The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Was the policy fixed around Iraq?

September 29, 2005

I’ve been reading the International Security forum on “soft balancing.” I’ll have more to write about it when I finish my next installment of “Balancing and the balance of power.” My initial reaction is that the “soft balancing” arguments, at least as presented by Robert Pape and T.V. Paul, are not very persuasive.

But both of the articles raise an orthogonal question, one that has been troubling me for a while. Both Pape and Paul spend a great deal of time on the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States and the “Bush Doctrine” of preventive war against lesser powers developing WMD capability or suspected of harboring terrorists. But, as numerous commentators have pointed out, the “Bush Doctrine” isn’t exactly a thorough overhaul of all aspects of American policy.

For example, the US resumed negotiating with North Korea; even when the two sides weren’t talking, significant military operations didn’t appear to be in the cards. No one seriously expects a US attack on Iran or Syria. While there have been some high-profile cases of (superfluous) American unilateralism – e.g., the ICC, Kyoto, and the AMB treaty – it is difficult to point to a broad set of substantive changes in US practices that stem from the National Security Strategy or Bush’s key speech on the subject.

There is, however, one major exception: Iraq. So how should we make sense of this? It strikes me that there are a number of plausible explanations:

1) Iraq was the first test of the Bush Doctrine, and it failed miserably. Sure, the administration would like to go after more targets, but the occupation has eroded US operational capabilities and made further preventative wars unfeasible. The fact that Iraq didn’t have any WMD has also made the administration – and the American public – (rightfully) gun shy about future preventative wars.

2) Iraq was the first test of the Bush Doctrine, and it failed (but not miserably). One major purpose of the Bush Doctrine was to encourage “rogue” states to bandwagon with or capitulate to American power. Iraq’s part in the doctrine was as a demonstrate case to tell other states “fall in line, or this is what will happen to you.” At best, the invasion may have influenced Libya to conclude negotiations; at worst, it made it clear to a lot of other states that getting WMD as soon as possible might be a good idea.

3) The Bush Doctrine was about domestic politics. I don’t think I need a lengthy explanation here: very quickly after 9/11 the Bush administration reconfigured its reelection strategy around the image of a “tough” President fighting the “War on Terror.”

4)The Bush Doctrine was about Iraq. Period. This is the possibility I find most tantalizing: that the National Security Strategy was formulated, in the main, as part of a strategy of legitimating the coming invasion of Iraq. In other words, the Bush Doctrine was formulated around Iraq; the principles in it may have wider applicability, but those implications may have been of, at best, secondary importance from the start.


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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.