The Evolution of the Bush Doctrine

Feb. 1, 2003

In 2000, for the first time in years, national defense was an issue in a Presidential election campaign, made that way by the Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Bush, speaking at the Citadel in September 1999, introduced his positions on defense. He said that “even the highest morale is eventually undermined by back-to-back deployments, poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment, and rapidly declining readiness.”

He said that the Clinton Administration “wants things both ways: to command great forces, without supporting them.”

In transforming the armed forces, he would go beyond marginal improvements and “use this window of opportunity to skip a generation of technology.”

Among specific program intentions, Bush said that “at the earliest possible date, my Administration will deploy anti-ballistic missile systems, both theater and national, to guard against attack and blackmail.”

He promised to review the openended deployments: “Sending our military on vague, aimless, and endless deployments is the swift solvent of morale. … I will work hard to find political solutions that allow an orderly and timely withdrawal from places like Kosovo and Bosnia. We will encourage our allies to take a broader role. We will not be hasty. But we will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties. This is not our strength or our calling.”

Another declaration that got extensive notice came from Bush’s running mate, vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney. “Rarely has so much been demanded of our armed forces and so little given to them in return,” Cheney said in summer 2000. “George W. Bush and I are going to change that. I have seen our military at its finest. And I can promise them now, help is on the way.”

A Decade of Neglect

The 1990s were a decade of neglect. The defense budget was cut repeatedly. It bottomed out in 1998, some 37 percent below the Cold War peak.

The armed forces were a third smaller but the Clinton Administration’s activist policy of “Engagement and Enlargement” abroad kept them far busier. The force was nominally structured to fight two overlapping major theater conflicts, but it was never sized, equipped, or funded to do so.

Aging equipment wore out but was not replaced. Readiness rates fell. Force modernization programs were curtailed and postponed. Buildings and runways deteriorated for lack of maintenance. New words like “optempo” and “perstempo” entered the lexicon to describe the relentless pace of deployments to one overseas contingency after another.

The force had slipped so far that, by some estimates, it needed $100 billion more a year just to avoid falling further behind—and that did not include any force modernization or transformation.

There was already considerable momentum for a defense increase, in Congress and elsewhere. Even President Clinton, on his way out of office, proposed a 2002 defense budget $14.2 billion higher than the Fiscal 2001 level.

Rumsfeld’s Review

Thus it came as something of a surprise when, shortly after the inauguration in January 2001, the White House announced that Bush would stick with the 2002 Clinton defense budget until Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld had completed a sweeping review of force structure and requirements to determine long-term strategic requirements.

Rumsfeld was tight-lipped about the big review. It was widely believed that the study would be run by Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon’s legendary director of net assessment, and that it would be done by March 2001.

In actuality, Rumsfeld had put more than a dozen study panels to work behind closed doors, but only a few people knew that at the time. The panels consisted mostly of outsiders. Security was extraordinarily tight. The results, not altogether surprising, were rampant rumor, confusion, and discord. Rumsfeld didn’t confirm the rumors, but he didn’t deny them either.

By the middle of May 2001, the uproar reached the point that Rumsfeld went on a media blitz, holding 14 press interviews and media availabilities in three weeks.

He said the review wasn’t that big, that the work by his panels was just exploratory, that there was no big plan to reorganize the armed forces. He said the panel findings would be rolled into the next Quadrennial Defense Review, which had earlier slowed down its efforts in deference to the panels. The QDR was revived and put on what the Pentagon called “a forced march” to produce results by the middle of the summer.

Rumsfeld recognized the magnitude of the problem before him.

“First, because we have underfunded and overused our forces, we find we are short a division, we are short airlift, we have been underfunding aging infrastructure and facilities, we are short high-demand/low-density assets, the aircraft fleet is aging at considerable and growing cost to maintain, the Navy is declining in numbers, and we are steadily falling below acceptable readiness standards,” he told Congress in June 2001.

“Second, we have skimped on our people, doing harm to their trust and confidence, as well as to the stability of our force. …

“Third, we have underinvested in dealing with future risks. We have failed to invest adequately in the advanced military technologies we will need to meet the emerging threats of the new century.”

