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1.5  9/11 & Bush's Unilateralism

Bernard Lewis’ “Clash of Civilization” Thesis

1 December 2016

9/11 & Bush Doctrine of Preventive War


On September 11, 2001, the neocons’ wish for a catalytic event of ‘Pearl Harbour’ proportion came true when the US mainland was hit by a terror attack for the first time in history since independence. The catastrophic 9/11 New York attack on the Twin Towers transformed Bush Junior from a reluctant internationalist to a fervent internationalist. The neocons seized the opportunities to construct an American nationalism fomented by social solidarity and patriotism.


Military actions started with the invasion of Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 attack, and to remove the Taliban regime for harbouring them. Operation “Enduring Freedom” began on October 7, 2001, with the US leading a multinational coalition. The Taliban government was quickly brought down but Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, could not be found.


After declaring victory in his 2002 State of the Union address, written by neoconservative David Frum, Junior Bush declared a “War on Terror” that would be undertaken on domestic and international fronts. It was at this point that Junior Bush turned his attention to Iraq. In his address, he spoke of an axis of evil consisting of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. In particular Iraq was singled out as the principal American enemy because Saddam Hussein’s regime was said to be actively supporting terrorists and had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened regional and global peace and stability. He also asserted US’ right to a “preventive war” to thwart such threats proactively and unilaterally. These principles, which became known as the Bush doctrine, were basically a rehash of the earlier Wolfowitz Doctrine. Vice President Cheney, on the other hand, espoused his “one percent doctrine” which states that even if there was only a 1% chance that a regime possessed WMDs, US was justified in taking them out.


Moreover, the National Security Strategy (NSS) also proclaimed US’ intention to maintain its hegemony through the threat or use of military force, the dimension of power in which it reigns supreme. In its official rhetoric, the 2002 NSS states that "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the US."[1]


John Ikenberry, a renowned international affairs specialist, described the declaration as a "grand strategy [that] begins with a fundamental commitment to maintaining a unipolar world in which the US has no peer competitor," a condition that is to be "permanent [so] that no state or coalition could ever challenge [the US] as global leader, protector, and enforcer."[2]


Moreover, as pointed out by Noam Chomsky, preemptive war (i.e. the use of force to eliminate an impending threat) might fall within the framework of international law but preventive war (i.e. the use of force to eliminate an imagined or invented threat) falls within the category of war crimes.[3]


Arthur Schlesinger, a prominent historian and Kennedy adviser wrote that the president has adopted a policy of "anticipatory self-defense" that is alarmingly similar to the policy that imperial Japan employed at Pearl Harbour. As a result of a combination of US’ militarism, its disregard of international laws, and its increasing preference for unilateralism over multilateralism, the global wave of sympathy for the US after 9/11 had given way instead to a global wave of hatred.  Even in friendly countries, it was said that Bush was regarded as a greater threat to peace than Saddam Hussein was.[4] International law specialist Richard Falk went as far as denouncing Iraq war as a "crime against peace” similar to those committed by the Nazi Germans.[5]


Despite rising voices of objection from various domestic and international quarters, the Junior Bush administration was undeterred and embarked on a massive propaganda campaign to strengthen the case for invasion of Iraq. Dissenting voices domestically were promptly labelled as being unpatriotic and suppressed. Repressive legislation, most notably the 2001 Patriot Act and 2002 Homeland Security Act, were enacted with scarcely any opposition despite the obvious infringements of civil rights by these laws. Even liberals, who had formerly been critical of US imperialist practices, backed the administration in launching its war against terror. The media and the political parties soon fell into line.


On March 19, 2003, despite repeated failures to uncover any evidence of Iraq possessing any WMDs or having links with al Qaeda and against the unprecedented widespread objections of the international community, the invasion of Iraq began with a decapitation air strike against the Iraqi leadership. Ground war followed the next day with troops from the “coalition of the willing” comprising mainly of the US forces with assistance from Britain and Australia, a far cry from the multinational coalition mustered by Senior Bush for the 1991 Gulf War. By April 9, Baghdad fell. After an extensive search failed to uncover any WMDs, the mission in Iraq was redefined as an effort to bring democracy to Iraq and to liberate the Iraqi from the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein. In fact, by his second term, Wilsonian rhetoric of universality of democracy and freedom had risen to the top Junior Bush’s agenda. Outwardly, Wilsonian idealism became the guiding principle of Junior Bush’s and the neocons’ imperial grand strategy. Interventions by American leaders, who are good, noble and with elevated ideals, are extolled as naturally righteous in intent even if the execution is occasionally clumsy and the interventions are unwelcomed by the people of the receiving states.[6]


