Faye Donnelly, University of St Andrews, Redefining the Rules of the Game?: A critical Analysis of the Bush Administration’s Foreign Policy Discourse Introduction

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Faye Donnelly, University of St Andrews, Redefining the Rules of the Game?: A Critical Analysis of the Bush Administration’s Foreign Policy Discourse


This paper analyses how President George W. Bush and his team attempted to redefine the international order after September 11, 2001. Particularly examined is how their justifications for the 2003 Iraq war were constructed against this backdrop. Highlighting the importance of change, specific consideration is on how the language employed by the Bush administration at this ‘defining moment’ affected their agency in subsequent spheres of engagement. Hence, I explore how words not only cause but also constitute international codes of conduct. Keeping with this theme I address the legitimisation of democracy as an unquestioned reality. Using Abu Ghraib as another ‘defining moment’ in the Bush administration’s foreign policy, I argue that the same concept actually weakened rather than strengthened America’s defence when this scandal broke. Needless to say these unexpected paradoxes severely challenge conventional wisdoms circulating in the vernacular of mainstream IR literature and US foreign policy.

Redefining the world after September 11, 2001

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked a monumental turning point for the conceptualisation of world affairs. Or so the Bush administration asserted. Proof of the latter is the repetitive references to enormous transformations omnipresent in their foreign policy discourses thereafter1.

Responding to what were labeled “acts of war”2, security became America’s top priority. Once again change was advocated as being instrumental for succeeding in this mission. According to the President, “the mind-set of war must change.  It is a different type of battle. It's a different type of battlefield.  It's a different type of war” (Bush, 2001: b).

Such grandiose designs are unsurprising given the shock and suffering America encountered3. Nor are they revolutionary in US foreign policy terms4. Significantly distinctive, I argue, are the vast yet vague purviews articulated within the Bush administration’s foreign policy5.

A distinctive narrowness quickly enveloped this overarching strategy, however. Tellingly the US ‘war on terrorism’ was portrayed by its leading proponents as a black and white matter. For them the decision was crystal clear, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Bush, 2001: c).

As shown, while such dualisms were imperative in formulating the Bush administration’s foreign policy they became more limiting as events evolved. Ultimately they proved insufficient for enabling it to adapt during the wars6 they created. On the contrary, when faced with unintended crises the rigid line drawn between good and evil came to entrap their creators. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Iraq. Declaring this to be the case, of course, necessitates closely analysing the broader language games constructed to justify this war.

Justifying the Iraq War:

Manifestly security was certainly a, if not the, major selling point for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Admittedly the battle fits neatly into the Bush administrations promise to undertake offensive measure overseas as part if its “two front” war on terrorism7. A closer inspection reveals, however, that these larger “war on terror” discursive frameworks had to be specifically tailored to justify the invasion of Iraq8.

The principle of state sovereignty9 was one immediate hurdle necessitating such re-definitions. Aware of the inherent rules associated with this principle and the implication these had on determining what constituted a legal war in the international arena, powerful cases for pre-emptive self-defense were subsequently constructed.
Descriptions of looming dangers posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and links to al Qaeda were advanced to substantiate such claims10. Employing oppositional, ‘us versus them’, categorisations also helped convince the world about the near and present dangers this country posed. Measured by such discursive yardsticks, Iraq is conveyed as having made the case against itself11. Noticeably as the charges leveled against Saddam Hussein grew within the Bush administration discourse, inaction turned from being being highly dangerous to non-debatable. Simply, “we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in a form of a mushroom cloud” (Bush, 2002: a)12.
There is no need to rehearse the causes of the Iraq war here. For as Hakan Tunç (2005: 335) correctly notes, “the least understood aspect of the ongoing war in Iraq is what caused the United States to invade the country in the first place”. Instead this paper contends that this invalidation marks another defining moment after which exporting democracy was increasingly entered the foreground of the Bush administration’s foreign policy proclamations.

