To what extent did US foreign policy after 9/11 undergo a radical shift?


Undoubtedly most of world’s political commentators agree that, the 9/11 attacks on the US have drastically changed how it views the rest of the world and how it conducts its foreign policy. But in order to understand the extent of this radical change, one needs to glance back to where US’s foreign policy stood before 9/11. Although America has been involved in various wars since its inception, there were period that it adopted a policy of “none intervention or isolationism”. This is due to combination of the 1930s depression and the disastrous loses of World War I (US department of State, 2011). During this period the US seemed to choose not to get involved with European and Asian conflicts and ‘non- entanglement’ in international politics (US department of State, 2011). It’s also important to point out that there are other arguments which reject the notion of US isolationism and called it a ‘myth’ (Rubin, 2002, p.29) and they support their arguments by claiming that “American policy up to World War I was always filled with messy diplomatic and military disputes with European powers, China and Japan” (Rubin, 2002).

During the end of the Second World War and subsequent international politics the US foreign policy was aimed at containing the Soviet communism, and when Bush junior took over the white house in 2001, his administration mainly focused on domestic issues and some of his major foreign policies was the implementation of the “missile shield” programme to be installed in Eastern Europe (Crawford, 2004). But after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush adopted a radical shift in his country foreign policy and how it interacts international community. ‘A decisive policy shift from pre 9/11 strategy of containment to post 9/11 strategy of regime change’ (Litwak, 2007, p.xiii)

This essay argues that, although the principal US foreign policy always stays the same, because it always puts its national interest first before anything else, and ‘very much in keeping with the vision of America’s founding generation and the practice of the statesmen in the Early Republic’ (Owens, 2008, p.1) it has undergone a radical shift in many ways since 9/11. Nevertheless, the post-9/11 strategies of Bush Administration do mark a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy objectives. Specific areas such as unilateralism, pre-emptive attack, regime change, human rights violations and George W. Bush era are the main objective this essay is going to focus. But before I talked about these radical shifts one need to understand the theories and school of thought that has affected and shaped American foreign policy making process.

W. R Mead In his book (Special providence: American foreign policy and how it changed the world) argues that, there are four distinct school of foreign policy that shaped US foreign policy. (Mead, 2001, p.xvii) These schools have established as Mead further put it “Basic ways of conducting US foreign policy” (ibid). “Hamiltonian” for example gives emphases to relationship between US government and corporations domestically and internationally. “Wilsonians” advocate the spread of American values, further emphasizing the importance of international cooperation. (Mead, 2001) Jeffersonian seems to be radical in their foreign policy in comparison to ‘Hamiltonians’ and ‘Wilsonians’ unlike these two schools of thought, Jeffersonian focuses on protecting American interest in an anarchic world. (ibid) and finally, Meeds ends his list that “Jacksonians believe that the united states should not seek out foreign war, but when other nations start wars with US, Jacksoinian opinion agree with that of Gen Douglas MacArthur that “there is no substitute for victory” (Mead, 2001) these four schools have therefore guided US foreign policy from its inception to present.

So now I have pointed out the theories behind US foreign policy and how such theories guided and influenced its relationship with the rest of the world. Than the question is what is the radical shift that has taken place in US foreign policy? One of the major foreign policy shifts the US has undergone since 9/11 is, under President Bush’s (junior) administration, is the US has retreated from multilateral involvement and adopted ‘unilateral imperialism’ approach (Crawford, 2004, p.686). And this was clearly evident with respect to 2003 Iraq invasion, whereby the US and its coalition of the willing went to war without UN authorizations.

Since 9/11 US foreign policy has undergone a major shift to a particular direction, the direction of pre-emptive attack due to the influence of the ideology of ‘unilateral imperialism’ theory led by neo-conservative elements within Bush administration such as Dick Cheney (Rogers, 2008). Furthermore, Bush made it clear that the United States would hunt and destroys what he called the terrorist training camps wherever they might be and thus pursued a robust and hostile foreign policy. This clearly implies that the US would carry out unilateral attack on terrorist suspects within sovereign states without asking for permission, and example of this would be the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan which was allegedly carried out without the consent of Pakistani government. Therefore the traditional approach to US foreign policy such as deterrence, containment and sanctions seems to be inadequate or had no place in Bush’s form of foreign policy (Owens, 2008, p.4)


9/11 undoubtedly changed US direction which saw US aggressively involved internationally, invading Afghanistan and Iraq ‘following an either you are with us or against us foreign policy (Kaufman, 2010, p.140)’. Therefore as result of this policy shift Iraq was invaded, an invasion that was not ‘legitimate defensive move’, by the US, but rather an illegal war that the then UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan explicitly said violated the UN Charter and international rule of law. (Kramer & Michalowski, 2005) In this respect a crime was committed, and the crime was the violation of international law by the US and its allies (Kramer & Michalowski, 2005).

