Frontier Justice: Cowboy Ethics and the Bush Doctrine of Preemption (August 2003)


This paper investigates how an American popular culture icon, the cowboy, functions as a tool for President George W. Bush to both illustrate and legitimize the preemptive use of military force in his administration’s foreign policy doctrine. The Bush Doctrine of Preemption holds that the traditional strategies of deterrence and containment are no longer sufficient. In the new war against terrorism, the Bush Doctrine calls for a new military and political strategy of preemption in dealing with rogue states harboring terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction. The Bush Doctrine is characterized by five factors: 1) a call for “moral clarity”; 2) a lack of toleration for non-alignment in the campaign against terrorism; 3) a strategy of “offensive defense”; 4) a unilateral implementation of action when necessary; and 5) a desire to promote international justice. My thesis offers an analysis of how the Bush Doctrine applies “cowboy ethics” to justify U.S. military intervention. Cowboy ethics are comprised of five similar qualities: 1) holding a sense of moral providence; 2) viewing the world in terms of a good/evil dichotomy; 3) a belief in the right to anticipatory self-defense; 4) a willingness to act alone; and 5) a sense of duty to defend the weak. My principal argument is that President Bush cultivates cowboy ethics as a means to pronounce and justify America’s foreign policy actions as done for the moral good rather than for imperialistic purposes. The Bush Doctrine of Preemption dictates that America should not wait to be attacked, but move proactively to disrupt and defeat global outlaws -- an ideology congruent with cowboy ethics. 

Thesis available upon request.