10/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Time to Hold Bush's Feet to the Fire: Why the "Bush Doctrine" Flap Matters

George W. Bush had to be doing high-fives over the way Sarah Palin's embarrassing cluelessness about the "Bush Doctrine" (go ahead, watch it one more time) has been parsed and explained away by even once self-respecting pundits. Bush is desperately hoping the American people's short attention span will prevent them from remembering how badly he damaged the U.S. role in the world with his elevation of a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later recklessness into national doctrine.

This race needs to be about George Bush and his record. Every day lost to this or that distraction - anything other than a focus on the Bush train wreck - is another gift for Bush and his hopes of escaping accountability.

To anyone not carrying water for the astonishingly unscrupulous fantasists pulling the strings in the McCain campaign, the most important feature of the Bush record is the disastrous war in Iraq that has to date claimed more than 4,150 U.S. soldiers (and countless Iraqis). And for what? The security situation has unquestionably improved in Iraq, but genuine progress toward a lasting political solution remains minimal and anyone who claims not to be concerned about fresh outbreaks of large-scale violence erupting in the coming months must be in denial.

The misnamed "surge" (in plain, non-Orwellian language, it was an escalation) might as well be called the Surge to Nowhere. It just kicked the can forward so the next president will get stuck with the consequences of Bush's misguided and misbegotten adventure in Iraq, and Bush and his enablers can continue to spin, spin, spin away the ugly truth of what that national mistake has cost us.

Not so long ago, the notorious neocon Charles Krauthammer was raising questions about Sarah Palin's qualifications to be a heartbeat away. That was all of a week and half ago when he argued in a column that "The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice" and, quite bluntly, "Palin is not ready."

So when Palin showed how deeply incurious she is about the national politics of the last eight years with her blatant stalling to a question about the "Bush Doctrine," Krauthammer naturally stepped up to decry her ignorance, right? Not exactly. Instead, he weighed in with a September 13 column, "Charlie Gibson's Gaffe," pushing the patently dishonest notion that "there is no single meaning of the Bush doctrine" and that there have been "four distinct meanings" of the term. The Washington Post even followed up with a front-page "news" story seeking to make the same point, upping the ante by quoting a former Bush administration official claiming there have been SEVEN distinct Bush doctrines.

Would they please knock it off with this stuff? Sure, others have used the term in other ways, including Krauthammer himself in a June 4, 2001, Weekly Standard article that no one but Krauthammer remembers, but ask any credible political scientist or foreign-policy analyst and what comes to mind is the Bush argument hauled out in the run-up to the Iraq War, namely, that in the post-9/11 world the United States would attack other countries not just in cases where they posed an imminent danger, but where they might later pose an imminent danger. Hence the notion of preventive war. This is what Condi Rice was talking about when she said on national TV that the "smoking gun" cannot be a "mushroom cloud."

The notion that there's any serious doubt over the meaning of the Bush Doctrine is as credible as the notion that there is any serious doubt in the scientific community on the basic reality of global warming. All it takes is a quick Amazon search of books with "Bush Doctrine" in the title to make the point.

Here, off the front flap of the first book that popped up in a recent search, In Defense of the Bush Doctrine, (February 2008) by Robert G. Kaufman: "Bush responded (to 9/11) with a bold and controversial grand strategy for waging a preemptive Global War on Terror, which has ignited passionate debate about the purpose of American power and the nation's proper role in the world."

The second book that popped up is To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine, (July 2008), by Melvyn P. Leffler and Jeffrey W. Legro, which makes a crisp and clear argument against the Bush Doctrine: "(T)he United States should pursue preventive war only in extremis, because preventive war casts the United States in the role of aggressor and so can undercut its legitimacy in the eyes of others. Preventive war should remain an option but should be waged only with substantive international approval. Accordingly, the 2002 'Bush doctrine,' which embedded unilateral preventive war in U.S. strategy, as a regular instrument of policy, should be dropped."

The third book that popped up at Amazon, The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terrorism: Global Reactions, Global Consequences, (April 2006), by Mary Buckley and Robert Singh, offers a fascinating treatment on the tradition of doctrines being attributed to political leaders, with the Brezhnev Doctrine running smack into the Reagan Doctrine, and notes that the Bush Doctrine represented "an embrace of preventive war as a supplement to traditional deterrence."

"The Bush Doctrine thus takes its place in an extended family of grand statements of global purposes," the authors argue.

Forget Sarah Palin. As the Iraq War was a distraction against the real fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the outcry over McCain's anointment of Palin as a national curiosity is a distraction from the core issue: Do we as a country vote to reject the politics of George Bush, above all the misguided rationale for the Iraq War, dressed up as the Bush Doctrine? Or do we muddle along, lost in a fog of trivia and misinformation, blind to the need to chart a new course based on informed consideration of what went wrong? Anyone claiming the Palin "Bush Doctrine" moment was anything but alarming - or pushing the nihilistic notion that there IS no "Bush Doctrine - wants the fog of misinformation to prevail.

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