Neoconservative Foreign Policy and Terrorism


In June 2006, the PEW Global Attitudes Project released its survey on U.S. global support. The result of that survey simply did not surprise those who pay attention to international affairs. During six years of the Bush administration, according to the survey, the global support for America has slipped significantly, either in America’s allies or non-allies. In Great Britain, America’s closest ally, favorable opinion of the US has decreased from 83 percent in 1999/2000 to 56 percent in 2006. While in France, it slipped from 62 percent to 39 percent.[1] Another survey by PEW Project in 2005, more interestingly, has shown that the source of anti-Americanism is President Bush and his foreign policy, rather than America in general. In Canada, 54 percent said Bush is the problem while 37 percent viewed America in General; while in Spain, it is 76 percent for Bush and 14 percent for America. Only in non-ally countries, such as Russia, that America outnumbered Bush.[2]

Some argue that the international disapproval has to do mainly with the elements of Bush’s foreign policy that many call “the Bush doctrine”. On the evening of January 29, 2002, for example, Bush outlined his vision for US foreign policy, telling the public that the war on terrorism had given the United States a new mission. America would hunt down terrorists, destroy regimes seeking weapons of mass destruction, and spread freedom throughout the world.[3] In subsequent documents, most notably, the National Security Strategy released in September 2002, the president outlined clearly his doctrine.

According to the doctrine, the United States would increasingly rely on unilateral power to achieve its aims in foreign affairs. First, the doctrine articulates a strong belief in the importance of a state's domestic regime in determining its foreign policy and the related judgment that it is an opportune time to transform international politics. Second, the United States would increasingly use preemptive force, rather than negotiation, to counter the threat from weapons of mass destruction and rogue regimes. Third, the United States would place a higher priority on promoting democracies and freedom around the world as a means of strengthening states whose weaknesses provided a harbor for terrorists. In a remark delivered in 2003 Bush said, “As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.”[4] Fourth, as both a cause and a summary of these beliefs, there is an overriding sense that peace and stability require the United States to assert its primacy in world politics.[5]

The doctrine did not come from thin air. Many believe that the very doctrine has been influenced by neoconservatism. Supporters and critics of the Bush administration alike regularly assert that its foreign policy is now under ‘neoconservative’ influence,[6] or that Bush has embraced the grand strategy of global hegemony and democracy promotion characteristically associated with neoconservatism.[7] Richard Perle happily asserts that George W. Bush is following neo-conservative ideas on “issue after issue” and William Kristol declares that Bush’s “is basically a neocon foreign policy”. From the other side, Bush’s critics claim that he is “the callow instrument of neo-conservative ideologues”[8] or, as Howard Dean said, “[President Bush is] an engaging person, but I think for some reason he's been captured by the neoconservatives around him.”

Few, indeed, argue that there is nothing really invented in either the Bush doctrine or neoconservative foreign policy. I, for my own part, share this argument. Bush or neocons simply articulates what America has ever embraced in its foreign policy. Those principles are not unique to Bush or neoconservatism. They become more obvious recently in the Bush administration only because the administration has to deal with a changing context of international balance of power. The disapproval of the rest of the world over Bush and its foreign policy is more a result of their own changes than the US’s. I think the appropriate words for those doctrines would be: neo-unilateralism and neo-Americanism, but keeping in mind that these concepts are necessarily neo versions of old stuffs.

In this paper, I would argue that, on the one hand, it is the nature of threats posed by terrorism that makes some old-fashion principles of foreign policies – American primacy, unilateralism, and pre-emptive attack – more obvious than others. Because the 9/11 terrorist attacks were so devastating and shocking, it does not matter whether the president is Bush or not; it probably would not have changed the course. He or she must have been back to these principles in such a situation. Bush who indeed promised to be more committed to the domestic issues soon turned his eyes to the international stage; and the old American dignity, accompanied by an economic and military power, led the administration to the those doctrines. At the mean time, I do argue that while the doctrine is conventionally “American”, it unfortunately does not help the administration to meet the challenges the terrorist groups have posed. The nature of Islamist terrorism requires all the “not”-Bush- doctrine’s elements: not military approach, not pre-emptive war, not unilateralism.

