Ballot Box

The Worldview of George W. Bush

His instincts on foreign policy and national security.

Slate is running several series of short features explaining who the 2004 presidential candidates are, what they’re saying, and where they propose to take the country. The first series summarized their personal and professional backgrounds. The second series analyzed their buzzwords. The third series outlined what each candidate would focus on as president. This series sketches how they would manage America’s role in the world.

After communism collapsed, American voters lost interest in defense and foreign policy. But those subjects can consume most of a president’s time, and 9/11 returned them to the forefront. It’s difficult to anticipate which hot spots a candidate would have to deal with as president, but it’s possible to get a sense of how he approaches war, diplomacy, trade, and other challenges abroad. This series pieces together a picture of each candidate’s instincts based on his words and his record. Today’s subject is George W. Bush.

Pre-emption: In 2002, Bush unveiled a National Security Strategy for the post-9/11 era. The document posited that “deterrence will not work against a terrorist enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of innocents.” It committed the United States to defend “our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders.” This doctrine underpinned Bush’s case for the Iraq war (i.e., that Saddam Hussein couldn’t be allowed to develop weapons of mass destruction) and has been attacked by many of the Democratic presidential candidates as a reckless departure from traditional principles of sovereignty and self-defense.

Nation-building: During the 2000 debates, Bush advocated a more “humble” foreign policy and proposed to limit U.S. peacekeeping around the world. He wanted European troops to take control of Kosovo so the United States could “withdraw our troops and focus our military on fighting and winning war.” Despite 9/11 and his subsequent military campaigns, Bush remains averse to committing many U.S. troops to policing and nation-building. In Afghanistan, the major troop presence is limited to Kabul; Afghan tribal leaders police the other regions. In Iraq, the U.S. military presence reportedly will not be increased. In Liberia, Bush refrained from sending a large peacekeeping contingent. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nearly canceled the Army War College’s Peacekeeping Institute in fall 2003.

Treaties: Bush has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, refused to join the International Criminal Court, and declined to make a counteroffer to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. These positions are consistent with the National Security Strategy, which states that “America will implement its strategies by organizing coalitions—as broad as practicable”—rather than rely on global conventions or institutions. As Rumsfeld put it during the buildup to the Iraq war, Bush prefers to let the “mission” determine the “coalition” rather than the other way around. This allows the United States to focus on its own interests and enemies with less hindrance from abroad.