United States of America - nine years after 9/11

Posted in Terrorism , United States , Religion and Politics | 09-Sep-10 | Author: Hichem Karoui

"The twenty-first century kicked off in America with an awful shock: September 11, 2001"
"The twenty-first century kicked off in America with an awful shock: September 11, 2001"
The twenty-first century kicked off in America with an awful shock: September 11, 2001 will be remembered as a day that has tremendously influenced the course of history. So many things have changed after this event to the extent that some observers will not hesitate to talk of «two worlds»: one before and one after September 11.

While al-Qaeda's objective in striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, nine years ago, was likely to prove its capacity to hit the US soil, and beyond that first goal, to induce a shift in US foreign policy in the Middle East, judged unbalanced, particularly regarding the Palestinian problem and other issues in the Muslim world (Iraq included), such aggression on civilian population succeeded just in provoking the opposite reaction. Indeed, a shift in US foreign policy occurred, but not in the way expected.

Here is the explanation of that shift.

Guidelines for foreign policy

«Foreign policy is the sum of the goals, the decisions, and the actions that govern a nation's relations with the rest of the world. However, the world undergoes changes and this is true for foreign policy. A president may adopt a policy and reject it later. A new president can overturn the policies of his predecessor. » This definition is proposed by Cummings and Wise (2004, 199) who multiply the examples of changes in foreign policy to make the point.

First, alliances change: The Soviet Union, which was a US ally during the Second World War, became its main adversary during the Cold War that lasted more than four decades. Japan, which was America's enemy during the Second World War, became its ally in time of peace; and so is the case of Germany. Hence, the conclusion that foreign policy is a pretty changing and inconstant concept.

Second, the preservation of national security is another basic consideration in the formulation of foreign policy. Nevertheless, as it has also been observed, the concept of national security is «so broad and so vague that it can be used to justify almost any action taken by a nation or a President. » Nixon, for example, has invoked it in his attempt «to justify a wide range of abuses of power that eventually led to his resignation.» (Cummings and Wise, 653.)

Third, After the Second World War, there were two approaches to the issue of national security and foreign policy. The first focused on the threats to U.S. security posed by hostile or communist nations. The second regarded the security of the United States as dependent on some kind of world order compatible with the American values and interests.

Changes and recurrences

Nevertheless, the foreign policy of any nation has roots that history may help us to identify. It is also in studying the history of this policy that we will be able to observe the changes and recurrences.

In this context, observers have always referred to two singularly paradoxical traits of American foreign policy: isolationism and imperialism. The question that such a paradox raises is: how isolationism and war could meet? The first answer that dawns on the mind is: they are not reconcilable, since we cannot carry out a thing and its opposite, that is, doing our best to stay away from interference while interfering. However, things are not so simple. In American history, we have evidence of alternation, and even of the coexistence of both practices at once.

The concept of isolationism is probably to be linked in history with the view expressed by President George Washington who wanted America to «remain away from a permanent alliance, » and that of Thomas Jefferson who thought that America wanted peace with all nations, which would keep her free from any alliance. (Cummings and Wise, 656.)

In the nineteenth century, when European diplomats were exercising to preserve the balance of power in the world, America, feeling protected by the Atlantic could stay away from any involvement in European affairs. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers against interfering in the Western Hemisphere and in return promised not to intervene in the affairs of Europe. (Zinn, 1980).

Nevertheless, this American isolationism was fairly relative. In reality, the United States waged a war against Great Britain in 1812; and when it annexed Texas another war broke out against Mexico in 1846; the USA will also lay its hand over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Yet, despite this, the United States did not become at that time a colonial empire with vast territories overseas, similar to Great Britain.

Towards the end of the XIXth century, an opposite line in American foreign policy begins to develop: that of interventionism. Thus, in the early twentieth century, the United States practiced what was called gunboat diplomacy, sending troops for intervention in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Nevertheless, it is the world war that will involve this country in intervening militarily in Europe for the first time, although after the war the Americans refused to join the League of Nations, thus ending - at least temporarily - their role in the world stage. Isolationism has triumphed again ... until the second world war in which the Americans will also play a leading role, so that finally they will abandon isolationism and embrace a view labeled «internationalist» for some and «imperialist» for others.( Zinn H. 1980).

