How US policy failure post-9/11 undermined international order

The US once enjoyed the esteemed position of being the 'city on the hill', a beacon of hope and an example to the rest of the world. Post-9/11, however, the superpower's conduct in the Middle East has left its reputation tarnished.

Anti-government protesters celebrate on a tank in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on the first full day of the square's occupation in January 2011.
Anti-government protesters celebrate on a tank in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on the first full day of the square's occupation in January 2011. Credit: James May/Alamy.

Democracy has always been America’s ideology. The United States has oscillated between seeing itself as a model for others to admire and emulate – the ‘city on the hill’ in the words of John Winthrop and a crusader spreading democracy abroad according to Woodrow Wilson.

The US vision of world order, as Henry Kissinger notes, is born of the conviction of the universal applicability of democracy. This vision sees peace preserved through a system of states, with governments elected by their peoples, respecting each other’s sovereignty, trading freely with each other, and abiding by agreed rules.

America’s ability to lead and shape ‘world order’ has stemmed from its power, with the greatest military in the world and the largest economy; and its legitimacy, the recognised success of its democratic model in enabling its citizens to live freely and flourish, respecting the rights of all, a beacon of hope for others.

The end of the Cold War was portrayed as a victory of liberal democracy and free markets over communism. Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history‘. It was liberal democracy from here on out.

During the 1990s, dictatorships were replaced by democracies. Civil wars ended in negotiated settlements, supported by peacekeeping forces approved by an activist and united UN Security Council.

Under America’s leadership, there was a strengthening of the rules-based international order conceived in the aftermath of the Second World War to manage competition between the great powers so as to prevent a further devastating conflict, with countries increasingly committing to adhere to norms (such as multilateralism), to abide by rules (enshrined in international law), and to work through institutions (such as the United Nations).

Then came 9/11.

President Bush vowed to hunt down the terrorists and those who harboured them. The world rallied around the US. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history: ‘An attack on one is an attack on all.’

But Bush then went further. He determined that the US would act pre-emptively – and unilaterally – to prevent terrorists from gaining weapons of mass destruction.

He also set out his Freedom Agenda to address the poverty, resentment, and oppression of peoples in the Middle East brought about not by their religion but by their autocratic leaders whose political and economic doctrines took their countries down the road to ruin. Democracy was the path to dignity. America’s liberty depended on the liberty of others – because repressive states produced terrorists. Spreading democracy became a national security imperative to remove the conditions that foster terrorism.

The cornerstone of his Freedom Agenda was the transformation of Iraq into a democracy. Bush declared:

‘Iraqi democracy will succeed – and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran – that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.’

The Economist wondered at the time whether Bush would be viewed in the future ‘as a visionary who helped bring democracy to the Middle East or as a case study in American hubris’.

The US and the UK embarked on Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, without an explicit UN Security Council resolution, based on intelligence – that proved to be faulty – that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared that the invasion contravened the UN Charter – and hence was illegal.

The US-led Coalition dissolved the Baath party and dismissed the security forces so as to put the country on new foundations. (The rebuilding of Germany and Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War were cited as the analogues.) But these policies collapsed the state, leading to Iraq’s descent into civil war.

In among the chaos, al-Qaeda took root in Iraq – and Iran supported Shia militias. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed and millions displaced from their homes.

In its pursuit of democracy and freedom abroad, America showed contempt for the values it espoused. ‘Enhanced interrogation’, ‘extraordinary rendition‘, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘targeted killings’ became part of the lexicon of the Global War on Terror, masking torture, abduction and detention without due process, civilian casualties and the assassination of suspected terrorists.

In a final gamble to bring violence in Iraq under control, President George W. Bush surged 25,000 extra forces in 2007. With a new commander on the ground (General Petraeus) and a new focus in protecting the Iraq people, the US finally found the right leadership and strategy. Sunni tribes, disgusted by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and realising they were losing the civil war to the Shia militias, turned against AQI in the Awakening and realigned with the US. Working alongside US forces, the Iraqi security forces grew in capability and confidence. With the Shia populace better protected, the Shia militias lost the support of the population and demobilised. The violence dramatically declined. The state was strengthened, all groups were brought into the political process, and irreconcilable extremists were captured or killed.