Fortunately, Rumsfeld said, transforming part of the force would be sufficient. “The blitzkrieg was an enormous success, but it was accomplished by only a 13 percent transformed German Army,” he said.

The “4-2-1” Standard

By law, a new President must send Congress a National Security Strategy within 150 days of taking office. For the Bush Administration, the due date came and went. The National Security Strategy would not appear until September 2002.

The National Defense Strategy, published by the Pentagon, normally follows the National Security Strategy. This time the defense strategy came first. It was not a separate document, as usual, but rather part of the Quadrennial Defense Review, which was coming to a conclusion in early September 2001.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. Suddenly, the war on terror was Mission No. 1. There could be no sanctuary for terrorism.

“Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” Bush said to a joint session of Congress. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

The QDR, published Sept. 30, 2001, included some last-minute inserts to reflect the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, but it basically followed an outline of instructions Rumsfeld had laid down in June and July. It introduced a new strategy and a new force-sizing standard.

The short title of the defense strategy was “Assure, Dissuade, Deter, Defeat.” Assure allies and friends. Dissuade other nations from future military competition with the US. Deter threats and coercion against US interests. If deterrence fails, decisively defeat any adversary.

It had a harder military edge to it than “Shape, Prepare, Respond ” did. Taken along with other signs from the Bush Administration, it also indicated that the United States would not retreat very much from engagements abroad. The Expeditionary Air and Space Force could look for more of the same.

The orientation of strategy had changed from threat based to capabilities based. It focused on how an adversary might fight instead of on who the adversary might be or when and where the war might occur. It gave special attention to capabilities that adversaries might possess or could develop and on capabilities that we would need ourselves.

In the change that attracted the most public attention, the new strategy dumped former Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s force-sizing standard from 1993, in which forces were supposedly structured to fight and win, almost simultaneously, two major regional conflicts—later called Major Theater Wars, or MTWs.

The new standard was “4-2-1.” It said the force should be sized to do the following:

  • Defend the homeland.
  • Deter aggression in four critical theaters (Europe, Northeast Asia, the East Asian littoral, Middle East/Southwest Asia).
  • Swiftly defeat aggression in any two theaters at the same time.
  • Preserve the option for one major counteroffensive to occupy an aggressor’s capital or replace his regime.
  • Conduct a limited number of smaller-scale contingencies.

The new standard was more demanding than two MTWs, and it was more reliant on airpower. The force still had to stop aggressors in two theaters at the same time. What the standard eliminated—as Rumsfeld made clear—was one occupation force. The principal effect would be on ground forces.

“By removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, we can free up new resources for the future and for other, lesser contingencies that may now confront us,” Rumsfeld said.

The War on Terror

The counteroffensive against terrorists, Operation Enduring Freedom, began on Oct. 7, 2001, with air strikes in Afghanistan.

Within the month, an outcry arose that the war was being lost. Airpower couldn’t get the job done. It would not be possible, the critics said, to take Kabul or any of the other cities with airpower and indigenous forces. The operation was bogged down. The Taliban would hold on through winter. Our best hope, they said, was a ground offensive in the spring. It would take between 35,000 and 250,000 ground troops.

The critics were wrong. When heavy bombers, assisted by US spotters on the ground, began hammering the front-line positions, the defenses crumbled. Afghan irregulars, supported by airpower and US Special Forces, took Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul, swept south, and, by the middle of November, were in control of most of the country.

In December 2001, Bush returned to the Citadel—where he had made his campaign speech on defense two years previously—and updated his commitment to military transformation. “This revolution in our military is only beginning, and it promises to change the face of battle,” Bush said. “Afghanistan has been a proving ground for this new approach. These past two months have shown that an innovative doctrine and high-tech weaponry can shape and then dominate an unconventional conflict.”

Furthermore, he said, “We’re striking with great effectiveness, at greater range, with fewer civilian casualties. More and more, our weapons can hit moving targets. When all of our military can continuously locate and track moving targets—with surveillance from air and space—warfare will be truly revolutionized.”