In presenting my argument, I would first deal with neoconservatism and the “historical” nature of US foreign policy. In these parts, I argue that while neoconservatism is different form other political strains, it is not really a new strain; and that the Bush doctrine has its historical roots. In the part that follows those parts, I would deal with the Islamist threat that has forced the Bush administration to wrongly pursue its neoconservative foreign policy and why it failed.


What is neoconservatism? “Even I, frequently referred to as the ‘godfather’ of all those neocons, have had my moments of wonderment,” said Irving Kristol. Despite its common use, it is seemingly not easy to figure out what this term really means. Irwin Stelzer, the editor of Neoconservatism (a selection of articles by neoconservative intellectuals published by Atlantic Books), has a good point when he said that neoconservative is not a movement and that the intellectuals known as “neocons” prize their individualism, not for grouping with others into an ideological monolith.[9] Because of this reason, here I would refer to two important intellectuals in the camp to learn their self-definition of neoconservatism. First, I will take the definition from Irving Kristol and second, from that of Francis Fukuyama, who ceased to be neoconservative and criticized neoconservatism.

Writing in a well known magazine of neoconservative, The Weekly Standard, Irving Kristol interprets some domestic policies that most neoconservatives agree, such as cutting tax rates in order to stimulate steady economic growth. Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on "the road to serfdom."
Kristol was surprised that neoconservative influence is mostly captured in the foreign policy issues. This is surprising, he said, since there is no set of neoconservative beliefs concerning foreign policy. They are only a set of attitudes derived from historical experience. First, he argues, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, arguing for their black and white world, statesmen should have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies. This is not as easy as it sounds, as the history of the Cold War revealed.

And above all, important to neoconservatism is the way it sees American military power as a destiny to lead the world. It is a destiny simply because no one planned it. American incomparable power comes just suddenly as a “bad luck” of the end of the Cold War. And power has its own destiny. Kristol believes, “With power come responsibilities, whether sought or not, whether welcome or not. And it is a fact that if you have the kind of power we now have, either you will find opportunities to use it, or the world will discover them for you.” [10]
In June 2006 Francis Fukuyama, a former prominent neoconservative, bitterly criticizes the current neoconservatism. He argues that the “true” neoconservatism – the one that the now neocons have departed from – has four principles common to the idea up through the end of the Cold War: first, a concern with democracy, human rights and, more generally, the internal politics of states; second, a belief that American power can be used for moral purposes; third, a skepticism about the ability of international law and institutions to solve serious security problems; and finally, a view that ambitious social engineering often leads to unexpected consequences and thereby undermines its own ends.[11]

Unlike what many see as Fukuyama departure’s from neoconservatism, Fukuyama did not really depart from it. He still shares their primacy of the ideas of democracy and human right – the American creeds, as other Americans do – and skepticism in international law. He indeed observes, “The problem with neoconservatism’s agenda lies not in its end, but rather in the overmilitarized means by which it has sought to accomplish them”.[12] Thus, their agenda is fine and the use of military is likewise no problem as long as not “over-militarized”.
Fukuyama’s main criticism departed mainly from the fourth point, the limits of any social engineering. He argues that Iraq War is against neoconservative pessimism in social engineering: it is impossible to bring democracy to the Middle East. Fukuyama might be right. One neoconservative wrote in the journal of Public Interest that the success in shaping a better and more harmonious society is dependant more on a fund of traditional orientations, or values, than any social engineering approach. Dan Bell was one of them. Fukuyama, however, missed that other Neoconservative like Irving Kristol, from the outset, has never been in full agreement at this point.[13]

