Central to the development of the Bush Doctrine is its strong influence by neoconservative ideology, and it is considered to be a step from the political realism of the Reagan Doctrine. The Reagan Doctrine was considered key to American foreign policy until the end of the Cold War, just before Bill Clinton became president of the United States. The Reagan Doctrine was considered anti-Communist and in opposition to Soviet Union global influence, but later spoke of a peace dividend towards the end of the Cold War with economic benefits of a decrease in defense spending. The Reagan Doctrine was strongly criticized by the neoconservatives, who also became disgruntled with the outcome of the Gulf War and United States foreign policy under Bill Clinton, sparking them to call for change towards global stability through their support for active intervention and the democratic peace theory. Several central persons in the counsel to the George W. Bush administration consider themselves to be neoconservatives or strongly support their foreign policy ideas.

Neoconservatives are widely known to long have supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and on January 26, 1998, the PNAC sent a public letter to then President Bill Clinton stating:

“As a result, in the not-too-distant future we will be unable to determine with any reasonable level of confidence whether Iraq does or does not possess such weapons. Such uncertainty will, by itself, have a seriously destabilizing effect on the entire Middle East. It hardly needs to be added that if Saddam does acquire the capability to deliver weapons of mass destruction, as he is almost certain to do if we continue along the present course, the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world’s supply of oil will all be put at hazard. As you have rightly declared, Mr. President, the security of the world in the first part of the 21st century will be determined largely by how we handle this threat. ” 

Among the signers of the Project for the New American Century's (PNAC) original Statement of Principles were a number of people who later gained high positions in the Bush administration, including Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle.

PNAC member and the chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee (DPBAC), Neoconservative Richard Perle, later expressed regret over the Iraq invasion and ultimately put the blame for the invasion on President George W. Bush; while other renowned neoconservative ideologists like Joshua Muravchik and Norman Podhoretz claim that neoconservatives must take intellectual leadership and that traditional conservatives lack the insight on how to solve terrorism. Muravchik called former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a traditional conservative) a neoconservative hero and champion of military strategy, but that the strength of neoconservatives is their ideology as foundation for policies, and this strength is also recognized by political scientists. Muravchik claims these strengths are present in the case of the Reagan presidency as well as the Bush presidency, and that Bush unlike Reagan has contributed to the "fundamental solution" to the Middle East.

Other than Bush and Rumsfeld, other traditional conservatives who are thought to have adopted neoconservative foreign policy thinking include Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The Bush Doctrine, in line with long-standing neoconservative ideas, holds that the United States is entangled in a global war of ideas between the western values of freedom on the one hand, and extremism seeking to destroy them on the other; a war of ideology where the United States must take responsibility for security and show leadership in the world by actively seeking out the enemies and also change those countries who are supporting enemies.

The Bush Doctrine, and neoconservative reasoning, holds that containment of the enemy as under the Realpolitik of Reagan does not work, and that the enemy of United States must be destroyed before he attacks — using all the United States' available means, resources and influences to do so.

On the book Winning the War on Terror Dr. James Forest, U.S. Military Academy Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, comments: "While the West faces uncertainties in the struggle against militant Islam’s armies of darkness, and while it is true that we do not yet know precisely how it will end, what has become abundantly clear is that the world will succeed in defeating militant Islam because of the West’s flexible, democratic institutions and its all-encompassing ideology of freedom."

Neoconservatism is a political philosophy that emerged in the United States. Its key distinction is in international affairs, where it espouses an interventionist approach that seeks to defend what neo-conservatives deem as national interests. In addition, unlike traditional conservatives, neoconservatives are comfortable with a minimally-bureaucratic welfare state; and, while generally supportive of free markets, they are willing to interfere for overriding social purposes.

The term neoconservative was originally used as a criticism against liberals who had "moved to the right". Michael Harrington, a democratic socialist, coined the usage of neoconservative in a 1973 Dissent magazine article concerning welfare policy. According to E. J. Dionne, the nascent neoconservatives were driven by "the notion that liberalism" had failed and "no longer knew what it was talking about."

The first major neoconservative to embrace the term, and considered its founder, is Irving Kristol, (father of William Kristol, who founded the neoconservative Project for the New American Century), and wrote of his neoconservative views in the 1979 article "Confessions of a True, Self-Confessed 'Neoconservative.'" Kristol's ideas had been influential since the 1950s, when he co-founded and edited Encounter magazine. Another source was Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. By 1982 Podhoretz was calling himself a neoconservative, in a New York Times Magazine article titled "The Neoconservative Anguish over Reagan's Foreign Policy". The term has been the subject of increasing media coverage during the presidency of George W. Bush. In particular, discussion has focussed on the neoconservative influence on American foreign policy, as part of the Bush Doctrine.

Following the election, Jonathan Clarke, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, expressed the view that "in many ways, the 2008 election represented a direct repudiation of the neocon style of foreign policy based on military-centred, unilateralist overreaching. At first sight, the incoming Obama administration appears to be the polar opposite of neoconservatism. Its instincts are multilateralist, being committed, for example, to adhering to the Kyoto Protocol and to international agreements like the Geneva Convention. It places a high priority on diplomacy, with President-elect Obama being open to direct talks with long-ignored countries like Iran and Cuba. Defense Secretary Gates, who is remaining in office, has made it clear that he regards military intervention as the genuinely last option. Furthermore, the financial meltdown and the drains of the Iraq and Afghan wars have chipped away at the pre-eminence of US power. It is difficult to argue today that the US enjoys a unipolar advantage. The safest bet, therefore, is that we can bid adieu to the neocons and leave their role to be adjudicated by history."


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