Critics of Bush’s new democracy campaign, however, were quick to point out the dualism in US history of continuing support for brutal and repressive regimes while attempting to spread democracy at the same time. Examples of past dictators and authoritarians who consistently infringed human rights but received strong US support until they were overthrown from within include Ferdinand Marcos of Philippines, "Baby Doc" Duvalier of Haiti, and Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania.[7]


In countries where the US sought to implant democracy, Washington would instigate coups by groups it controlled but would not support a popular rebellion that would not have left the US in charge. The case of President Reagan State Department's Democracy Enhancement projects in Latin America is instructive. To maintain basic order and to avoid populist-based change, the administration allowed only "limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the US has long been allied." The option of allowing the population a meaningful voice in running their own affairs was not an alternative.[8] 


US’ sudden concern with democracy and human rights in Iraq was particularly perplexing considering that, since the Reagan years, Washington had supported Saddam Hussein in various ways. Over the course of the 1980 Iran War lasting seven years, for example, US provided billions of dollars of military support and surveillance information to Saddam, including materials to help Iraq develop chemical and biological weapons which Saddam used both against Iran during the war and in Iraq against Kurdish civilians in 1987 and 1988. In 1991, at the end of Desert Storm, US also failed to support the Iraqi Shias who revolted in southern Iraq. In the end, Saddam Hussein was allowed to crush the rebellion, killing thousands, because “whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country's stability than did those who have suffered his repression." By 2002, however, priorities of the US have shifted and Saddam’s 1991 genocidal suppression of the Shias uprising as well as the chemical and biological weapons which the US helped Saddam to develop and amassed became moral grounds for Junior Bush’s invasion of Iraq and elimination of Saddam.[9]


In 2006, Francis Fukuyama abandoned his neoconservative persuasion in his book “After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads” and condemned the use of morality and ideology in foreign policy.[10] He asserts that America has no remaining moral credibility in the Middle East as a result of past and present actions and that lack of credibility has not only lowered American international standing but also led to suspicion that the efforts to democratize Iraq and then Middle East are a veil for imperialism and a means to control access to the oil reserves of the Middle East.


Why the Militarism & Iraq?


Unlike the war in Afghanistan, which was a “war of necessity” because of the Taliban regime’s and Al Qaeda involvement in the 9/11 attack, Iraq, in contrast, was a “war of choice.” There was no need to but they went ahead anyway against all objections.


To the neocons, the surge in nationalism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks offered an excellent opportunity to institutionalize a radical restructuring of domestic society that will roll back the progressive reforms of a century. Noam Chomsky, for example, draws parallels between Reagan’s and Junior Bush’s wars against ‘evil’ perpetrated by Soviet Union in the case of former and by Iraq the latter.  In 1981, the Reagan administration combined a vast increase in military spending with tax cuts, calculating "that growing hysteria over the ensuing deficit would create powerful pressures to cut federal [social] spending, and thus, perhaps, enable the Administration to accomplish its goal of rolling back the New Deal." Junior Bush followed the pattern with tax cuts overwhelmingly benefiting the very rich, and "the biggest surge in federal spending in twenty years," largely military, hence benefiting indirectly the military-industrial complex.[11] Paul Krugman contends that Republicans were "determined to use terrorism as an excuse to pursue a radical right-wing agenda," literally before the dust had settled over the World Trade Center ruins.[12] Junior Bush’s targets of scaling back were not only the Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, but the whole range of programs of the past century that were developed to protect the population from the ravages of private power.[13]


But why Iraq? Three theories are proffered below and they are not mutually exclusive.


First, the Iraq War was the first undertaken to not only demonstrate the new US’ imperial grand strategy of preventive war created by the neocons for Junior Bush but also to establish it as a new norm in the post-cold war unipolar world. After Iraq, peoples and regimes would have to change the way they see the world "from a view based on the United Nations and international law to one based on an identification" with Washington's agenda.[14]


Next, Iraq was to be a vital strategic beachhead where military bases could be established[15] and from where US could project its force into Eastern Europe, part of the Mackinder’s Heartland of Eurasia landmass, thus separating Western Europe from Russia and China.[16] Coupled with its ongoing efforts to step up influence in Central Asia,[17] the US would then be in a geostrategic position to control the whole globe militarily and, through oil, economically. Iraq is thus an important part of US overall response to potential challenge from the EU and, more importantly, from China whose growing economic and military might constitutes, in the views of neocons, a serious threat to the US hegemony. In short, Iraq was to be the first step of neocons’ plan for total domination of the globe.[18]


Finally, Iraq War could also have been motivated by the “Clash of Civilization” theory made popular by the Harvard political science professor Samuel Huntington’s book. The term, however, was borrowed from a renowned scholar on Middle East, Bernard Lewis, who was an English historian with a seven-decade career in the study of Middle East particularly of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. He left UK in 1974 for a prestigious position at Princeton University where he stayed for more than 35 years. After he became an American citizen in 1982, he was catapulted into the country’s corridors of power through his friendship with a senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson who was not only a fierce anti-communist and an opponent of détente but also a leading defender of Israel in the US Senate and had close ties to the Jewish community. It was then that Lewis began to exert a powerful intellectual influence on the burgeoning neoconservative movement.