The underlying claimed that Iraq possess Weapon of Mass destruction ‘that might eventually be used against the United States, either directly or through terrorist networks’ was not substantiated, therefore President bush pursued a policy of democratization in the Middle East and Iraq in particular, because as Toby Dodge argued, “the realist approach embraced by his predecessors which openly supported dictators because they were allied with the US was abandoned instead, the aim was to implement force democratisation in the Middle East” (Dodge, 2008) Therefore George W. Bush’s foreign policy particularly his rhetoric to spread democracy in the Middle East signifies a radical shift in comparison to his previous Administrations (Owens, 2008, p.2) because unlike George W. Bush, the previous predecessors accepted the status quo in the Middlesex East, partly because the region is ruled by dictators that are loyal or friendly to the US, and partly because there was and is the fear that democratic Middle East is most likely going to result the rise of Islamist governments. The leading liberal democracy nation, the United States’ Democracy promotion has always been its foreign policy goals but, the post 9/11 Democracy rhetoric and the way in which it is being talked about and pursued suggests a radical shift from policies of previous Administrations. (Ehteshami, 2008)

This new approach has demonstrated a shift from traditional foreign policy built on the realist approach to a new “unilateral imperialism” foreign policy (Crawford, 2004). Thus, the consequence of these polices has resulted the death of thousands of Iraqi who otherwise would not have been killed if the invasion did not take place. Thus, despite the use military force, a ‘realist characteristic’, Bush’s foreign policy shift which emphases on spreading freedom and democracy in the Arab world is ‘inherently idealist in perspective’ (Kaufman, 2010, p.141). ‘Even before the attacks on September 11, 2001 the George W. Bush administration had demonstrated a unilateralist and ultra-nationalist approach to most foreign policy issues, including human rights’ (Crahan, 2005, p.77)

However, the consequences of the shift in foreign policy were far-reaching, as the US’s eagerness to establish itself as a world leader, ended up pursuing policies and illegal wars that angered many of its traditional allies, such as France and Germany who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq (BBCnews, 2003). The foreign policy approach favoured by Bush administration seems to be headed to a more ‘unilateralist approach characterised by US action consistent with what the president perceived to be in the national interest of his country’ although some realist scholars such as Mearsheimer see this as ‘miscalculation driven by ideology’ (Dodge, 2008, p.233), rather than national interest as believed by president Bush. Nonetheless it was the neo-conservative’s vision that was behind theoretical foreign policy of the Bush Administration (Kaufman, 2010, p.140) this clearly indicates a post 9 /11 foreign policy shift in comparison to Clinton Administration.

Furthermore, the post 9/11 US foreign policy was not limited to unilateral approach to American foreign policy only; the administration also advocated and carried out a policy of regime change. Following the 9/11 attack the Bush Administration’s foreign policy has been very clear about its aim of global dominance a military power so strong that no country can challenge it (Lieberfeld, 2005). During a speech at graduation ceremony, President Bush declared that ‘America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond Challenge’ (Bush, 2002). Given this offensive objective, Bush’s new foreign policy can be interpreted as an “effort to enhance U.S. reputation and symbolic power beyond challenge, particularly after post 9/11 attacks that might have made the U.S. appear vulnerable” (Lieberfeld, 2005) By risking his ‘reputation’ to achieve one of his major flagship objectives such as regime change in Iraq. Therefore the invasion of Iraq was ‘unavoidable due to the national security interest in protecting that reputation’ (Lieberfeld, 2005, p.3) one reason that explains why the US became a war mongering nation since 9 /11 is that its less constrained than it was during the cold war, because following the collapse of the Soviet Union the US remained the only Super Power left in the world that can do whatever she likes with impunity.

