After 9/11, the US Tried to Force Its Will on the Rest of the World. It Failed.

Central to the justification for the “war on terror” by right-wing and liberal administrations was the simple idea that the United States has the right to impose its will on the rest of the world. The results, unsurprisingly, were disastrous.

An Iraqi woman opens her door to US infantry as they conduct house-to-house raids north of Baghdad in October 2005. (CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP via Getty Images)

In September 2000, the neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century released a document outlining its foreign-policy vision. It called for the United States to use overwhelming military force to take control of the Persian Gulf region, for “maintaining global US preeminence . . . and [for] shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.” This goal, the report went on to add, was going to take some time to be realized “absent some catastrophic event — like a new Pearl Harbor.”

On September 11, 2001, such an event did occur — at a time when the neoconservative wing of the foreign policy establishment held powerful positions in the administration of George W. Bush. The crisis of 9/11 positioned the neocons to realize their vision and to project US power on a global scale.

The attacks on that fateful day created unanimous agreement in the foreign-policy establishment that the war on terror would henceforth frame US foreign policy. Three days after the attacks, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists was passed, setting in motion an open-ended, perpetual, global war that has continued to this day.

Barely had the ashes settled from the Twin Towers when loud proclamations that “Islamic terrorists” represented existential threats to the United States began to echo in the public sphere. From then on, US foreign and domestic policy has been shaped by the rubric of “terrorism” and the corresponding security measures needed to allegedly keep Americans safe. The racialized terrorist as a national and global security threat has been part of imperial practice since the late 1960s; 9/11 brought it front and center and set the terms of what was to come in the decades after. It was the basis from which a new infrastructure of empire has been crafted.

Professor of politics and international affairs G. John Ikenberry captured the post-9/11 dynamic in the influential journal Foreign Affairs:

For the first time since the dawn of the Cold War, a new grand strategy is taking shape in Washington. It is advanced most directly as a response to terrorism, but it also constitutes a broader view about how the United States should wield power and organize world order. According to this new paradigm, America is to be less bound to its partners and to global rules and institutions while it steps forward to play a more unilateral and anticipatory role in attacking terrorist threats and confronting rogue states seeking WMD (weapons of mass destruction). The United States will use its unrivaled military power to manage the global order.

US imperialism was strengthened and bolstered after 9/11. The attacks provided policymakers with a larger-than-life enemy, “Islamic terrorism,” against which a global war was necessary. Seizing the moral high ground of a nation under attack, the foreign-policy establishment resurrected empire, as historian Rashid Khalidi argued in his book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East. The wars on Afghanistan and Iraq followed soon after. In fact, in the first two decades of the war on terror, as the preface notes, hundreds of thousands have been killed while tens of millions have been displaced.

In my book Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire: Twenty Years After 9/11, I outline the foreign policy of the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. I study various policy documents as well as influential articles and statements by policymakers to argue that while Trump represented a break with the bipartisan consensus around liberal hegemony with a turn toward nativism and the “America first” policy, there are also continuities among all three administrations.

In place of the standard self-representation of the United States as a force of liberty and benevolence in international relations, the Trump administration marked a turn toward what has been called “illiberal hegemony.” Unlike his Republican predecessors, Trump did not operate through covert dog-whistle forms of racism; he threw away the whistle and adopted overt forms of racism consistent with that of the far right Islamophobic network. Moreover, if the neocons were liberal interventionists on steroids, as Stephen Walt claimed, Trump was a neocon on steroids minus a liberal human rights cover. Liberal imperial racism was replaced by blatant racism for a period.

With the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020, liberal multicultural imperialism was back on the agenda. Whether packaged in liberal or right-wing terms, racist policies have been central to all administrations since 9/11.

September 11 and the Bush Doctrine

Almost immediately after 9/11, the Bush administration started to look for ways to attack Iraq. As Richard Clarke, then “counterterrorism czar,” reveals in his book Against All Enemies, President Bush took a few people aside and said to them:

I know you have a lot to do and all . . . but I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way.

