In his famous 2002 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” to describe any and all states that sponsor terrorism and to highlight to the people the “enemies of America” in an attempt to rile up support for his War on Terror and expansion of the US Military’s involvement in International Affairs worldwide.
This article aims to take individual pieces of Bush’s foreign policy involvement and evaluate them individually then closing with a final verdict and conclusion.
“If we move the conversation towards Iraq, the Bush doctrine becomes even more flawed. This is because its success required either a much longer occupation or constant occupation to maintain stability.”
Iraq and Afghanistan
In what has been correctly assumed as Bush’s largest military military overseas venture, the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan saw their initial primary goals achieved. The Taliban and al-Qaeda were indeed routed from central power in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government overthrown in Iraq. However evaluating the success of these ventures based on these primary goals is over simplistic and suffers from the same nearsightedness that condemned the eventual occupation as a whole to failure. In the case of Afghanistan, indeed it is true that the Taliban were pushed to the hills along with aQ (al-Qaeda) but they were not destroyed completely and permanently. The presence of these two groups still pose a threat to the stability and safety of the region – the frequent attacks in Pakistan for example – and also not to mention the threat posed of a Taliban return to power, with the takeover of Sangin in Helmand province. If we move the conversation towards Iraq, the Bush doctrine becomes even more flawed. This is because its success required either a much longer occupation or constant occupation to maintain stability. The moment US Forces withdrew, as they did in 2011, the divisions within the country along political, ideological, racial and religious lines in Iraq ran far too deep for any but an extremely strong government to keep together a country so easily torn apart by sectarian violence.
If we can assume that a secondary goal, although just as important as the primary, was to bring long lasting stability to Iraq and the Middle East region then this has obviously failed. While the Islamic State has been pushed back the power vacuum left by the withdrawal from Iraq gave to its rise, and it was the international coalition against IS that can be argued to have been the sole pivotal factor in bringing back relative stability to Iraq – once again bringing the point back to the flaw in the Bush doctrine: it requires a much longer occupation than originally envisaged to bring stability. This is something that the US was not and is not prepared to do due to fear of the Vietnam syndrome – a turn of public opinion against the war and subsequently against the incumbent President.
Furthermore the War in Iraq did not actually even achieve one of its Primary Goals: the eradication of the presence of WMDs in Iraq . This goal of course could not be achieved because there wasn’t any to find. In this light then, it could be argued that Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan was a complete and total failure. However it was a failure in practice because of the reasons highlighted above; America was all to reluctant to remain involved in the region from 2008 onward, and as such the region destabilised.
However in principle, and for a brief short while the occupation did bring stability to the region. During the Sunni insurgency, Bush was presented with two options: pull US Troops out of the unpopular war completely (bring our boys and girls home) or send more troops to the region in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the failing country. Bush responded with the latter option and it did succeed in bringing stability to the Iraqi government for a while. This was the brief snapshot that we saw of the Bush doctrine in its purest form.
Following the removal of a dictator, US Troops en masse liberalised a country by force. Whether you agree this is the ‘right thing to do’ or not (I for one certainly do not think it was right for Bush to invade Iraq at all) it brought stability to the region and accomplished that secondary, long term goal of stability in the region.
Conversely, however this paints an overly rosy picture of the Bush doctrine and assumes that an en masse occupation bringing stability is indeed morally right. It was indeed overwhelmingly, almost objectively, the opposite. The American occupation was not at all non-lethal, surgical or clean. It was messy, destructive and frequently resulted in collateral damage, the same story in Afghanistan. Further from this, the Bush Doctrine in Iraq was certainly doomed from the start as, to keep Iraq both liberalised, rebuilding and stable, it would have required the US Military to be perpetually engaged in occupation. This combined with the lasting effect the Bush doctrine has left on the region, with the rise of the Islamic State and a crumbling of stability and peace in an already fragile and tenuous region means the world was certainly left with a bitter taste in its mouth after the Bush years.
“Herein we can see the Bush Doctrine’s glaring flaw: it was too big for its boots. Even with such a large and well-equipped army, navy and air force such a campaign over such a large expanse of area and with a native population so hostile to the United States against such a strong adversary would’ve proven impossible.”
If we are to believe what several people from the former Bush administration say, and it wouldn’t be too infeasible to do so in this case, the ultimate goal of the Bush Doctrine was not just to topple Saddam Hussein but also the theocratic regime in Iran. In fact former Gen. Wesley Clark in 2007 as much as confirmed that it was indeed the ultimate aim no matter how absurd or impossible, that was still the wish. Ten years after that interview, and nearly fifteen years since the invasion of Iraq, the theocracy still stands and Iran is still as strong as ever – made stronger and more secure by the Obama administration’s olive branch nature towards Iran.
However I would argue that such an attitude towards Iran is not such a bad thing for a successful invasion of Iran is nigh impossible. To take over Iran like the US did Iraq would cost so many lives it would be regarded as one of the most catastrophic conventional wars ever fought – not to mention the presence of potentially nuclear capabilities at play. Herein we can see the Bush Doctrine’s glaring flaw: it was too big for its boots. Even with such a large and well-equipped army, navy and air force such a campaign over such a large expanse of area and with a native population so hostile to the United States against such a strong adversary would’ve proven impossible. It would’ve been made further impossible by the fact casualties mounting on the side of the US would prove so preposterously large in number that no public could ever support it. A war against Iran would suffer Vietnam syndrome dramatically.
Herein we see one strong argument against the Bush Doctrine. Its assumption that the public would see it as justified and necessary was critical. The expansion of the United States into the Middle East on the grounds of anti-terrorism or anti-Americanism – wars against the so-called “Axis of Evil” would indeed prove popular at first as the shock of the September 11th Attacks stayed pertinent in people’s minds. However as time wore on that same heat cooled and public opinion waned against the military endeavours as the cost, both in lives and finance, grew to simply unsustainable and unjustifiable amounts. It is here that we can see that public opinion against the War on Terror needed to be maintained but to maintain it perpetually would’ve been simply impossible.
Although mentioned in the Axis of Evil SOTU address, North Korea was not so much the concern of the United States as Iraq and Afghanistan were, bluntly because the United States had ground troops actively fighting both of these conflicts, however the Bush doctrine was not applied to North Korea the same way as it was in the Middle East – this was obviously because of the massive military presence of Russia and China that would not accept a steamrolling of the DPRK regime the same way as Saddam and the Taliban were steamrolled. Instead Bush showed a different tact, diplomacy and appeasement. $400million worth of fuel, food and aid were sent in exchange for North Korea shutting down its main nuclear reactor in an attempt to slow down or stop its nuclear program. As we can see today, this tactic certainly failed.
Like many ideas and visions for foreign policy, it was strategically beneficial in theory, assuming all the assumptions and hurdles it encountered could be overcome with ease. Unfortunately those principles can be applied to any and all ideas. The Bush Doctrine was fundamentally flawed from the start. It assumed that the US would not be met with heavy casualties and wouldn’t cause civilian casualties. It assumed that the war in Iraq would be vindicated, which it wasn’t, and that the United States could withdraw harmlessly after routing the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and aQ (at least on the surface) and allow those secondary, long-term goals to achieve themselves. It ignored the fact that, to maintain stability after deposing two regimes with an extremely tight grip on their respective societies, a far more monumental, longer and deeply unpopular occupation would’ve been needed. It ignored the fact that such a large scale war would create endless amounts of collateral civilian damage and as such the invasions and occupations of the Bush Doctrine will go down in history, least of all in this article, as some of the most morally bankrupt, regrettable and failed exercises of American foreign policy in history.