Bernard Lewis’ “Clash of Civilization” Thesis

Lewis first coined the term “clash of civilization” to describe the headlong centuries-old struggle between Muslim and Christian worlds. According to him, the root of the confrontation can be traced to the Christians and Muslims mutual belief that they and only they are the recipients of God's final word and that they exclusively are obligated to share the message with the rest of humanity. This competition to play the same role inevitably led to a three-stage clash of rival civilizations. The first stage of jihad involves a holy war to end infidel rule in Islamic lands. That had been completed with the states formerly ruled by Russians, Frenchmen and Englishmen being ruled now by people of their own land. The second stage of the clash is to recover lost lands of Islam which include countries like Israel and Spain that were once ruled by Muslims but no longer are. The third phase is extending Islamic rule to the whole world through a global jihad. To Lewis, 9/11 is the initiation of this final phase of the clash of the two civilizations.[19]


Lewis’s theory enthralled many influential policymakers serving in the administration of Junior Bush. In addition to having personal meetings with key decision makers like Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Lewis was also invited as a guest speaker in closed meeting at the White House, only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, where he met military aides and staff members of the National Security Council and discussed the failures of contemporary Arab and Muslim societies and the origins of the Muslim world's anti-Americanism.[20]


Claiming that 9/11 was “the opening salvo of the final battle”, Lewis asserted the need for a decisive show of American strength in the Arab world and the most obvious place to seize the offensive and end the age-old struggle was in the heart of the Arab world, Iraq.[21] Specifically, he called for a US military invasion to seed democracy in Iraq. In 2002, Lewis published his views in in Wall Street Journal op-eds entitled “A War of Resolve” and “Time for Toppling” in which he predicted scenes of rejoicing in Iraq should US succeed in overthrowing the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.[22]


Lewis advice resulted in a fundamental change in the administration’s thinking about Arab regimes and the use of US military power. His credentials as the "doyen of Middle Eastern studies” also gave "intellectual credence” to Bush administration's Middle East policies. Accordingly, US foreign policy in the old-rich Arab region shifted from the classic realist approach of promoting stability above all, which often entails befriending tyrants, to fostering democracy through the use of military force.[23]


Dubbed the “Lewis Doctrine”, his views provided the intellectual scaffolding for the supremacist belief that something was inherently very wrong with Arab societies and the Arab malaise can be eradicated if only American democracy takes root, never mind whether US democratic values could be simply wedded with Arabic cultures.


Lewis’ call for invasion of Iraq was justification enough for neocons yearning for a regime change in Iraq by force.[24] Iraq was to be a neoconservative imperial experimental and demonstration project reconstructed along the lines pioneered in Japan and Germany after the Second World War. The ultimate aim was to create a wealthy consumerist society which could then serve as a model to wean the Islamic world away from its own brands of fundamentalism and its anti-democratic ways leading to eventual democratization of the region.[25]


Lewis’ reading of the situation and his calls for military actions soon came under attacks. Nader Hashemi, a Middle East expert at the University of Denver, questioned Lewis' understanding of the situation. To him, Lewis is a medieval orientalist who “assumes there is a fossilized Muslim core that determines the way Muslims will always behave but he ignores changing social conditions in the Middle East.” He thus faults Lewis for erroneously interpreting contemporary Islamic politics using a framework developed based on events that took place half a millennium earlier.[26]


Another critic, Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent at the National Journal and author of the highly critical 2004 article "Bernard Lewis Revisited," pointed out that bin Laden was more an aberrant extremist than a mainstream expression of Muslim frustration. Before 9/11, he was still seen as a marginal figure by much of the Arab establishment. All the US had to do therefore was just to remove him and wipe out Al Qaeda rather than taking on the entire Arab world. Moreover, to most Arabs, the Crusades were ancient history that had little relation to modern Arab anger and frustration which in fact had been welling up only over more recent developments including “the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by which the British and French agreed to divide up the Arabic-speaking land held by the Ottoman Empire after World War I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment for most of the 20th century; the UN-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo.”