Bush bequeathed Obama a country at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a tarnished image abroad, and a financial crisis at home.

Obama was determined to focus on domestic policy and nation building at home. But he also set out to repair America’s reputation internationally.

In his speech in Cairo in June 2009 he called for a new beginning between the US and the Muslim world based on mutual interest and respect. He noted that US democracy promotion had got a bad name due to the Iraq war and said that America should not impose its system on others. He promised to support the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. And he committed to ending the Iraq war, his opposition to which had led him to the White House.

In 2010, Iraqis fought a closely contested election in which, for the first time, a coalition came together on a platform of ending sectarianism and introducing equal rights for all citizens. This coalition, Iraqiyya, won the most seats in the election.

Yet despite not winning the elections, the incumbent Nuri al-Maliki, got a second term as prime minister. The Americans backed him, convinced that he was ‘our man’ and would give the US a follow-on security agreement to keep a contingent of US forces in Iraq post 2011 – and that maintaining the status quo was the quickest way to ensure the government in Iraq would be formed ahead of US mid-term elections that November. But it was the Iranians who succeeded in brokering the formation of the new government, supporting Maliki as they understood he was despised in the region and would prevent Iraq from being integrated into the Arab world – and conditioned on Maliki ensuring all US troops be withdrawn from Iraq in 2011.

Secure in his seat for a second term as Prime Minister, Maliki accused Sunni politicians of terrorism and drove them out of the political process; he reneged on his promises to tribal leaders who had fought against al-Qaeda in Iraq; he arrested Sunnis en masse; and he subverted the democratic institutions that were supposed to keep a check on his power. Sunni protests were violently crushed. Such an environment enabled the Islamic State to rise up out of the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq and proclaim itself as the protector of the Sunnis against the Iranian backed sectarian regime of Maliki.

Across the region, people described how the US had given Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. Saddam’s Iraq had been the Arab bulwark that had held Iran in check. As an unintended consequence of the war, Iran had become the most influential foreign power in Iraq. And this intensified geopolitical competition with Saudi Arabia and others.

Everything came to a head during the Arab Spring.

In 2011, young people came out into the streets and squares across the Arab world to protest injustice, calling for better governance and demanding jobs.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded to the demands of the peaceful young protestors with violence, propelling the country’s descent into civil war.

Obama called for Assad to go – but, after much debate, gave minimal support to force his departure. Segments of the Syrian opposition took up arms and sought external backing in their domestic conflict. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar provided weapons and funds to competing Sunni groups. At Assad’s request, Iran deployed its military advisers, as well as Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, to prop up his embattled regime and Russia supplied him with air power.

Russia and China determined to veto any security council resolution on Syria fearing which could become a pretext for regime change – as had been the case with Libya.

Despite declaring the use of chemical weapons to be a red line, Obama did not carry through with his threat of repercussions after Assad gassed around 1,400 people in the Damascus neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta in 2013. He backed down from military strikes on regime targets – after David Cameron failed to gain UK parliamentary support for military action. Obama grasped Russia’s last-minute proposal to remove Assad’s chemicals. Assad was let off the hook – and continued to kill his people and drive them out of the country. And use chemical weapons.

It was in Syria, that the very notion of an international community was allowed to die. More than half a million Syrians were killed, and over half the population displaced from their homes (half of those outside the country). While all sides committed atrocities, the regime was by far the worst offender. The United Nations Security Council failed to prevent the atrocities, protect civilians, or hold anyone to account. There has been complete impunity for torture, the destruction of religious sites, the deliberate targeting of hospitals. A total disdain was shown for international norms.

In 2014, ISIS expanded its control over 10m people in Iraq and Syria, in territory the size of the UK.