This effort to target Iraq was part of the larger neocon strategy of destabilizing the Middle East. Destabilizing the region also meant transforming the cultural values of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to make them less hostile to Western powers, less supportive of the Palestinian cause, and more neoliberal. The Bush Doctrine, as it came to be known, laid out in the National Security Strategy (NSS) document released in 2002, enshrined neoconservative foreign policy.

The key element of the Bush Doctrine was that it proclaimed the United States’ unilateral right to wage preemptive war — to attack another sovereign nation not because it directly threatened the United States but because it could potentially pose a threat.

It gave the president discretion to determine what constituted a threat. Thus, if a nation “harbored terrorists,” developed weapons of mass destruction, or otherwise acted in ways that went against US interests, it would be subject to attack and invasion.

Another key aspect of the Bush Doctrine was the imperative to put down the rise of any rival that might challenge US hegemony. The NSS document states: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” This translated into US military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia, considered “hot spots” due to their oil and natural gas resources as well as their closeness to potential rivals like China, India, and Russia.

The US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to accomplish both aims: to put down potential threats and dissuade potential adversaries. The Bush administration had intended to carry out regime change in Iran and Syria after it did so in Iraq. With the region under its control, Washington could then dictate terms to the other powers that rely on Middle East oil, particularly China.

The leaked Wolfowitz report Defense Planning Guidance from the early 1990s — the report so roundly scorned by the policy establishment — was now being put into practice against the backdrop of the tragedy of 9/11. The neocons, as well as others sympathetic to their vision, understood the historic opportunity the 9/11 attacks presented. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security advisor and later secretary of state, put it succinctly when she told her senior national security staff shortly after 9/11 to think about how to “capitalize on these opportunities,” which were “shifting the tectonic plates in international politics,” to the advantage of the United States.

President George W. Bush, flanked by secretary of defense Donand Rumsfeld and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, delivers remarks on Iraq from the White House on May 1, 2006. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet capitalizing on this opportunity to realize the neocon vision also meant orchestrating an elaborate public relations campaign designed to elicit public support and stifle criticism. Enter the war on terror. Stephen Sheehi points out that the rhetorical response to 9/11 was worked out by a group of academics, journalists, policymakers, and experts who were invited to strategy sessions at the White House. As Wolfowitz explained, “The US government, especially the Pentagon, is incapable of producing the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11.”

Among those invited to help in generating the appropriate public response were Bernard Lewis, journalist and former Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria, and Johns Hopkins professor Fouad Ajami, as well as several neocons. Sheehi points to the different approaches Lewis and Zakaria took. He writes that if “Lewis locates the failures of Islam within the barbarism of the ‘Arab mind,’ then Zakaria locates the hate for the West in the failure of Arab political culture and economic organization.” Both are deeply racist positions.

Zakaria, a student of Samuel Huntington, argued that the United States should promote free markets and democracy in the Middle East, channeling his mentor’s modernization proclivities. For people like Zakaria, creating pliant, individualistic, consumerist neoliberal citizens in the MENA region is possibly as important as US control over oil. However, not unlike the Orientalists of the preceding century, Zakaria declared that Arabs have seen the “reverse of the historical process in the Western world, where liberalism produced democracy and democracy fuels liberalism. The Arab path has produced dictatorship, which has bred terrorism.”

This is a reworking of Oriental despotism built on the racist essentialization of the Arab other. This is Clinton-style liberal imperialism and liberal racism. It was made more palatable with women at the helm — Madeleine Albright as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice in the same role in Bush’s second term. It was now the burden of white and black women to bring civilization to the benighted masses.

The cultural shift that Zakaria and others were pushing was also designed to prevent insurgencies in the MENA region. Lewis took a position more closely aligned with the neocons. It is therefore not surprising that the neocons would turn to Lewis to provide the intellectual ballast needed to justify their foreign policy; as Danny Cooper puts it, the neocons “lionize Lewis.” According to journalist Bob Woodward, Lewis was “a Cheney favorite,” and Dick Cheney used Lewis’s academic credentials and credibility repeatedly to justify his own policy positions.