To sum up, neoconservatives agree upon these three features of foreign policy: first, the universality of American’s creed (democracy and freedom); second, the use of American power to spread its creed; and unilateralism or skepticism in international and multilateral institutions. The Bush administration in many ways follows these principles in its War on terrorism.
The pre-emptive war, which many think as a new in the Bush administration, simply represents an implication of unilateralism. If America would ignore international institutions, it just makes sense to ignore any international norms for its own security in this anarchic world. In addition, the U.S.A is not the first one who use this measure to protect itself. Israel did it earlier when in 1981 it destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor located 30 kilometers South of Baghdad.[14]


If those are the principles neocons are promoting, we will find that those principles are not unique to neoconservative and the Bush doctrine. The history of American foreign policy shows the roots of those principles in American administrations and America as a nation over time.
One of the central principles the neocons assert is the American exceptionalism or the American’s creed. Historically, it refers to “the perception that the United States differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, and distinctive political and religious institutions.”[15] In 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously proclaimed in a sermon at sea that the settlers’ efforts would produce “a city on a hill,” an example to the world.[16]
From the very beginning of their national life, American professed a string belief in what they consider their destiny, to spread freedom and social justice. And to be a “Repudiation of the Europe is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.” Europe stood for war, poverty, and exploitation; America, for peace, opportunity, and democracy.[17]

Since then, the notion on “American exceptionalism” has taken on a variety of meanings. In foreign policy, American exceptionalism implies the need of American leaders to be guided by those values and to promote them all over the world. Almost all Americans share this idea, the only difference among them is whether America should do that simply by example or that America, with the exceptional power it has, should spread these values by force. The first is known as an isolationist approach and the second is the internationalist-activist approach.
In the foreign policy practice, however, there has never been really isolationist approach in American history. The US has been actively engaged in international affairs even before it become first class power on the world politics stage (by expanding its territory to the south and north west of the country) and has more actively been engaged since it rises as a great power in the 20th century.

The Monroe Doctrine is arguably an important early doctrine formulating that American exceptionalism in a formal way. In a message to the congress, Monroe set three essential points for his foreign policy. The first committed the United States to a policy of non-colonization by affirming that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects to future colonization by any European powers.” The second endorsed the policy of “hands off” while arguing that the monarchical system of the Old World “is essentially different from that of America”. The third embraced a policy of abstention from European political affairs.[18]

While the doctrine appears isolationist, as some would argue, it really did not work that way. It isolated Europe, but not America, from extending their “hand” and, at the same time it opened a way for the U.S.A to extend its power into the region’s affairs and to cultivate American style of governments, particularly in Latin America. Moreover, it indeed promoted unilateralism. As historian John J. Johnson observes, the doctrine, a unilateral presidential statement without standing under international law, committed the United States to do very little except to defend its own basic interest.[19]

Not long after the doctrine was promulgated in 1820s, driven by its “Manifest Destiny”, the U.S.A expanded itself in 1840s to 1880s within the continent westward. By the late 1890s the United States had became deeply involved in the Carribean, Pacific, and Asia in a surge of national feeling that became known as the “new Manifest Destiny.” With regard to these activities, Howard Jones observes, “Any US interest in the actual annexation of territory had given way to ‘informal empire’ or commercial penetration that led either to economic dominance without direct political controls or to acquisition of colonies having no prospect of statehood.”[20]

And then, the War with Spanish and the liberation of Cuba, the annexation Caribbean and Pacific islands, the colonization of the Philippines, the Open Door in China. The US foreign policy had never been really isolationist before the 20th century and continued to be active and even more active in the Roosevelt Era (1900-1913).