September 11 and the foreign policy

Since the first months of 2001, we can note that the new administration took a more combative attitude on issues in suspension with China and North Korea. It was an approach that was considered much more sophisticated than a simple response to the policy of Bill Clinton. Actually, the new approach was cut off from all the policies of the Cold War, which consists primarily in two concepts: Containment and Deterrence. It was also conveying a view opposed to the realist school advocated by Henry Kissinger (2001-2002). The new approach may be summarized as follows: if a relatively weak America had decided to resist the Soviet Union in the 1970s, why the United States at the height of its power in 2001 would still need a compromise with North Korea? Thus, we can already see that 9/11 terrorists attacked a new administration which was already disposed psychologically and ideologically to fight for global supremacy in order to prolong an incomparable historical momentum. (Lieven A., 2004).

This idea of America at the height of its power, with no equal or rival in sight, but still keen on prolonging its momentum as a global leader and to this end, seeking to develop its technological, scientific and military capacities so as to discourage those who dream to one day compete with it, needed a moral and philosophical basis of justification: it is what the neocons attempted to endow Bush's America with. However, would they have succeeded to this extent without the moral impulse given by 9/11?

It must be said that they have been preparing for such a moment since many years, but paradoxically, the "help" will come from an unsuspected party: not the American liberals, not the left wing, not even the Republican Party. But the "new enemy" designed by Huntington (1998), B. Lewis (2003 and 2004) and others in the same wake: it is radical Islamism also called neo-Islamism (which is a kind of distortion imposed on Islam, a kind of Islamic neo-extremism) that will offer them the best opportunity to influence the Establishment that has snubbed them for so many years, mobilize American resources, and engage that unrivalled power at the service of the ideals they advocate.

How September 11 advanced the agenda of the neo-conservatives

Hichem Karoui: "Islam and terrorism should be parted, once and for all"
Hichem Karoui: "Islam and terrorism should be parted, once and for all"
September 11 has played a catalytic role in American policies, whether inside or outside. It has changed the nature of the debates on immigration, taxes, security, etc... Nevertheless, the biggest shift occurred in foreign policy. Note that during the second presidential debate in Winston-Salem in 2000, Bush issued the following warning: «If we are an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 2004, 199.) It is probably difficult to understand how such a discourse has given way to the theories of preemption and interventions to make regime changes, up to the break up with the allies, without taking into account the factor September 11.

One can imagine that if Bill Clinton was still in power during the attacks on American soil, he would probably have responded by overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan (as he reportedly said) held responsible for the aggression; but the Bush Administration response would be much more radical, much more ambitious and also more specifically adapted to the discourse of neo-conservatism.

It should be noted that before the fateful 9/11, G. W. Bush was not particularly regarded as the leader of exception that he will later become in the eyes of the neocons and those of his sympathizers (Mann James, 2004). Several neo-conservative leaders, fearing he might be influenced by his father did not choose him but opted rather for his rival in the Republican Party, John McCain.

McCain has nothing exceptional though, and he was even less than perfect from their own point of view, since he was reluctant to impose economic sanctions against China. But he was in their eyes bolder than G.W.Bush in that he preached a much more expansive kind of American greatness, which took more seriously the issue of rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.

The most prominent among those neocon leaders is William (Bill) Kristol, editor of the influent Weekly Standard and son of the famous godfather of neo-conservatism Irving. But what did Kristol and his allies reproach to Bush? - Answer: simply to be the son of his father! That is, to be under his influence. As to the father himself, they blamed him for the withdrawal from Iraq before Saddam was toppled, for pressuring Israel and urging it to take part in the peace process launched in Madrid, for surrounding himself with a small clique of «Republican realists, » like Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker. Etc... Powell was much to the left wing of the Republican party; and as such, he supported assertive action, international institutions and the military prudence; all things that the neo-conservatives did not like. (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 201. Means H., 1993) As to Baker, they blamed him for the most murderous little phrase he had reportedly said: 'Fuck the Jews! They do not vote for us anyway. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 200.)

The neo-conservatives were not numerous in the Bush administration before 9 / 11. They were about twenty. Among them, Paul Wolfowitz held probably the highest position: Deputy Secretary of Defense. As to the others, they occupied less important positions: Douglas Feith was number three at the Pentagon. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, was Dick Cheney's head of staff (and Wolfowitz's protégé), John Bolton was in charge of the section "arms control" at the State Department. Jim Woolsey, Richard Perle, and Ken Adelman were members of Rumsfeld's 'Defense Policy Board.'