The “clash of civilizations” rhetoric therefore became dominant in the aftermath of 9/11 and was the ideological basis for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the targeting of the racial Muslim domestically. For a time it appeared that the neocons were unstoppable — but they overplayed their hand.

During its first term, the Bush administration built a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, rejecting criticisms from allies it derogatorily labeled “old Europe.” The Bush administration planned to carry out rolling regime changes throughout the region to install quisling governments obedient to Washington’s dictates. One senior British official close to the administration captured this imperial plan in a characteristically masculinist pose of the era: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

The war on Iraq, however, did not go the way the neocons wanted it to. Instead of greeting US forces as liberators, the Iraqi people resisted and rejected US hegemony. The plan to carry out regime change in Iran and Syria was halted; if anything, Iran was strengthened by US actions. Not only was the neocon vision of a new Middle East in jeopardy, but the United States had alienated its former allies in Europe and strengthened China (as well as Russia and Venezuela). All of this led retired General William Odom to call the Iraq War “the greatest strategic disaster in US history.”

This prompted an about-face in the Bush administration’s policies, which moved toward the use of more multilateral tactics. Additionally, the administration moved away from “hard” power (such as the use of coercion and bribery) and toward winning “hearts and minds,” as represented in the counterinsurgency strategy championed by its military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.

The military’s 2006 counterinsurgency manual laid out how soft power would be used in the battlefield. In the foreword, Petraeus noted that it had been twenty years since the US military had produced a field manual specifically on counterinsurgency and articulated this new doctrine as follows (emphasis added):

A counterinsurgency campaign is, as described in this manual, a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations conducted along multiple lines of operations. It requires Soldiers and Marines to employ a mix of familiar combat tasks and skills more often associated with nonmilitary agencies. The balance between them depends on the local situation. Achieving this balance is not easy. It requires leaders at all levels to adjust their approach constantly. They must ensure that their Soldiers and Marines are ready to be greeted with either a handshake or a hand grenade. . . . Soldiers and Marines are expected to be nation builders as well as warriors. They must be prepared to help reestablish institutions and local security forces and assist in rebuilding infrastructure and basic services. They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law. The list of such tasks is long; performing them involves extensive coordination and cooperation with many intergovernmental, host-nation, and international agencies.

In short, it wasn’t enough simply to kill and militarily defeat the enemy; soldiers needed to take part in building infrastructure, providing basic services, and being both “nation builders and warriors.” A coauthor of this manual wrote that counterinsurgency involved “collecting information about the whole society, understanding local conditions, monitoring public opinion, and analyzing social and political relationships and networks.”

To aid this effort, the following year the Pentagon recruited anthropologists through a $40 million program called the “Human Terrain System.” It sent these anthropologists to Iraq and Afghanistan to gather cultural information in order to better prosecute the war on terror. It stated a clear goal: “Empathy will become a weapon.”

Middle East studies scholar Laleh Khalili observes that the involvement of

liberal human rights practitioners in the drafting of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual meant that population-centric counterinsurgency [where the military would no longer be simply a tool of force but also one of modernization] is now considered a progressive form of warfare by many liberal interventionists in European and North American capitals.

Thus, even under the neocon regime, liberal interventionist approaches became necessary.

By the end of Bush’s second term, however, the failing occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq — as well as the economic crisis of 2007–2008, whose proportions were not seen since the Great Depression — meant that it was time for a change. The ruling elite also gave Obama its blessing, hoping to put a friendlier face on US imperialism. The other team of imperialists was ready with a plan to rehabilitate the global image of American empire and to secure its interests on the world stage.

