Five tries later, there is no Bush Doctrine.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 12 2008 6:19 PM

What Bush Doctrine?

Sarah Palin was right to be confused. There isn't one.

Read John Dickerson, Fred Kaplan, and Jack Shafer  for more of Slate's take on Sarah Palin's interview with Charles Gibson.

Sarah Palin says lots of dumb and untruthful things in her interviews with ABC News' Charlie Gibson. But on one point, she is being mocked unfairly. I refer to the purported howler of her not knowing what the Bush Doctrine is. As many commentators (including Slate's Jack Shafer) have pointed out, when Gibson asked Palin's opinion of the Bush Doctrine, the vice-presidential candidate flailed around like a C student nailed by a sadistic schoolmarm. She clearly had no idea what Gibson was talking about:

Q: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?

A: In what respect, Charlie?

Q: The Bush—well, what do you—what do you interpret it to be?

A: His worldview.

Q: No, the Bush Doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

A: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell-bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

Q: The Bush Doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a pre-emptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

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This was painful to watch, in large part because I searched my memory in vain to remember which of the various rigid nostrums articulated by President Bush over the past eight years had become enshrined as the defining principle of his foreign policy. When Gibson identified the Bush Doctrine as the doctrine of preventive war ("the right of anticipatory self-defense" is not quite right) as laid out in the Bush White House's famous National Security Strategy document of 2002, I felt humiliated. I'd always thought of that as … the doctrine of preventive war. That was what the New York Times had called it in an editorial published Sept. 12, 2004. And what Benjamin Barber had called it in a Los Angeles Times column published Dec. 3, 2003. And what Peter Baker, then White House correspondent for the Washington Post, had called it as recently as March 16, 2006. When did it become not just "a" Bush doctrine but "the" Bush Doctrine?

I Googled the phrase "Bush Doctrine" and looked down the list. Surely Jeff Jacoby, the conservative Boston Globe columnist, would know. But in a piece published Jan. 16, 2008, under the headline "Death of the Bush Doctrine," I saw nary a word about preventive war. Instead, Jacoby seemed to think the Bush Doctrine was Bush's warning after 9/11 that the United States would target nations that harbored terrorists ("You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists"), which articulated the logic of the subsequent U.S. war in Afghanistan. I turned next to Charles Krauthammer, who way back in 1985 was the first journalist to establish that "the Reagan Doctrine" was a policy to support proxy wars against Communist regimes around the globe (even, it turned out, when doing so violated U.S. law). Krauthammer and I seldom agree, but he is one of the smartest people I know, and he's pretty decently plugged into the Bush White House's foreign-policy apparatus. Yet in a May 2005 column headlined "Three Cheers for the Bush Doctrine," Krauthammer seemed to think that the Bush Doctrine was the notion that establishing democracy in Iraq would spread democracy like Cheez Whiz to other Middle Eastern regimes. Which was odd, because four years earlier Krauthammer had written that the Bush Doctrine was the idea that we should locate our missile defense wherever we god-damn well pleased, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty be damned. Good thing Charlie Gibson didn't interview him!

In fact, there is no Bush Doctrine. Or rather, there have been a succession of them, each one quietly tossed aside after it flunked the field test. In his book The Bush Tragedy, my Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg identifies and dates five separate Bush Doctrines: Unipolar Realism (March 7, 1999-Sept. 10, 2001), With Us or Against Us (Sept. 11, 2001-May 31, 2002), Pre-emption (June 1, 2002-Nov. 5, 2003), Democracy in the Middle East (Nov. 6, 2003-Jan. 19, 2005), and Freedom Everywhere (Jan. 20, 2005-Nov. 7, 2006). This last—a theme Bush raised in his second inaugural address—was judged a pipe dream even by Dick Cheney, and after its swift demise, Weisberg writes, the Bush White House gave up on defining its foreign policy at all.

Of course, Palin couldn't very well say that. So maybe her ignorance on the point was a lucky break.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.