Another possible explanation is that Bush, in his double quality as a businessman and a Texan, might have had more a pronounced penchant to the world of business. Still, as a conservative, his conception of the state is the "small government," whose task is the management of daily affairs. That did not prevent him all the same from soliciting the intellectuals, for he was aware of the important social and political capital they represent in the country. The neo-conservatives are neither bureaucrats nor CEOs of large companies like D. Cheney and Rumsfeld. Cheney, by the way, has become one of the greatest defenders of neo-conservatives, although he was previously totally disagreeing with them on a number of issues. As Secretary of Defense under the first President Bush, he had supported the latter's decision to leave Saddam in power in 1991, which the neocons considered one of the most serious mistakes. He also criticized Israel and its policy of continual establishing of new settlements. Furthermore, he did not want America to intervene in the Balkans.

The neoconservatives were not part Bush's special «Texan connections, » like Karen Hughes or Karl Rove. They are usually depicted as «Jews in a party that is traditionally a bastion of Goyems. They are intellectuals and professionals - the kind of people holding very high degrees of reputable universities, who made their careers in think tanks, academic and intellectual journals, having spent much of their time fighting over opinions. They were not natural companions of a President «who judged people by the content of their hearts rather than the quality of their minds. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 200).

Bush, knowing the limits of human beings, has always seemed to get along with business using the resources provided by the «men of ideas. » During his first presidential campaign, he said: «I may not be able to tell you exactly the nuances of the East Timorian situation, but I'll ask Condi Rice or I'll ask Paul Wolfowitz or I'll ask Dick Cheney. I'll ask people who've had experience. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 208.)

It is true that Wolfowitz was one of the first neo-conservatives whose name had been early associated with Bush foreign policy's team. However, it should be noted that the true "tutor" of Bush on the subject is none other than Condoleezza Rice, the woman with whom the former President shared other interests, such as sport and religion. Rice's specialty is the policies of great powers, particularly that of Russia. The very idea of «nation building» advocated by the neocons repelled her, initially. Yet, it is exactly what she will defend, when she took over as Secretary of State, after Powell quitted.

Some observers have divided the entourage of President Bush into three categories, each seeking to gain influence: «democratic imperialists» like the neo-conservatives, «pragmatist doves» like Powell and «assertive nationalists» like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, who shared with the neocons the notion that America should seek to ensure its interests more aggressively, but did not have any patience with «nation building, » democracy spread, etc... The attitude of Powell revealed to those who still doubted, the existence of significant differences between pragmatist doves and democratic imperialists, since the moment he commented Wolfowitz's statement to the press three days after September 11. The latter had said: «the U.S. policy» consisted in «ending states who sponsor terrorism. » Powell told reporters «Wolfowitz could speak for himself, but America's goal was ending terrorism, nothing more. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 202.)

So, everything suggests that on the eve of 9 / 11, the neo-conservatives were the weakest of the three groups. (Daalder and Lindsay, 2003) But the situation will dramatically change...

Conclusion: The Shift

In April 2003, the agenda of the neo-conservatives has become a living reality. What was nothing but «hot air» only two years ago in the American Enterprise Institute was now «a reality in Kabul and Baghdad. Saddam and the Taliban had been deposed; Syria and Iran were on the watch list; Yasser Arafat had been sidelined. » A 'Bush Doctrine' that the neo-conservatives sought to be competing with the Truman Doctrine for «audacity, success and in revolutionary nature, had been launched. The National Security Strategy of 2002 codified an explicit policy of preemption and called for 'encouraging free and open societies on every continent.' In the controversy about Iraq, Bush decided to ignore the two bogeymen of the neo-conservatives, the UN and Old Europe. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 203.)

To the question: how such a 'revolution' has occurred, Micklethwait and Wooldridge gave three possible explanations.

The first conveys the left's view (especially in Europe), for whom a ruthless cabal has managed to hijack and deflect the foreign policy of a weak President. Micklethwait and Wooldridge did not believe in a conspiracy theory. They refuted the hypothesis of a neoconservative "coup" in the White House that a ruthless clique dreaming of big political changes in the Middle East, would have fomented in the wake of September 11 to give the American foreign policy a radical orientation. For them, too many details lead to the conspiracy theory, which, like all theories of this kind contains true elements. Note for example that Pat Buchanan founded a magazine called The American Conservative in which he began to publish opinions claiming that the neo-conservatives have hijacked both the conservative movement and the foreign policy. Their purpose in his eyes is to change the republic into an empire and to subordinate its interests to Israel. It is true that the neocons form a separate clique; they are intellectuals who share ideas, work in the same think tanks, write for the same magazines, are rather close to the Israeli right wing, and even - for some - have family ties. Nevertheless, this is not enough to adequately support the argument of the plot.