Once the chief weapons inspectors submitted their finding on January, 2003, for instance, Colin Powell noted, “We in the world community desire to help Iraqis move their country toward democracy and prosperity. We want to help the Iraqi people establish a government that accepts principles of justice, observes the rule of law and respects the rights of all citizens” (Powell, 2003: b). Concurring President Bush noted, “The nation of Iraq -- with its proud heritage, abundant resources and skilled and educated people -- is fully capable of moving toward democracy and living in freedom” just as “the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder” (Bush, 2003: a)13. His second Inaugural Address was more explicit, declaring, “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands […]. So 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” (Bush, 2005)14.

Inevitably this shifting focus represents an astonishing alteration the Bush administrations foreign policy, especially given their avid rebuttal of nation-building as a US objective. Quoting the President directly, “in this administration we’re not into nation building, we’re focused on justice and we are going to get justice” (2001: j). Today this dramatic transformative u-turn is simply taken for granted. More consequentially, the Bush administration was able to claim that this apparent contradiction was no contradiction at all. Conversely, they made a convincing case that the spreading democracy to initiate regional and global change had always been on the agenda. In the process, I claim that they actively redefined the rules of the game.
To clarify, I am not asserting this government never spoke about democracy post-September 11, 2001, or throughout its global ‘war on terror’ campaign. Evidently this word was presented intermittently or seriously implied in the Bush administrations remarks on both matters15. Indeed Jonathan Moten (2005:112) claims, “the promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of both the war on terrorism and its overall grand strategy, in which it is assumed that U.S. political and security interests are advanced by the spread of liberal political institutions and values abroad”. While this observation is correct I approach the issue from a different angle. Rather than assuming the immediate continuation of democracy promotion, as Monten does, I aim to outline how democratic references in US foreign policy discourse grew exponentially once the President and his team began to distance themselves from their original agendas of preventive force and WMD.
Importantly Monten does address variations in the current Bush administrations democracy promotion strategy, examining, “the long-term shift from exemplarism to vindicationism” (2005:115). However, his conclusion omits the crucial fact that neither scheme took precedence in legitimising this government’s goals after September 11, 2001. Actually, apart from his address the very next day16, President Bush made only scant and fleeting references to democracy in his public speeches or press statements in the immediate aftermath of this event. Freedom instead was predominant heading used to define America’s global foreign policy objectives. In a nutshell, ‘freedom and fear’ were war17.

Furthermore, where the concept of democracy was explicitly mention in the early stages of the ‘war on terror’, it was not in a promotional capacity but rather as something to be defended18. Noticeably, at the outset, democracy was also viewed as a short term solution rather than a long term investment from the US perspective. Consequently it was presented in their foreign policy discourse, as well as on the ground in Iraq, in a largely institutionalised capacity. Expressing this dimension early on Bush declared, “The United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. That choice belongs to the Iraqi people. Yet, we will ensure that one brutal dictator is not replaced by another”. Undercutting any permanent US involvement, however, he upheld that, “rebuilding Iraq will require a sustained commitment from many nations, including our own: we will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.” (Bush, 2003: b).19

These limited and pluralist visions are a far cry from the universal promise to promote global democracy explicitly advanced by the Bush from 2005 onwards.

Exposing such miniscule or what some would perceive as purely grammatical distinctions may seem awfully petty. Nevertheless, I contend that paying closer attention to the language employed by the Bush administration affords greater insight into the grand-strategic adjustments they instigated to the contours of US foreign policy. Honing in on their discourse reveals this government advocated a very particular iteration of democracy. Ultimately I proclaim that it served as a legitimising device when their central justification for launching the Iraq war became nullified.

Observing the Bush administrations shift to democracy as the epicentre of it foreign policy also showcases how the same discursive frame became problematic later. Essentially I maintain this defining moment opened up the space for inconsistencies between their words and deeds and, consequently, alternative interpretations of their stated objectives. In light of the Abu Ghraib scandal20 this language was severely contested. No longer was democracy seen as the idealistic standard or the moral enterprise espoused by Bush and his cohort but rather, for many, as a disguise for US torture. Neither did this word succeed in dispelling tough criticisms which potentially implicated this government in human rights abuses. Instead, as highlighted below, after this defining moment the Bush administration clearly became trapped in their own language.
Before outlining how this unexpected transformation occurred I will provide a more robust theoretical overview of what I mean by defining moments. Situating the latter within wider constructivist and discourse analysis scholarship also draws comprehensive insights for examining and explaining these profound turning points within the Bush administrations foreign policy.