Obama’s Liberal Imperialism

In January 2007, a leadership group on US-Muslim relations headed by Madeleine Albright, Richard Armitage (former deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush), several academics like Vali Nasr and Jessica Stern, and Muslim Americans like Daisy Khan and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf produced a report titled Changing Course: A New Direction for US Relations with the Muslim World. The report was produced with the assistance of various “good Muslims,” who had a seat at the table in the Obama administration.

It received high praise from political figures like Republican senator Dick Lugar and Democrats like congressman Howard Berman and Leon Panetta (soon to be CIA director and eventually secretary of defense), as well as former generals like Anthony Zinni. In its opening pages, it states that distrust of the United States in Muslim-majority countries was the product of “policies and actions — not a clash of civilizations.” It went on to argue that to defeat “violent extremists,” military force was necessary but not sufficient, and that the United States needed to forge “diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural initiatives.”

The report urged the US leadership to improve “mutual respect and understanding between Americans and Muslims,” promote better “governance and improve civic participation,” and help “catalyze job-creating growth” in Muslim-majority countries. This was a return to Clintonian liberal imperialism, with its emphasis on diplomacy and markets. The report’s call to action stated that it would be vital for the next president to talk about improving relations with Muslim-majority countries in his or her inaugural speech and to reaffirm the US “commitment to prohibit all forms of torture.”

Barack Obama was the ideal vehicle to model this new posture. Indeed, in his inaugural address, Obama did precisely as the policy group’s document suggested. In one of his first speeches abroad, in Cairo, Obama rejected the “clash of civilizations” argument, emphasizing the shared common history and aspirations of the East and West. Whereas the “clash” discourse sees the West and the world of Islam as mutually exclusive and as polar opposites, Obama emphasized “common principles.” He spoke of “civilization’s debt to Islam,” which “pav[ed] the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” and he acknowledged Muslims’ contributions to the development of science, medicine, navigation, architecture, calligraphy, and music.

This was no doubt a remarkable admission for an American president, but one that Obama clearly saw as vital to bolstering the United States’ badly damaged image in the “Muslim world.” Indeed, this speech marked a significant rhetorical shift from the Bush era. It was, however, consistent with the line argued by liberal imperialists. As Joseph Nye put it in Foreign Affairs:

The current struggle against Islamist terrorism is much less a clash of civilizations than an ideological struggle within Islam. The United States cannot win unless the Muslim mainstream wins. There is very little likelihood that people like Osama bin Laden can ever be won over with soft power: hard power is needed to deal with such cases. But there is enormous diversity of opinion in the Muslim world. Many Muslims disagree with American values as well as American policies, but that does not mean that they agree with bin Laden. The United States and its allies cannot defeat Islamist terrorism if the number of people the extremists are recruiting is larger than the number of extremists killed or deterred. Soft power is needed to reduce the extremists’ numbers and win the hearts and minds of the mainstream.

The need for a cultural shift articulated earlier now became central under the Obama administration. Nye acknowledged the diversity of opinion in Muslim-majority countries from the MENA region to South Asia and advocated the use of soft power to win hearts and minds. The Obama era therefore came to be characterized by a shift to liberal imperialism and liberal Islamophobia. The key characteristics of liberal Islamophobia in the Obama era were the rejection of the “clash of civilizations” thesis, the elevation of “good Muslims” both domestically and internationally, and a concomitant willingness to work with “moderate” (or pro-American) Islamists.

While Orientalists like Lewis and his neocon associates view the culture of Islam as backward and as instrumental in fomenting political violence, liberals differentiate between the mass of Muslims and “extremists.” They view the latter as driven by a totalitarian ideology. Liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler than conservative Islamophobia, but it is nonetheless imperial racism in that it takes for granted the “white man’s burden.”

It doesn’t occur to the likes of Nye, Albright, and Haass that it is for ordinary people in the Middle East and Central and South Asia to make decisions about their societies. This belief that the United States can and should shape the destinies of other nations is a central frame in the ideology of anti-Muslim racism. Self-determination does not enter their framework — and “benevolent supremacy” remains unquestioned.