History Recharged

History Recharged

A prominent historian ponders the long-term legacy of the elusive Bush Doctrine.

Read Time:
2m 24sec

the source: “Ending Tyranny: The Past and Future of an Idea” by John Lewis Gaddis, in The American Interest, Sept.–Oct. 2008.

Five years after he enunci- ated the Truman Doctrine, which prom­ised support for “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities,” President Harry S. Truman left office with an approval rating of 26 percent. And the Monroe Doctrine, which put America off limits to further European colonization, largely languished until President James Polk dusted it off in 1845 to support Manifest Destiny. A hundred years from now, could a revived Bush Doctrine help guide U.S. foreign policy? John Lewis Gaddis of Yale, who has been called the dean of Cold War historians, doesn’t rule it ­out.

Gaddis finds the kernel of the Bush Doctrine in a single sentence of President George W. Bush’s second inaug­ural address in 2005. “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” The ulti­mate goal—“ending tyranny in our world”—sounds noble enough. But what about promoting “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture”?

Democracy is not for every Tom, Dick, and Somalia. It thrives only where security, stability, and the rule of law are established, Gaddis says. Even James Madison, America’s fourth presi­dent and principal author of The Federalist, had his doubts about the form of government. Madison was almost assuredly thinking of Athens, which democratically botched the Pelopon­nesian War, and Rome, where corruption and violence made the populace toss democracy aside and leap into the arms of Caesar ­Augustus.

In the 21st century, the imposition of democracy has had a rocky history. Making it the cornerstone of U.S. policy suggests that America knows the “answer to how people should live their lives,” Gaddis writes. But the other half of the Bush ­Doctrine—­ending ­tyranny—­suggests “freeing them to find their own answers.”

After the end of the Cold War left the United States the only super­power standing, its leaders became convinced that democracy had tri­umphed because it was the indispensable political path to success. But when the Bush administration tried to impose it on Iraq, the U.S. actions looked like a ploy to concentrate pow­er in America’s own ­hands.

In his inaugural address, Bush paid tribute to two forms of liberty: promoting democratic movements wherever they push up small green shoots from whatever improbable sand, and ending tyranny, period. In Iraq, Gaddis, says, the United States tried the first without notable success. He hopes that the “tyranny” sentence from Bush’s second inaugural heralds a return to the earlier notion of liberating people so they can solve their own problems. “But sometimes,” he says, “a speech is just a speech.”

More From This Issue