The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Bush Doctrine as an example of Coercive Diplomacy (yes, I’m back)

September 30, 2005

For those of you who where wondering where I have been (yes, all three of you:)), I have been stranded in comprehensive exam hell. Thankfully the process is now over and I passed with flying colors. Now its on to prospectus hell and dissertation hell (why do I get the feeling that grad school is a lot like Dante’s Inferno, a series of ever worsening levels of pain–let’s leave that discussion for another time….).

On to something substantive. Dan’s post on Iraq and what the exact relationship is between the Bush Doctrine and the Iraqi conflict raises some interesting questions. Dan outlines three possible scenarios: 1) Iraq was the first test of the Bush Doctrine, and it failed miserably, 2) Iraq was the first test of the Bush Doctrine, and it failed (but not miserably), 3) The Bush Doctrine was about domestic politics, and 4)The Bush Doctrine was about Iraq. Period. My own personal view is that the relationship is aptly described by #1.
In an early post I noted my view of US Grand Strategy post 9-11 and how the Bush Doctrine fit in. I don’t want to repeat the entire post here, but feel compelled to repeat the logic since it has implications for Dan’s argument.

Briefly, I believe we can view the Bush Doctrine as an exercise in coercive diplomacy–the use of threats to use force in order to either deter or compel an adversary to behave in a manner consistent with your wants and objectives. The new security environment as the Bush administration saw it post 9-11 included a number of rogue regimes with grudges against the US, an apparently large and potent terrorist network bent on attacking the US and US interests, and the potential synergistic relationship between these two–specifically with regards to WMDs. Given the large number of states, the nebulous nature of terrorist cells, and the limited options available to the US (for political and economic reasons), the administration crafted a doctrine which sought to further its security objectives through threats rather than the actual (more costly and arguably less feasible) application of force. By threatening to punish states and rogue leaders with regime change and preventive war unless they either stopped aiding terrorists (compellence) or if they decided to aid terrorists in the future (deterrence) the US would be able (in theory) to maintain its security. However, the entire doctrine and its effectiveness depended (as all coercive threats do) on the United States’ ability to convince their target audience that the threat was credible–in other words, they had to convince their adversaries that they were both willing and capable of launching preventive wars and regime change. This is where Iraq fits in to the picture.

For various reasons it was thought that Iraq would serve as a demonstration effect, a signal that revealed to the world that the US had both capability and willingness. Once this was established the overall threat made by the NSS 2002 would be credible, and states would begin changing their behavior in line with US interests. In fact, the US was quick to tout Libya’s renouncement of WMDs as the first success of the Iraq campaign. Personally, while it was certainly a PR moment, I believe the administration saw it this way. The problem is that Iraq has arguably revealed things about the US that undermines our ability to make similar coercive threats in the future (which is what Dan implies in his discussion of #1).

First, the Iraq war has shown that while the US still holds a preponderance of power relative to other states its ability to translate that potential power into operational military power is more limited than many would have originally thought. With forces stretched to their limits and an insurgency still surging in Iraq, the US seems incapable of carrying out multiple operations that include regime change. Secondly, the economic and political strain experienced domestically also casts a large shadow over the notion that the US is willing to stage operations similar to Iraq in the near future. Third, the blow to US credibility given the failure to find WMD in Iraq has made it even harder to round up a coalition of countries that would be willing contribute enough resources to offset the limitations of the US if we decided to embark upon another war of regime. Either because they simply don’t believe the US or because their populations won’t support the action, foreign political leaders are unlikely to sign up for Iraqi-like operations in the near future. All of this combines to not only make the coercive threats of the NSS 2002 incredible, but may have actually made the image potential adversaries had previously held of the US worse in terms of our capabilities and willingness to use force.

The Bush Doctrine was not fashioned, in my opinion, to help legitimize the Iraqi campaign (although certainly there were those who wanted to deal with Iraq before 9-11). Rather, Iraq was a key component for the success of the Bush Doctrine. And to that end it seemingly has failed–although we still need more time to determine to what extent it has made coercive diplomacy more difficult for the US.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.