The second explanation comes from the very neo-conservatives; their rise to power would have been a matter of logic and common sense: they foresaw a world of terrorism and knew how to face it. We know that they consider themselves seriously as a group with a specific mission. On the domestic level, they have their views on certain economic and social reforms. On the international level, they aimed at two goals: to assert American power in a more unilateral way, and to use that power to redraw the map of the world and spread liberal democracy, especially in the Middle East.

The third explanation is that of Micklethwait and Wooldridge, which they deem as the most plausible. In their eyes, after September 11, the neo-conservative message has struck a very sensitive chord in the «right nation. » Thus, a neo-conservative foreign policy became that of the entire conservative spectrum, period.

However, if Bush's policy has been too tied to Israel as some blamed (Mearshemer and Walt, 2006), it would be wrong to put all responsibility for this «imbalance» exclusively on the shoulders of the neo-conservatives. Without denying that the latter are close to Israel's right wing, this position of strong support is neither their creation, nor their particularity. «America - especially conservative America - publicly supports Israel emphatically, and that support has grown in the wake of September 11. » (Micklethwait and Wooldridge, 209). Hence, the finding that the policy pursued by Bush after 9 / 11 was not just a neo-conservative, but rather conservative in the broad sense, because it resonated throughout the entire right nation.


Nine years after 9/11, the lessons policy makers should have learned are numerous. However, the most important should still be reminded:

  • Islam and terrorism should be parted, once and for all. To mix them does not help. To separate them is to understand that those who choose terrorism do it independently from their religious faith. That's why there used to be atheistic communist terrorism in the seventies of the XXth century.
  • Although 9/11 planners and executers were wrong in believing such an attack could bring America to review its unbalanced policy in the Middle East, as we proved in this essay, a billion Muslims still think that US Middle East policy is still unbalanced. Do not neglect what a billion people think. Just look at the results of the Polls and other data from the World Values Survey, Pew, Gallup, etc. They mean something that policy makers should take in consideration a little more.
  • The US Congress is really an important asset for foreign policy. Many Arab and Muslim politicians should also learn and understand that Foreign policy is not just what the Department of State or the Pentagon decide.
  • The USA cannot fight alone on the international stage. That's an important lesson from the Bush II era. To be successful in fighting terror and implementing peace, it is necessary to have allies. To have reliable allies, it is necessary to consider their interests just as you consider your own.
  • It is easier to wage war than to end it, and easier to end it than to win it. There is always a way to avoid war. Watch the adversaries in the Middle East. They have always something different to say. An opinion could lead to war only if the other party is never disposed to negotiate. Choose negotiation even when peace seems lost.
  • Could 9/11 have been avoided? Yes. It wasn't necessary. How? Many answers are available. Nevertheless, one among them concerns directly the humanistic situation of the population in the occupied territories. Show compassion for those who, since 1948, cry for their lost homes and blame the international community for its indifference. Do not give potential terrorists the stick to beat you.
  • Be fair when you pretend to lead. Be fair toward those with whom you have no vested interests at all. Because when you show disinterested fairness in your policy, you don't even need to pretend to a leading role. People will follow you and embrace the values you embody in your behavior, out of admiration and conviction, as they have always done with religious leaders.


1 - Cummings J.R, Milton C., With Wise, David, Democracy Under Pressure, an introduction to the American Political System. (Eighth edition. Brace Harcourt College Publishers, 1997.)

2 - Daalder, Ivo H., and Lindsay, James, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Washington DC, Brookings Institution, 2003).

3 - Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

4 - Kissinger, Henry, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

5 - Lewis, Bernard, What Went Wrong? : The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Harper Perennial, 2003).

6 - Lewis, Bernard, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Random House, 2004).

7- Lieven, Anatol, America Right or Wrong: an Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2004).

8- Mann, James, Rise of the Vulcans: The history of Bush's war cabinet. (Penguin Books, 2004).

9- Micklethwait, John, and Wooldridge, Adrian: The Right Nation, (Penguin Books, 2004-2005).

10- Mearsheimer, John, and Walt, Stephen, The Israel Lobby, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006, Volume 28, N°6.

11- Means, Howard, Colin Powell: a Biography (Ballantine Books, 1993).

12- Zinn, Howard, A People's History Of The United States (Harper Colophon Books, 1980).

First published by Middle East Studies Online Journal (2010) Volume 1, Issue No 2