It was only then – after ISIS had taken over a third of Iraq – that the Obama administration finally withdrew its support from Maliki. Iraq’s new prime minister, Haydar Abadi, informed the UN Security Council on 20 September 2014 that it had requested US to lead international efforts against ISIS in order to protect civilians and enable Iraq to regain control of its borders.

US-led Coalition mobilised to fight ISIS in 2014. The US asserted that the Iraqi government’s request extended to action against ISIS inside Syria – as the Syrian government was not confronting ISIS (Assad cynically saw how ISIS undermined the image of the Syrian opposition.) Without Congress being willing to act, Obama was forced to fall back on the 2001 Authority for the Use of Military Force as his domestic legal authority for military action.

Using airpower, and supporting Kurdish and Shia militias on the ground, the US-led military campaign crushed the caliphate.

But the conditions that enabled the rise of ISIS have not been eliminated. Suspected fighters are sentenced to death in trials that last minutes. ISIS women and children are detained in camps without any hope of rehabilitation; Sunni cities in Iraq and Syria are not receiving reconstruction funds; and reconciliation is not on the agenda.

Furthermore, during the fight against ISIS, Iran increased its influence in Iraq and Syria and developed land corridors across both countries to Israel’s borders.

Obama sought to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East by reaching an agreement with Iran in 2015. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) and the EU was regarded at the time as Obama’s foreign policy signature achievement – and heralded as a success for multilateralism. Under the accord, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities and allow in inspectors in return for the lifting of sanctions.

Obama viewed a nuclear deal with Iran as the US exit strategy from the Middle East – and he was reluctant to push back on Iranian expansion elsewhere in the region – and Iran’s missile tests – so as not to jeopardise the chances of reaching an agreement.

By the end of his time in office, Obama argued that the Middle East was no longer important to US interests; that there was little the US could do to fix what was broken there; and that US efforts to do so would inevitably lead to war, the loss of American soldiers and the diminishing of US power and reputation. Although he succeeded in outlawing torture, Obama failed to deliver on his pledges to close Guantanamo Bay, end the post 9/11 wars, and restore Congressional oversight.

Furthermore, with his signalling of ‘leading from behind’ and pivoting the focus of US foreign policy to Asia, Obama created a vacuum in the Middle East that was filled by Russia, Iran, Turkey and militias. The Gulf States lost faith in the US and began to reinsure elsewhere.

And what happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East. The influx of refugees fleeing the wars in search of sanctuary in Europe, and the horrific ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks, contributed to rising anti-immigrant sentiment, nationalism and populism in the West.

To conclude: in the wake of 9/11, in its obsessive hunt for terrorists, America undermined civil liberties and human rights at home and abroad, tarnishing its reputation not only as the ‘city on the hill’ but also as the standard bearer and global defender of democracy and freedom.

If America’s policy in the Middle East had brought about democracy in the region – and peace with Israel – then its power and legitimacy to shape world order would have increased and its violations of the rules-based international order seen in a different perspective.

But it did not achieve those outcomes. Instead, the Iraq war inspired a new generation of jihadis with a vision not of democracy but of a caliphate; it changed the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favour; and it undermined the legitimacy of the US and its willingness to project power.

While the US remains powerful both militarily and economically, the weakening of its political authority has coincided with the meteoric rise of China.

Today, America has lost its sense of direction and vision for the world. In 2020, the US is led by a President whose world view is that of a businessman seeking profit from transactions with other countries – who sees no benefit to the US as the global policeman, or in maintaining traditional alliances and trading relationships; and whose supporters are tired of un-won wars and decry globalisation for loss of jobs and increased immigration. President Trump has withdrawn the US from the Iran nuclear deal, causing tension with his European allies; has promised the deal of the century to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, while undermining its chances of success by making concessions to Israel; and has vowed to end the wars in the region – while provoking new ones.

The international system is transitioning from a unipolar to a multipolar world, with the Middle East one of multiple competing spheres of influence.

As the old world dies – and the new world struggles to be born – we are, as the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci noted, living ‘in a time of monsters’.

This essay was first published in Past and Present: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2020. It was published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.


Emma Sky