The air campaign tapered off after January 2002. The Navy had flown 70 percent of the strike sorties, but the Air Force had delivered 74 percent of the tonnage.

Military emphasis in Afghanistan shifted to the ground. Operation Anaconda, which began on March 1, 2002, was an Army operation, supported by airpower. The goal was to dig what was left of al Qaeda out of the Afghan mountains. It was markedly less successful than the air campaign, killing perhaps 500, but many of the enemy got away.

Iraq and Pre-emption

Through the winter of 2001–02, force gathered behind a proposition to oust Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and end his efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. Most of the early advocates of such action were Republicans, but staunchly among them was Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000.

In his State of the Union speech, Bush described an “Axis of Evil”—states like North Korea, Iran, and Iraq that sponsor and support terrorism and which he said were arming to threaten the peace of the world.

Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress in February that the Administration was set on “regime change” in Iraq. That led to political anguish and accusations, which were seemingly blind to the fact that regime change in Iraq had been US policy for a long time.

An October 1998 resolution, adopted unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, said: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

However, the controversy about regime change paled in comparison to the firestorm of objection stirred up by Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, declared in a speech at West Point June 1.

In some cases, Bush said, the Cold War doctrines of deterrence and containment would still apply, but deterrence meant nothing to terror networks with no nation or citizens to defend, and containment was not possible when “unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”

“If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long,” Bush said. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”

Some saw pre-emption as the equivalent of what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. Others saw it as more akin to what the Israeli Air Force did in 1981, when it attacked and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. In retrospect, the consensus is that destroying the Iraqi reactor was a good thing, although there was a great deal of moral hand-wringing about it at the time.

Pre-emption was not a policy intended solely for Iraq, although Iraq was clearly a candidate. Hawkish elements in the Administration and in the news media argued that the President had all of the authority he needed to strike Iraq and that he should do so lest Saddam Hussein succeed in the near future in his determination to obtain nuclear weapons.

In July 2002, the President, on behalf of the Office of Homeland Security, announced a Homeland Security Strategy. It had much detail about border security, domestic counterterrorism, and protection of critical infrastructures, but there was essentially no military content.

“The United States is working with more than 90 countries to disrupt and defeat terror networks,” Bush said in a radio address to the nation in November 2002. “So far we have frozen more than $113 million in terrorist assets. … We’ve cracked down on charities that were exploiting American compassion to fund terrorists. … We’ve deployed troops to train forces in the Philippines and Yemen, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, and other nations where terrorists have gathered. … To win the war on terror, we’re also opposing the growing threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of outlaw regimes.”

National Security Strategy

Bush finally sent his first National Security Strategy to Congress in September 2002. It was less comprehensive than previous strategy documents had been, focusing almost entirely on terrorism and rogue nations.

In a signed preface, Bush said, “The gravest danger our nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” weapons of mass destruction in reckless and irresponsible hands.

The strategy repeated the doctrine of pre-emption: “Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first.”

Pre-emption is also necessary because of the way adversaries regard weapons of mass destruction: “In the Cold War, weapons of mass destruction were considered weapons of last resort. … Today, our enemies see weapons of mass destruction as weapons of choice” and “their best means of overcoming the conventional superiority of the United States.”

The strategy said that pre-emption would not be automatic. “The United States will not use force in all cases to pre-empt emerging threats,” but “cannot remain idle while dangers gather.”

The great emphasis on multilateralism that characterized the Clinton strategy was gone. “While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists,” the new strategy said.

It confirmed Rumsfeld’s “Assure, Dissuade, Deter, Defeat” defense strategy and called specifically for “developing assets such as advanced remote sensing, long-range precision strike capabilities, and transformed maneuver and expeditionary forces.” It cited the need “to defend the homeland, conduct information operations, ensure US access to distant theaters, and protect critical US infrastructure and assets in outer space.”

Bush’s strategy did not address peacekeeping or nation-building missions, which had been recurring themes in the election campaign. In July 2002, the United States had voted in favor of a UN resolution extending the Stabilization Force in Bosnia for another year. By the end of the year, the Pentagon was planning a “reconstruction” mission in Afghanistan.

