have been supporting such terrorists in the past, the assumption being that terrorism can’t succeed without some kind of state support.

Can I stop you on the word pre-emptive? I know it was used in the National Security Strategy of September 2002, but pre-emptive carries with it the thought of stopping some imminent attack. We now know in Iraq there probably wasn’t an imminent attack likely. Wouldn’t preventive be a better word?

The terms are confusing because there was a fairly clear and sharp distinction during the Cold War between pre-emptive and preventive war. In the Cold War, pre-emption meant imminent danger. Preventive was understood to be a more long-term question. I have always felt that these terms were not easily separated, that there was a kind of blur between them. And I think that is all the more relevant as you move out of the Cold War and as we get away from the context of nuclear war in which these terms were being used. The idea of pre-emption or prevention is not new in American foreign policy.

It’s deeply rooted in American foreign policy, going all the way back to the aftermath of the War of 1812. It was a dominant feature of our foreign policy for 100 years, coming all the way up through the early 20 th century Roosevelt corollary to the Monroe Doctrine [that made the Western Hemisphere off-limits to European colonization]. There were no clear distinctions made between pre-emption and prevention in the thinking of that period.

I think we are actually back to a kind of situation which 19 th-century strategists had to deal with: the danger of non-state actors who, with state support or taking advantage of the failure of states, might gain locations from which they could threaten American interests. There was a sense that these dangers had to be pre-empted or prevented by taking over Florida, for example, from Spain, or taking over Texas from Mexico, or, according to many historians, provoking a war with Mexico so [the United States] could take California to prevent the French or British from taking it later.

[Another example is] our interventions in Central America at the beginning of the 20th century, which were intended to prevent so-called failed states from providing excuses that might lead European powers like imperial Germany, for instance, to intervene. There is a long tradition behind this, and I think it obscures more than it illuminates to try to provide this pre-emption/prevention distinction from the nuclear debates in the 1950s and 1960s and try to make them work in this new situation.

Now that Iraq has fallen, do you expect there will be much positive fallout in the other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, that are not democracies?

This gets back to my point that, while the execution has been flawed, in many ways, in particular situations, one can make the case that the overall [administration] strategy has gone reasonably well. First of all, we have gone now, thank God and cross fingers, for well over two years without any recurrences of what happened on September 11. And it is easy to lose sight of how fearful all of us were that [the events of] September 11 were simply a precursor for something much worse that could happen at any moment. So the very fact that something much worse has not happened so far is in some way an indication that the larger strategy has worked.

Secondly, it seems to me that the real goal of the strategy has been one that the administration cannot publicly acknowledge: simply to frighten badly any state that might be thinking about supporting terrorists in the future. I like to use the analogy that [the strategy] is a little bit like the parking signs that Mayor Ed Koch used to have put up around New York City [that read], “Don’t even think about parking here.” This is the administration’s objective with the strategy— “Don’t even think about doing what the Taliban did in harboring al Qaeda.”

In that sense, the administration has been quite successful. It has forced [changes in] problematic states whose intentions we had reason to doubt, like Libya and Iran, and in Pakistan, which had a record of supporting terrorism or supplying weapons of mass destruction to others. It is quite obvious that rethinking has happened in these states. There is even some ambiguity about the direction that Syria will be taking. But clearly, there has been sober rethinking in these states about the pluses and minuses of giving support to terrorists.

The whole context, the whole center of gravity in the Middle East, in that sense, has shifted as a result of the administration’s strategy. Related to that, and getting back to the question you were asking, something very fundamental has happened in terms of the American support for democracy in the Middle East.

There is no question that our strategy up until this administration had been anything but one of supporting democratic elements in the Middle East. We did not for various reasons— our oil dependency, or the geopolitical context of the Cold War, or whatever. We put a lot more emphasis on simply building solid relationships with whomever the rulers of Middle East states happened to be than we did in trying to transform these states into democracies or transplant the idea of democracy to that part of the world.

What happened on September 11 was that it became painfully clear that this was a strategy that had more liabilities than assets for American national security. This gets back to the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis and so on. What has happened here is fundamental. This administration is dead serious about trying to make the world safe for democracy. It is as serious about the fundamental premises that Woodrow Wilson set forward some eight decades ago as any subsequent administration has been.

It is striking to have Bush become a Wilsonian, isn’t it?

Absolutely. But our old categories of right and left really mean less and less when it comes to foreign policy. Think back through Republican presidencies of the recent past. Who was the president Richard Nixon most admired? He claimed it was Wilson. Maybe he was just being cynical. But it was interesting he made that choice.

If you asked what was one of the distinctive features of Ronald Reagan’s presidency as far as foreign policy was concerned, one of the most important aspects of it was that he actually agreed with Jimmy Carter on the promotion of human rights, that he was as serious about this as Carter was. That made human rights a priority on the conservative, Republican agenda, surely reflecting the early neoconservative influences on foreign policy. That trend has continued into this administration, which has moved even more radically and more firmly in this direction. So, ironically, this conservative Republican administration is really the most radical American administration we have seen in years in terms of its promotion of democracy abroad in places that were earlier regarded as inhospitable to it.

If you were advising the Democratic candidate for president, how would you deal with the Bush foreign policy?

First of all, whoever the Democratic candidate is, he is going to have to acknowledge the importance of what happened on September 11. He’s going to have to acknowledge that we are facing a completely new geopolitical situation. To try and sell the line that what we have done in the aftermath of September 11 has been either misguided, irresponsible, or flawed, is simply not going to work. We cannot go back to the world as it was before September 11.

The candidate should acknowledge the logic of the new strategy, that pre-emption does have a place in American foreign policy, both because it is part of our history but also because, increasingly, others have come around to the same point of view. Pre-emption is out there now for discussion and debate as a legitimate instrument of foreign policy, in a way that it certainly wasn’t before September 11.

I think any responsible Democrat has to acknowledge that. I think where the basis for criticism comes in would be the area of execution. It is not so much that the overall strategy is flawed, but is it being executed in such a way as to minimize friction, minimize the resistance that’s generated from careless rhetoric or faulty implementation? I think surely the issue of costs is out there and is a major one. Can the administration sustain the obligations it is taking on at a time when it is projecting record deficits at home? What about the ends-means relationship, which is absolutely essential when you are thinking about grand strategy?

I would say that debate along these lines is what a responsible Democratic candidate would have to do. Take seriously the shift in our national security priorities but, at the same time, find a basis for legitimate debate on the question of how we respond to those shifts and how we execute the strategy. This again would have plenty of parallels to the early Cold War experience. After the strategy of containment was formulated and implemented in 1946-47, you didn’t find the Republican Party seeking to overturn it. Those Republicans who would have liked to have done that, like [Senator] Robert Taft [of Ohio, who lost the 1952 presidential nomination to Dwight D. Eisenhower] ended up out in the cold. The Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party began with accepting the principles of the strategy of the Truman administration but criticizing the execution of it. They were successful in those ways. I think something like that is what now has to happen within the Democratic Party.