The 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement was particularly hated because it has become the label for the whole era in which outside powers imposed their will, drew borders and installed client local leaderships, playing divide-and-rule with the "natives", and beggar-my-neighbour with their colonial rivals. As a result of the clandestine colonial carve-ups, Middle East today inherited an order that sees a variety of states whose borders were generally drawn with little regard for ethnic, tribal, religious or linguistic considerations. There is a natural tendency for such countries, each often constituted by a patchwork of minorities, to fall apart unless held together by the iron grip of a strongman or a powerful central government.[27]


Iraq is a good case in point. Its boundaries were artificially set by the British to facilitate its control over sites of Iraqi oil reserves. As a result, modern day Iraq is inhabited by not only Sunni and Shia Muslims but also a non-Arab ethnic group of Indo-European ancestry called the Kurds, whose culture and history is separate from both the Sunnis and the Shias. This artificial grouping of three distinct ethnic sects in the same country deepened ethnic differences. Even after Iraq became a sovereign state in 1932, it continued to suffer from political unrest caused by opposition to British control and conflict between the three ethnic sects— Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. It was only in the 1979 that Saddam Hussein succeeded in eliminating all opposition and establishing complete control over Iraq. From the 1980s, using Iraq’s valuable oil wealth, Saddam strengthened his army and implement economic development programs that improved health, education, agriculture, and housing. These programs helped many Iraqis to rise to middle-class status and created popular support for Saddam Hussein’s regime. Despite his brutality, Saddam also succeeded in uniting Iraq’s three disparate ethics groups thus creating stability and some measure of national identity for Iraq.[28]


Hence, the growing radicalism in the Middle East is more a reaction to and the result of geopolitical meddling by the Western powers since the early 20th century, rather than a response to centuries-old struggles between Muslim and Christian worlds, as claimed by Lewis. Bin Laden phenomenon is more a reaction against corrupt tyrannies like Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, and ultimately against the US for its support of those regimes. The solution to peace in the Middle East is therefore the rediscovery of more tolerant Islam, not the forceful imposition of Western style democracy as Lewis had advocated.[29]


Unwittingly, the invasion of Iraq ended up transforming the bin Laden threat into something grander than it really was and making it easier for terrorist groups to recruit more radicals to their cause. As a result, acts of terrorism globally have been on the rise. Furthermore, the Iraq war caused precious resources to be diverted from the Afghanistan front. The distractions allowed Taliban and al Qaeda to regroup and make a comeback.

Bush also made the mistakes of not committing enough troops to Iraq as dictated by Powell Doctrine. There were enough troops to win the war but not enough to keep the peace. As the old despotism collapsed, radical faith—among the Sunnis as well as the Shiites—rose to fill the void. The problem is further compounded by the ignorance of the officials appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) created in April 2003 by the Bush administration to govern Iraq. Many of the appointees lacked any expertise regarding Iraqi or Middle Eastern tribal politics. The CPA transferred governing authority to an interim Iraqi president in June 2004 amid rising insurgency.  By 2006, a brutal civil war had erupted, fuelled by a Sunni insurgency, the disbanding of the Iraqi military, and the emergence of al Qaeda in Iraq. American troops withdrew only in 2011. The rising violence prompted Bush to announce a troop surge in January 2007. In 2009, after taking over from Bush, Obama announced that the US combat forces in Iraq would be withdrawn by August 31, 2010. The last 500 of US soldiers left Iraq in December 2011. Iraqi insurgency surge in the aftermath of US troop withdrawal. By 2014, a radical Sunni militant group known as the ISIS had grown and gained dominance when it drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities and proclaimed itself a worldwide caliphate while referring to itself as the Islamic State.[30] It was only in July 2017 that Iraqi Shia paramilitary forces succeeded in recapturing Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. This was the turning point and by October 2017, Tal Afar and Hawija also fell.


All in all, Bush’s “war of choice” in Iraq caused 3,000 US soldiers to perish by 2007. The number of Iraqis who died during the conflict is uncertain. One estimate put the total number of Iraqis killed at 650,000 in the period 2003 – 2007 when the main phase of fighting was being carried out.[31] Moreover, the war resulted in 2 million Iraqis displaced while 10 million had no access to clean water.[32] This is in addition to the fact that the sanctions regime imposed by the US and UK since 1989 had already driven the country to the level of bare survival in the twelve years before the onset of Junior Bush’s Iraq War. UNICEF's 2003 Report on the State of the World's Children, for example, contends that "Iraq's regression over the past decade is by far the most severe of the 193 countries surveyed," with the child death rate, "the best single indicator of child welfare," increasing from 50 to 133 per 1,000 live births, placing Iraq below every country outside Africa apart from Cambodia and Afghanistan. Two hawkish military analysts also observed that economic sanctions may well have been the cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history, in the hundreds of thousands according to conservative estimates.[33]