Other important historical foreign policy on which the Bush doctrine finds its ground is the missionary foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson. He was more willing than Bush to work to make the world safe for democracy. By the time his administration come to a close, the United States had delved deeply into East Asian and Latin American affairs, entered a world war that he called a crusade for democracy and, worth noting, engaged in two military interventionist episodes in Russia in 1918 and 1920.[21]

While some argue that the Wilson Era is an example of American liberalism, particularly with the president’s effort to establish League of Nations, I would argue the opposite. It is worth noting that while the president was willing to pursue his internationalist foreign policy, the U.S.A (as a nation re[resented in the Congress) indeed did not join the league. Returning from Europe, Wilson found unexpected bitter rejection. And similar to the Bush doctrine and neoconservative later articulated doctrine, America has never submitted itself to such an international body. America was (and is) very skeptical in the world government. On the League of Nations, Missouri Senator James Reed snidely remarked at in 1919, “Think of submitting questions involving the very life of the United States to a tribunal on which a nigger from Liberia, a nigger from Honduras, a nigger from India… each have votes equal to that of the great United States.”[22]

Unilateralism does have its root back to the earlier days of American empire. When the United Nations was established in 1945, the U.S.A quickly join the multilateral body simply because, unlike the League of Nation, it guarantees America’s veto right – a right the U.S.A can use to protect its interest. Otherwise, the United States would have never joined the body and that is why the U.S.A has vetoed the UN resolutions more than the rest of the five.

Another doctrine similar to the way the Bush doctrine believes in the use of American power to spread its creed all over the world is the Truman Doctrine. The logic of this doctrine was clear from its document: Greece was threatened by terrorist activities whose goal was imposing an authoritarian regime and the US had the willing and power to sustain it as a free nation. Truman rightly read American mind, “I do not believe that the American people and Congress wish to turn a deaf ear to the appeal of the Greek Government”.[23] Referring to the objectives of the United Nations that the United States has played an important role, he then said, “We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity.”

But why did the U.S.A. need to intervene and spend its budget for Greek and Turkey? The intervention to sustain those free nations is crucial because “…totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and the security of the United States.” The Bush doctrine is similar to this logic: Iraq was ruled by an authoritarian regime threatening “free” countries or free world and the US has willing and ability with its power to protect that free countries and to install freedom and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely there is a difference in the level of measures the U.S.A took and the threats these administrations were dealing with, but their very logics do not change: conceived terrorist and totalitarian regimes threat, on the one hand, and the American ability and unilateral intervention on the other.

Finally, if we are required to judge whether the Bush foreign policy represents the nation or not, we simply need to refer to the time when the invasion of Iraq started. Bush did not go war alone; he was fully supported by the nation represented in its Congress. At the time, Bush did receive very significant congressional approval. In the Senate, Bush won 77-23 votes; while in the Congress, he won similarly significant 296-133 votes. Ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, announced he would support Bush on Iraq, saying it is important for the country "to speak with one voice at this critical moment."[24] The then unpopular policy was very “popular” even among Democrats and did represent the nation. The differences between Bush and his opponents are seemingly not a substantial difference; but rather a political rhetoric to win the election.


The success and, alas, the failure of the presumed neoconservative foreign policy are the invasion of Iraq. One could argue that the Bush doctrine was actually be implemented successfully in Iraq when we look at it in the way Bush himself proudly boasted as America’s victory, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”[25] On the day of that remark, Bush could surely list America’s success in Iraq: (1) removing the evil regime; (2) bringing liberty to Iraqis; (3) and that no terrorist network gained weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more.

In September 2006, arguing for the “success” of the Bush doctrine in Iraq, Podhoretz, a prominent neoconservative intellectual, presents the following five somewhat similar arguments: first, Iraq has been liberated from one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East; second, three elections have been held; third, a decent constitution has been written; fourth, a government is in place; and fifth previously unimaginable liberties are being enjoyed. He bitterly asks, “By what bizarre calculus does all this add up to failure? And by what even stranger logic is failure to be read into the fact that the forces opposed to democratization are fighting back with all their might?”[26]