Defining Moments and Theoretical Developments:

Demonstrably the Bush administrations foreign policy altered in the run up to the war. Indeed this paper has already mentioned three central ‘defining moments’ in relation to the Iraq war. Respectively these are:

  1. Framing the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as acts of war and synchronically inferring that preemptive self-defence as the best way to protect America and the world thereafter

  2. The shifting focus away from disarming Saddam Hussein of his WMD stockpiles to promoting democracy as the central justification for the 2003 Iraq war.

  3. The erosion of democracy as the keystone of US foreign policy following the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Plainly these particular shifts represent moments of acute crisis for the US21. Discursively, the latter two showcases how the Bush administration constructed its response to the same in democratic terms. Deciphering these linguistic modifications also lends credence to my argument that the Bush administration chose among a series of viable and alternative options rather than simply acting unilaterally or friviously. What become apparent on closer investigation is that they were keenly aware of both the relevant contexts and audiences necessary to address so as to turn their ideas into action. In sum, I argue that the Bush administration actively set out to define and redefine existing structures to justify their foreign policy during these turbulent times.

These empirical junctures have been labelled ‘defining moments’ rather than tipping points22 since this heading better captures the ideas and language underscoring my overall arguments. Furthermore, this terminology is more appropriate since it illuminates the subtle alterations underlying the Bush administrations foreign policy discourse rather than merely focusing on the great instances of change associated with tipping points. While empirical snippets of the US foreign policy analysed in this paper share an affinity with the transformational dynamics associated with the latter, it offers a more thorough investigation into the role that language plays in initially framing and operationalising these dynamics of change. Additionally captured is how the Bush administration actively set out to redefine existing rules and structures to pursue their own foreign policy objectives. Indeed I examine how the discourse employed by the Bush administration helped constitute the boundaries of what was permissible in and possible at different stages of its foreign policy. Speaking of defining moments literally also helps to express the importance these two had incidents in constructing, reconstructing and deconstructing the different language games present in US foreign policy during this epoch23.

Taking all this on board I now apply it to show how the foreign policy discourse of the Bush administration attempted to craft an appropriate response to the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal in democratic terms.

Defining’ Abu Ghraib

The Abu Ghraib incident is the final defining moment under investigation in this paper. Mainly it has been selected to examine how the concept of democracy was undermined in and by emerging evidence that American’s conducted torture there. Scathing comparisons made between the morality promised in the first and the immorality proven by the latter were clearly problematic for the Bush administration to confront or defend. For as Alberto Mora, and John Shattuck (2007) stress, “the promotion of democracy and human rights is a key element of U.S. foreign policy and fosters a rules-based international system anchored in the protection of human dignity. But our ability to achieve this goal -- indeed, even our adherence to this strategic objective -- is severely compromised when our own conduct is widely perceived to violate human rights”. A serious tension arises in this respect since, as I illustrate, the Bush administration itself did not abandon the concept. On the contrary they strongly reinforced it.

Contextual Background

While Abu Ghraib prison never symbolised cheerful images24, the actual and perceived agents of torture manning it have altered. Following the public release of graphic photographs on 28 April 2004, Abu Ghraib is now tantamount with the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of America soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the provocative pictures aired on 60 Minutes II25 sparked global shock, anger and disgust.

What is surprising, especially given the sullying of America’s image is how little impact the incident appears to have had on the Bush administrations foreign policy rhetoric or agendas. Retrospectively, I believe that the manner in which this government framed its response to the Abu Ghraib crisis offers imperative insights into solving this quandary. Analysing how the Bush administration constructed its own defence under mounting global pressure also offers insights into the policies and practices governing their behavior.

To do precisely this I have undertaken an extensive study of the rejoinders given by key players serving at different levels in the administration26. Using a critical constructivist discourse analysis I identified several core themes underscoring them27. Due to space limitations the predominant focus is on the reclamation of democracy as an outstanding American practice to refute claims of torture levelled against the Bush administration and classify these events as being ‘un-American’.