In December, the White House announced a more detailed strategy for dealing with weapons of mass destruction. “The United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force—including through resort to all of our options—to the use of WMD against the United States, our forces abroad, and friends and allies.”

According to the Washington Post, the classified version of this document authorizes pre-emptive strikes on states or terrorist groups that are close to obtaining weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles to deliver them. The Post quoted a “participant” in development of the strategy as saying it is premised on a view that “traditional nonproliferation has failed, and now we’re going into active interdiction.”

Congress and UN Votes

Under pressure to build a broader consensus, Bush said he would seek Congressional authorization before taking any military action against Iraq.

He also issued a challenge to the United Nations. “All the world now faces a test, and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment,” he said in a speech to the General Assembly. “Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

Bush asked Congress for unlimited authority to take action against Iraq without further consultation or approval.

Bush’s most stalwart ally at this difficult time was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that Britain was committed to disarming Iraq, “one way or another.”

Bush also drew support from the Washington Post, which chastised critics who acknowledged that nuclear weapons in Saddam Hussein’s hands would be a deadly and intolerable threat, yet were opposed to action. In an editorial, the Post said that “one striking feature of the criticism of President Bush’s Iraq policy is the absence of suggested alternatives.”

Bush got the votes he wanted.

On Oct. 10, Congress authorized the use of military force against Iraq, declaring that “the President is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”

The majority of the vote was bigger (296–133 in the House, 77–23 in the Senate) than the Gulf War resolution Bush’s father had gotten in 1991, and the authority was broader. The Iraq resolution required Bush to inform Congress within 48 hours if he used the authority; the Gulf War resolution had required his father to inform Congress before the war began.

On Nov. 8, the United Nations Security Council adopted, 15–0, a resolution ordering Iraq to disarm and warning that this is its “final opportunity” to do so. Obtaining the vote required the United States to make some concessions, including the possibility that Saddam’s regime might survive if it cooperated, but Bush said he was satisfied.

Some of Bush’s critics saw it as a triumph for international opinion, giving inspections a chance to succeed. They apparently forgot that Iraq was not open to inspections until Bush pushed the issue.

“We would not have inspectors going into Iraq today except for the single fact that there is a possibility of the use of force to require that that country disarm,” Rumsfeld said.

The Ultimate Question

During the early months of the war on terrorism, it was popular to say that wars of the future would be of the Afghanistan variety, against primitive adversaries who might have no borders or military forces in uniform.

Within the year, though, there loomed the prospect of a major theater conflict in Iraq. Even the war on terrorism relies on global projection of military power, striking at the enemy’s training camps and sanctuaries.

The war on terrorism is in addition to, not instead of, the missions and requirements that existed before.

The underfunding of the 1990s left the Pentagon in a deep hole, in which it was still struggling when the war on terror added $30 million a day to expenses.

In constant dollars (adjusted for inflation), the proposed 2003 defense budget was $41.4 billion above the previous year’s. It was billed, rightly, as the largest increase since the 1980s. However, of the total increase, some $24 billion—almost 60 percent of it—was allocated to the war on terrorism, homeland security, increased air patrols over the continental United States, and related matters. The amount left over for new ventures, including transformation, was not that much.

Bush’s doctrine and strategy hold together conceptually. The ultimate test may be whether he can fund them.

Bush’s Major Strategic Initiatives

With operations still in progress in Afghanistan, Bush introduced major initiatives on missile defense and nuclear weapons. In December 2001, he announced US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, giving Russia formal notice that the withdrawal would be effective six months later.

“I have concluded the ABM Treaty hinders our government’s ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks,” Bush said. “We know that the terrorists, and some of those who support them, seek the ability to deliver death and destruction to our doorstep via missile. And we must have the freedom and the flexibility to develop effective defenses against those attacks.”

On Jan. 9, 2002, the Pentagon released the Nuclear Posture Review report. It said Russia was no longer the enemy and that the main concern had become rogue states with weapons of mass destruction. The nation would rely less on offensive nuclear weapons than it had done in the past.