In an interesting piece of the New York Times, Johnson and Tierney argue about the perception of failures. Iraq could be like Vietnam and Somalia: both are commonly held as the most striking failures of the post-Cold-War era. They argue that America actually won Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive was a great blow for the Communist Vietcong in South Vietnam. Like Podhoretz who believe that the forces of anti-democracy are not fighting with their once full-might, Johnson and Tierney argue that America succeeded in killing almost half of Vietcong guerilla and it could never recovered. The war, however, was perceived as failure only because the way the media covered it and, most importantly, high expectation promised. From this analogy, the failure in Iraq is therefore only in the sense that Bush is too early to announce the mission accomplished.[27]

However, if we look at Iraq, surely it is not about perception. The only success is removing Saddam Hussein. The number of death is telling enough to say the opposite: 650,000 Iraqi lost their lives. Is that a fair price for the “conceived” freedom and liberty? While democratic system requires elections to be held; the elections held in Iraq are not necessarily a sign of democracy. What Podhoretz sees as a government of Iraq does not govern anything in the country. The administration of Nuri al-Maliki, with American forces’ help, even cannot well control Baghdad. And what Podhoretz sees as a democratic election is illusion.

More than a perception, the failure of the invasion can be seen from its failure of creating security in the region. The media reports have told us that Iraq now is more dangerous than ever before. In October and November 2006, the crisis has posed dangers to journalist, religious minorities, and women, in addition to the looming civil sectarian war in the country.[28]
Furthermore, the declassified intelligence report also concluded more seriously that “The war in Iraq has become a cause célèbre for Islamic extremists” and the document make these obvious points:

  • The increased role of Iraqis in opposing al-Qaida in Iraq might lead the terror group’s veteran foreign fighters to refocus their efforts outside that country.
  • While Iran and Syria are the most active state sponsors of terror, many other countries will be unable to prevent their resources from being exploited by terrorists.
  • The underlying factors that are fueling the spread of the extremist Muslim movement outweigh its vulnerabilities. These factors are entrenched grievances and a slow pace of reform in home countries, rising anti-U.S. sentiment and the Iraq war.
  • Groups “of all stripes” will increasingly use the Internet to communicate, train, recruit and obtain support. [29]

It is now obvious that the Bush doctrine was successful in changing the regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq; however, it indeed failed when dealing with the real threat: Islamist terrorism. Dealing with Saddam’s Iraq and Taliban’s Afghanistan, the doctrine can be implemented successfully. However, when it is confronted with non-state actors, terrorist organizations whose rationality are not like states, the doctrine got stuck and become a costly project. Why did the doctrines fail?

First, a pre-emptive war is only fightable against the states supporting terrorism, but not the terrorist organizations. The terrorist organizations spawn their cells beyond supporting states. They can grow within any state and then attack the state. They can even grow within America as a local grown terrorism. The cases of Adam Gadahn, John Walker Lindh , and Jose Padilla[30], Americans who voluntarily joined the terrorist network, are not necessarily fightable with a pre emptive-war. This kind of ideological international network lies not in the level of state and cannot be defeated by military forces.

Moreover, terrorist deadly violent attacks happen less frequently; they happen sometimes and the preparations for those attacks take longer time. In a terrorist attack, the preparations of the operations matters more and it is on that stage that the US should work. Before the September 11 attacks, the al-Qaeda’s members used the internet to email, research, and coordinate among its cells and used cell phones to prepare the attacks.[31] In such ways, pre-emptive military operation is necessarily not required in the first place; and other more subtle measures are required instead. The U.S.A military, unfortunately, knows how to destroy state governments and their armed forces, but it has been far less impressive in its use of such more subtle, non-military tools.[32]

The second doctrine of unilateral actions is, therefore, necessarily counter-productive in fighting a decentralized organization of terror with global network. With its “Islamic” identity, terrorist groups are united in a one “nation”, ummah, which goes beyond the secular concept of nationalism. Their boundary is not the “state”, but rather their very identity as Muslims — regardless what nation-state they live in. A Jordanian al-Zarqawi was as at home as Saddam Hussein in Iraq because Iraq is the land of any Muslim. In South Asia, the Pakistani Pastuns and Afghan Pastuns are “Muslim Pastuns” who work together in jihad against the infidels.[33]