Deconstructing Democracy

Noticeably the term democracy frequently reoccurred during the Bush administration’s handling of the Abu Ghraib crisis. On May 25 2004, for instance, Colin Powell proclaimed, “people can see how we handle something like this: with our democratic system, with congressional oversight, with investigations that are underway, with people being brought to justice”. Also decontaminating the negative images of the US Condoleezza Rice noted, “one good thing about democracies is that when something like this happens, democracies themselves react. The American people are reacting. The American Congress is reacting. The American President is reacting because no American wants to be associated with any dehumanizations now of the Iraqi people” (May, 3: 2004)28.

The President was very vocal in valorising American efforts of protecting and promoting democracy. Indeed Bush quickly clarified that, “important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made. But in a democracy, as well, those mistakes will be investigated and people will be brought to justice. We're an open society. We're a society that is willing to investigate, fully investigate in this case, what took place in that prison” (May 5, 2004)29.

An additional aspect he brought to the fore when discussing democracy was, “the goodness and the character of the United States Armed Forces. No military in the history of the world has fought so hard and so often for the freedom of others. Today, our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines are keeping terrorists across the world on the run. They're helping the people of Afghanistan and Iraq build democratic societies. They're defending America with unselfish courage. And these achievements have brought pride and credit to this nation” (Bush, May 10: 2004)30.

Besides representing what America symbolized and its remedial actions, the concept of democracy was also deeply rooted in the Bush administration’s avid denial that they condoned the use of torture. To use discursive terminology the later operates as a silent category. Indeed the Bush administration never admits that what occurred at Abu Ghraib constitutes as torture. Conversely they opt for softer categories such as abuse, interrogation or human rights violations. Moreover, all of the latter were presented as being ‘alleged’ to begin with. Whatever the intention for defining American acts in this way31, the point raised here is that the Bush administration engaged in a dialogue about torture without ever fully adopting this terminology.

Beginning with a snippet from Donald Rumsfeld is quite appropriate here since he immediately clarified, “I think that - - I’m not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe is technically different than torture” […] “I don’t know if – it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there’s been a conviction for torture. And therefore I’m not going to address the torture word” (Rumsfeld, May 4: 2004).

Denying similar charges on June 27, 2004, Colin Powell remarked, “Abu Ghraib was a big hit.  There's no question about it [...] It's also absolutely clear that the President never, in any way, condoned the use of torture”.

Verifying the official U.S. position of torture Condoleezza Rice iterated32, “renditions take terrorists out of action, and save lives. In conducting such renditions, it is the policy of the United States, and I presume of any other democracies who use this procedure, to comply with its laws and comply with its treaty obligations, including those under the Convention Against Torture. Torture is a term that is defined by law. We rely on our law to govern our operations. The United States does not permit, tolerate, or condone torture under any circumstances” […] Torture, and conspiracy to commit torture, are crimes under U.S. law, wherever they may occur in the world. There have been cases of unlawful treatment of detainees, such as the abuse of a detainee by an intelligence agency contractor in Afghanistan or the horrible mistreatment of some prisoners at Abu Ghraib that sickened us all and which arose under the different legal framework that applies to armed conflict in Iraq” (Rice, December 5, 2005)33.

Un-American Category:

These denials of torture envelop insistences that what occurred at Abu Ghraib were totally ‘un-American’. Articulating this sentiment Bush stressed, “We've discovered these abuses; they're abhorrent abuses. They do not reflect -- the actions of these few people do not reflect the hearts of the American people […] This is not America. America is a country of justice and law and freedom and treating people with respect” (Bush, May 5: 2004)34.

This conceptualisation is very revealing when explored as a self and other identity construction. From this a constructivist vantage point this language demonstrates how the Bush administration tried once again to muster up legitimacy using binary divisions. While the latter framework functioned for defining a polar external other, like a terrorist, it proved to be less so in this scenario since the culprits themselves are American. Indeed, after the Abu Ghraib photos were globally disseminated the Bush administrations stark boundaries between good and evil became exceeding blurry and disputed. Although designed to signal out the guilty the un-American categorisation proved too narrow for the Bush administration to escape. Conversely, they themselves became a scapegoat of blame.