Why US pursued waging war and regime changing foreign policy and target Iraq? There are number of theories that explained this, for example some realist would point out Iraq’s strategic location, which could be used as military bases in order to protect US’s interest in the Middle East and its vast oil reserves (Lieberfeld, 2005). Marxist scholars also point out that the logic behind the regime change in Iraq was primarily oil (Dodge, 2008, p.233) Another motive for the regime change in Iraq from realist viewpoint would be to destroy any military threat in the Middle East that would threaten the security of Israel, a country regarded to be American ally, but some would say  American Master (Lieberfeld, 2005, p.4). Furthermore, Bush’s administration saw its attack into Iraq as a ‘substitute for a diplomatic strategy that would spread democracy to the region and to Iraq in particularly and to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on terms that favour Israel’ (Lieberfeld, 2005, p.5). Regardless of what the US motive was, ‘the neo-conservative “discourse” was remarkably effective. Seemingly out of nowhere, Iraq was represented as an immediate danger to America’ (Halper & Clarke, 2004, p.203) ‘Furthermore, the neo-conservatives linked their pre-existing agenda, which is to attack Iraq to the events of 9/11 and thus created an entirely new reality’ (Halper & Clarke, 2004, p.203)

But the idea that the ‘road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad’ that transforming Iraq into an American ally and promoting a democracy in the wider Middle East ‘would help rise to regional democracies supporting peace with Israel proved to be an illusion’ (Hadar, 2009) instead the Bush administration’s policies helped Iran and its allies mainly Hezbollah to become major players in the region (Hadar, 2009). Given the illegal war the US has waged, and given the lack of respect to international law, the conclusion that can be drawn from the radical shift in US foreign policy after 9/11 attacks is that it has ignored the opinion of international community, abandon multilateral approach to foreign policy and chose ‘unilateral imperialism’ instead.

Another radical shift in foreign policy after 9/11 is the policy of extraordinary rendition. ‘Extraordinary rendition dates back to the Reagan years and was first used against suspected Islamists in the late 1990s’ (The guardian, 2011) but the Bush Administration used it excessively and illegally (Kenndy-Pipe, 2008). The term itself applies to moving around terrorists suspects around the world by the CIA (The independent, 2006). These suspects are not only moved around for the sake of moving around, but they are moved around to be tortured, in some of the most appalling human rights abusing countries in the world such as Morocco, Syria and Egypt to name but few. “The evidence of torture by the Bush administration is overwhelming. Bush publicly admitted that in two cases he approved the use of waterboarding and authorised illegal CIA secret detention and renditions programmes” (Human Rights Watch, 2011) such practices violate the Universal Declaration of Human rights which the United States of America is a signatory.

In the human Rights context, it’s important to mention that although I am critical to President Bush’s Human rights violations, there is evidence that he did attempt to promote human Rights in some respect. (Neier, 2005, p.137) For example, Bush Administration did spoke out against human rights abuses that are taking place in countries such as Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Sudan (ibid). The Administration even went a step too far to label the killings in Darfur in Sudan as “genocide” this is stark contrast to President Clinton’s administration refusal to describe the atrocities in Rwanda as “genocide” instead they use the term “genocidal incidents” (Cohen, 2001, p.162), (Neier, 2005, p.137) But, why is the US is seen as a violator of human rights rather than champion of human rights? The actions Bush Administration took in response to 9/11 attacks explains this. Torture in Guantanamo Bay camp, extraordinary rendition and Abu Ghriab prisoner abuses resulted grave human rights violations and the US is viewed around the world as human rights violator rather than Human rights champion as it would like to be seen (Neier, 2005, p.140).

Therefore, the post 9/11 US foreign policy, especially during George W. Bush’s Administration appears to turned blind eye to the promotion and protection of human rights, partly because it was itself human rights violator and partly to enhance its interest and security (ibid).

In conclusion, this essay has argued that the US has always been involved in wars and invasions since its inception. Although the primary goals US foreign policy always stays the same, because it always puts its national interest first before anything else, and very much in keeping with the vision of America’s founding fathers, the event of September 11- 2001 drastically changed how the United States of America views the world, the Muslim World in particular, and how the response of President Bush led his administration to deviate from multilateral foreign policy to unilateral approach. Therefore the radical shift that the US foreign policy after 911 can only be understood by looking at the competing theories and school of thoughts that have shaped America’s domestic and foreign policy.

The event of 911 saw the US aggressively invading sovereign nations and waging illegal wars under international law. It also saw, the US working closely with dictators and authoritarian regimes whose human rights abuses are well documented. Additionally, the post 9/11 US foreign policy change was not limited to adoption of unilateral approach to its foreign policy only; the administration also pursued a robust and aggressive foreign policy towards Islamic world and carried out a policy of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq.

One of the products of the radical shift of the US foreign policy is the violations of human rights in the hands of its soldiers and agents. The evidence of torture by the administration is overwhelming; President Bush publicly acknowledged that in two cases he permitted the use of ‘waterboarding’ and sanctioned illegal CIA secret detentions and extraordinary renditions programmes. Such human rights violations by the world’s most powerful nations resulted grave human rights violations which further damage the credibility of the world’s most powerful nation.


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