London and Bali Bombings are excellent examples for this case. Unlike Palestinian suicide bombers crossing into Israel, Chechen rebels in Russia, or the 9/11 hijackers attacking the United States, these terrorists attack their own country. In the London bombing, the terrorists were British.[34] In the Bali bombings, the terrorist are Indonesians.[35] Those bombings were possible only because they perceived the United Kingdoms and Indonesia as other entities they do not really belong to. They believed in a belonging to an identity higher and broader than those national identities: ummah, the broader Islamic identity. Dealing with enemy without state boundary requires working with as many as possible countries rather than working unilaterally.

Finally, the Middle East or Islamic world, where the terrorists against America mostly come from, is more than geographical concept void of ideology and civilization. As Doran argues, it is a region in its own war of civilization.[36] With or without American invasion to Iraq, it had already had its own war: colonialism, socialism, modernity, secularization, religious and class conflicts. As Fuller observes, some in the West just ignore those Muslim’s problems and insist Muslims to face reality and get on with it. The U.S. tendency to disregard popular Muslim concerns as Washington cooperates with oppressive regimes fosters environment in which acts of terrorism become thinkable.[37]

Even without the conceived unjust invasion of Iraq, to export American creeds to that world was already difficult because the feeling of anti-Americanism had pervaded among Arabs for The US’s perceived blind support for Israel. The Arab regime might have close relations with the U.S.A, but Arabs have never found America as a sincere friend. To put it in Fareed Zakaria’s phrase, “Most Americans think that Arabs should be grateful for our role in the Gulf War, for we saved Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Most Arabs think that we saved Kuwaiti and Saudi royal families. [It is a] big difference.”[38]

Thus, none of the elements of the Bush doctrine meets the required foreign policy in dealing with Islamist terrorism and its threats. The Billion dollars the administration has spent has brought but violence, unsecured Iraq that become the haven for a growing number of fundamentalist, and civil war.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, human lives seem unworthy to pay the implementation of unilateral action and regime change project of the doctrine. So high is the bid for implementing the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war and nation building that even Condoleezza Rice, often credited with writing the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, made clear as early as in Summer 2003 that the United States would ‘‘never want to do another Iraq.”[39]


The Bush doctrine, whether influenced by neoconservatism or not, shares some points with the strain, particularly in their belief in the universality of American’s creed, the unilateralism and skepticism in international body, and the possible use of American extra ordinary force to export democracy and regime change. Bush and the neoconservative, in this sense, are in the same boat.

However, these ideas indeed are not newly invented by either Bush or neoconservative; they have deep roots in the history American foreign policy. Those are necessarily a reemergence of principles previously appeared in, most notably, the Monroe Doctrine, the missionary foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, and the Truman Doctrine.

The problem in the Bush doctrine and the neoconservative approach is that they do not meet the nature of terrorist threat the U.S. now is faced with. While terrorism is done by non state actors, pre-emptive war only works when dealing with other state actors posing the danger to America’s interest. While terrorist rely much on an international network beyond national boundaries, the Bush doctrine exactly rejects multinational institution that could provide parallel international network required. Instead of persuading the cooperation from the nations, Bush speaks to the rest of the World with statements that many perceive as an arrogant call, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[40]

At least two things are important to consider. First, to be respected again by international community, the United States needs to fully embrace multilateralism. It will be wise to use the power America has to lead the world in a multilateral way rather than acting unilaterally. Most of the world still respects the United States as a nation. When the source of anti-Americanism is the unilateral foreign policy, it is then the time to stop it. Second, Bush and America are certainly right that democracy can make the world peace. Most of the world love democracy America is fighting for. But promoting democracy should be in a democratic way. It doesn’t make any sense that the Bush administration tries to plant democracy through military power. Democracy is a political tool to solve power conflicts in a peaceful and civilized way; why did we use military power to implement it?


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