The demarcation of the Abu Ghraib perpetrators as un-American did permit President Bush and his allies to represent these abuses as exceptional rather than normal behaviour. Earmarking agentive culpability at an individual level, rather than on a systemic one, also mitigated direct involvement in and responsibility for what took place under their leadership.

Repudiating such disturbing actions and quickly allocating blame to a few transgressors is obviously not unexpected. Nor is the employment of democracy by the Bush administration to positively signify its ideals and distinguish itself from the evil terrorists. Compounding the problem of being simply ‘un-American’, however, these abuses negated international expectations of democratic behaviour. Legal rules and regulations were similarly unkind in their judgements of such practices, albeit easier for the Bush administration to circumvent in the short term35.

Even so, the very fact that America’s democratic credentials were legally questioned during this crisis suggests a denial of recognition that it previously enjoyed as the noble protector of liberty and freedom. In polar opposition, the vivid photographs of abuse in Abu Ghraib confirmed its deliberate suspension of individual empathy and wanton cruelty. Crucially, Richard Jackson notes, “in these images, it was the American ‘heroes’ who looked liked the savage barbarians, animals, and evildoers, while the ‘terrorists’ looked like the innocent victims of American terror” (working paper). More importantly from the perspective of this paper, and in stark contrast to the Bush administration’s response to the WMD crisis, Abu Ghraib could not be glossed over or excused with democratic rhetoric. Within these circumstances, that is, it was no longer applicable or appropriate to use the same basic discourse. Quite simply the language framing what was permissible had changed.


This paper has critically examined the language, speech acts and discourse underpinning American foreign policy after September 11, 2001. By inspecting official reactions to the affair, and the consequences these executive decisions had, neglected dialectical dimensions were also incorporated.

Nevertheless, I advocated pushing past the Bush administrations claims that everything is changing to examine what exactly is. Subsequently I focused on how such transformations became possible in the first place. Terming these ‘defining moments’ I outlined how the Bush administration’s foreign policy justifications altered in response to different challenges. Illuminating such discursive shifts helped expose how America later became entrapped in and by its own language. Having blatantly justified the Iraq war on the grounds of immanent WMD threats and preemptive self defence, for instance, US invoked the concept of democracy to muster up creditability. Today this subtle shift in policy is taken for granted. However, the theoretical approach adopted in this paper portrayed that subtleness of this major shift could only be upheld by excluding dimensions of social construction from view. In short, it verified that the Bush administration chose36 to modify their foreign policy.

Needless to say this government could not have foreseen the impact of this re-definition, which has been tremendous. The point is that they presented their foreign policy in absolute terms. Consequently any alteration in their fixed objectives clouded the discursive horizon on which the Bush administration could defend itself and its previous actions. Furthermore such rigid categorisation increasingly blurred rather than clarified who was good and who was evil. In defining moments of acute crisis such as Abu Ghraib, moreover, the existence of these frames of reference in the Bush administration foreign policy discourse foreclosed alternative benchmarks against which they could defend themselves. Their democratic discourse was crucial in generating this outcome. This element of paradox is worthy of closer examination since essentially the US used it to shore up support and to silence harsh criticisms levelled against it at defining moments. Yet, rather than fulfilling these functions, I posited that the Bush administrations overt reliance on democracy in later stages of its foreign policy weakened its own defence. In short, Abu Ghraib enabled America to be criticised for not upholding its own standards.


Adler, Emmanuel (1997): “Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics”: European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp 319-363.

Allott, Philip (1999): “The Concept of International Law”: European Journal of International Law, Vol. 10, Issue 1, pp 31-50.

Amnesty International Report for Health Professionals (2001): AI Bulletin Vol. 14, No.17, 17August: AI Index: ACT841017/2001:


Amnesty International (2006): “United States of America: Five Years on ‘The Dark Side’: A Look Back at ‘War on Terror’ Detentions”: 13 December: AI Index: AMR 51/195/2006:http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?lang=e&id=ENGAMR511952006

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