The election of a new American president is always an important event, because of the power the American president has to influence events and affect lives around the world.

This election is particularly important: the American economy is going through the most serious financial crisis since The Great Depression. And the international scene is littered with the debris of Bush’s disregard for the rule of law, and his confrontational strategies.

Barack Obama has promised to undo the damage eight years of Bush policy has caused. The other contender, John McCain, if he unexpectedly surmounts the odds and becomes president, will likely build on the Bush legacy, notwithstanding his recent disclaimer: “I am not President Bush.”

To be sure Obama has said he would use force to defend American interests, and would be ready to act outside the framework of the United Nations.

It may be that being the president of a superpower carries with it some obligation to brandish the use of force as an instrument of foreign policy, or else risk being disqualified from the race altogether.

Nevertheless, the possibility of an Obama administration choosing dialogue over confrontation, engagement over hostility, is real.

Therefore, the new president would be well-advised to send a message that his defence of American values is genuine and not a rhetorical device to justify oppressive foreign policy choices.
Denouncing the Bush doctrine would be a good start. The Bush doctrine of aggressively promoting American hegemony around the world contains two unsettling elements: The concept of pre-emptive war and the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons.

‘Axis of evil’

In January 2002, Bush told Congress that North Korea, Iraq and Iran represented “an axis of evil”. He also signalled America’s readiness to launch pre-emptive strikes against such regimes.

The Nuclear Posture Review presented by the Pentagon to Congress on January 8, 2002, stated: “The Pentagon needs to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria.”

The Review listed three specific scenarios for an American nuclear strike: “an Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbours, a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation [with China] over the status of Taiwan.”

The New York Times rightly observed: “If another country were planning to develop a new nuclear weapon and contemplating pre-emptive strikes against a list of non-nuclear powers, Washington would rightly label that nation a dangerous rogue state.”

America certainly needs to defend itself against threats and aggression, but the Bush doctrine is an open-ended commitment to the use of force regardless of its legality and a guarantee of a permanent state of conflict and tension.

Pre-emptive strikes and the use of nuclear weapons are not only violations of international law, they are also dangerous strategies for a world desperate for leadership that promotes peaceful resolution of disputes.

If the new president is committed to promoting American values, then surely he would want to re-establish the primacy of the rule of law over the disregard the Bush administration showed for it.

Illegal war

A good beginning would be to acknowledge the illegal nature of the Iraq war. Under the Nuremberg principle articulated by US Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Jackson: “Launching a war of aggression is a crime and… no political or economic situation can justify it.”

Moreover, the Bush administration set up a global prison system where detainees were subjected to abuse and torture. It used torture in Iraq and in Afghanistan and outsourced torture to other countries in its extraordinary rendition programme.

The editors of the New York Times lamented the kind of America Bush was creating: “A nation that tortures human beings and then concocts legal sophistries to confuse the world and avoid accountability before American voters?”

Obama has repeatedly stated that America is a better country than that. To his credit, the republican candidate John McCain also condemned the use of torture.