The Pentagon said it could take two-thirds of the operational US nuclear warheads out of service by 2012, reducing the total to 2,200 deployed warheads or fewer. Some of the withdrawn warheads would be destroyed. Others would be

transferred to the inactive stockpile.

The famed Strategic Triad of the Cold War (ICBMs, bombers, SLBMs) would be replaced by a “New Triad,” consisting of (1) offensive strike systems, i.e., the old Strategic Triad, (2) active and passive defenses, and (3) a revitalized defense research and development and industrial infrastructure to “provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats.”

Three times in 2002, the world was reminded forcefully of the dangers inherent in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan, both possessing nuclear weapons, went to the brink of war.

The Israel–Palestine crisis intensified. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that if attacked by Iraq with nonconventional weapons, Israel would “exercise its right to self-defense.” It would not restrain itself, as it did when attacked by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

In October, Bush announced the revelation by North Korea that it had been secretly developing nuclear weapons for years and that it now possessed “more powerful weapons.”

Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) pointed out the difference in dealing with Iraq and North Korea on nuclear weapons. “Our determination to confront Saddam Hussein openly and with all necessary means demonstrates a freedom to act against an enemy that does not—yet—possess nuclear weapons [rather than] waiting until he possesses nuclear weapons, as North Korea now does, thereby constraining our ability to respond to a developing danger. We cannot allow Iraq to become the North Korea of the Middle East.”

Guidelines for Use of Force

Under what circumstances should US armed forces be committed to combat? Where should the threshold of war be set

In 1984, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger announced a series of tests that became known as the Weinberger Doctrine. He said that troops would not be committed to combat unless a vital national interest was at stake and until other options were exhausted. Political and military objectives should be clearly defined and achievable. If we went to war, it must be with sufficient force and a determination to win. There should be “some reasonable assurance” of support from the American public and Congress.

The Weinberger Doctrine was revoked by Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, who disparaged what he called the “All-or-Nothing” school of military employment. Military force was often used for “sending messages” and other limited objectives.

The dividing line between peace and war blurred. Commenting on an operation in 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We are talking about using military force, but we are not talking about war. That is an important distinction.”

Soon after he became Secretary of Defense, Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote down his guidelines for committing US armed forces to combat, updating the paper from time to time. When the existence of his memorandum was discovered and disclosed in October 2002 by the New York Times, Rumsfeld passed out copies of the latest version, dated March 2001, to the press.

  • “Is a proposed action truly necessary? … If US lives are going to be put at risk, whatever is proposed to be done must be in the US national interest. … All instruments of national power should be engaged before, during, and after any possible use of force. … Just as the risks of taking action must be carefully considered, so too the risk of inaction needs to be weighed.”
  • “Is the proposed action achievable? … When the US commits force, the task should be achievable—at acceptable risk. … To the extent possible, there should be clear, well-considered, and well-understood goals.”

    n “Is it worth it? … If an engagement is worth doing, the US and coalition partners should recognize that lives will be put at risk. … If public support is weak at the outset, US leadership must be willing to invest the political capital to marshal support to sustain the effort for whatever period of time may be required.”

  • “If there is to be action, act early. If it is worth doing, US leadership should make a judgment as to when diplomacy has failed and act forcefully, early, during the precrisis period, to try to alter the behavior of others and prevent the conflict. If that fails, be willing and prepared to act decisively to use whatever force is necessary to prevail, plus some. … Authorities should not dumb down what is needed by promising not to do things (i.e., not to use ground forces, not to bomb below 15,000 feet, not to risk lives, not to permit collateral damage, etc.).”

Obviously, Rumsfeld had studied the Weinberger Doctrine of 1984 as well as the open-ended, poorly defined, often tentative employment of military force during the Clinton years.

Rumsfeld’s guidelines steered a middle course, more flexible than Weinberger’s list, but with a reasoned consideration, lacking in the limited engagements of the 1990s, of when and how the United States would commit forces to combat.