Bush administration’s problem was not just the war fought in two fronts in Middle East as well as the global “War on Terror”. Back home, it made no effort to stop the deindustrialization and financialization that had been set in motion in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. By 2008, the free wheeling and dealing in the subprime financial derivative market encouraged by the lax regulatory environment triggered the Global Financial Crisis just as Bush was finishing his second term in office. As the crisis spread to the real economy, unemployment shot up while households lost their savings invested in supposedly triple-A financial assets. Meanwhile, inequality was also on the rise and so was economic hardship for the majority of the American families. Despite the high growth especially in the late 1990s, the median male wage in 2000 was still below the 1979 level even though productivity was 45 percent higher, one sign that the boom had benefited the capital disproportionately. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration not only seized the opportunity to cut all kinds of programmes for the poor in the name of sacrifice for a national cause but also implemented tax-cut programme that grossly favoured the wealthiest 1% of the population in the name of stimulating the economy. His policies further worsened inequality in the US which was already highest among the developed nations in the West.


Not surprisingly, Junior Bush finished his second term with one of the lowest ratings in history.


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[1] White House. (2002); Quoted in Noam Chomsky. (2003). pp 8.

[2] Quoted in Noam Chomsky. (2003).

[3] Quoted in Noam Chomsky. (2003). pp 8

[4] See Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (2003); Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. (2003). pp 8.

[5] See Falk, Richard. (2003). Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. (2003). pp 9.

[6] See Chomsky (2003) citing Wilson, Woodrow. (1901).

[7] See my Deterring Democracy, op. cit., pp. 50–51, 236ff., and 278ff. Task Force on US-Korea Policy, “The Nuclear Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: Avoiding the Road to Perdition,” Current History 102, no. 663 (April 2003): pp. 152ff. For material on Duvalier, see my Year 501, op. cit., chapter 8, sec. 4.

[8] Carothers in Exporting Democracy, op. cit., and In the Name of Democracy, op. cit. On the “yearning for democracy” in the Reagan years, see Neil A. Lewis, “What Can the U.S. Really Do About Haiti?,” New York Times, Sunday, 6 December 1987, sec. 4 (Week in Review), p. 2. For more details, see my Necessary Illusions, op. cit., p. 49. Quoted in Chomsky, Noam. (2003). Pg. 75.

[9] Thomas L. Friedman, “NATO Tries to Ease Security Concerns in Eastern Europe,” New York Times, 7 June 1991, sec. A, p. 1. Alan Cowell, “Kurds Assert Few Outside Iraq Wanted Them to Win,” New York Times, 11 April 1991, sec. A, p. 11. Friedman, “Because We Could,” New York Times, 4 June 2003, sec. A, p. 31.

[10] See Fukuyama, Francis. (2006).

[11] See Chomsky, Noam. (2003). pp 65.

[12] See Paul Krugman. (2001).

[13] See Krugman, Paul. (2003).

[14] See Chomsky, Noam. (2003). pp 13.

[15] See Shanker, Thom & Schmitt, Eric. (2003).

[16] See Harvey D. (2003).

[17] US established a bipartisan and bicameral Congressional Silk Road Caucus in fall 2001 with the stated objective “to help connect Central and South Asia with the US, in an effort to encourage economic, cultural, and political exchange with the region.” See Mark Stein, Mark. (2004); See Cornell, Svante E. & Spector, Regine A. (2004).

[18] Armstrong, D., (2002). pp 76-83.

[19] See Berman, Daphna. (2011).

[20] See Berman, Daphna. (2011).

[21] See Hirsh, Michael. (2005).

[22] See Lewis, Bernard. (2002a); Lewis, Bernard. (2002b).

[23] See Peter Waldman. (2004). “A Historian’s Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight.” Wall Street Journal. February 3, 2004.

[24] See Heilbrunn, Jacob. (___)

[25] See Harvey D. (2003).

[26] See Berman, Daphna. (2011).

[27] See Muir, Jim. (2016).

[28] See Miller, Debra. (2003).

[29] See Hirsh, Michael. (2004).

[30] See Carter, Chelsea J. et al. (2014).

[31] See Encyclopedia Britannica. “Iraq War 2003 – 2011”.

[32] See Dodds, Klaus. (2007).

[33] Frances Williams, “Child Death Rate in Iraq Trebles,” Financial Times (London), 12 December 2002, International Economy section, p. 9. John Mueller and Karl Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 3 (May–June 1999).

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