Discuss the impact of neo-conservatism on the foreign policy of the United States towards Middle East

Discuss the impact of “neo-conservatism” on the foreign policy of the United States towards the Middle East
By Libin Farah

Neo-conservatism as a political theory dominated the White House during the George W Bush administration. This generation of policy makers dramatically changed the way US foreign policy engaged with the Middle East making it more overtly aggressive. The Bush doctrine refers to principles that were central to the administration and the War on Terror, including democratisation and unilateral military action.

Firstly this essay will analyse the global context in which neo-conservatism emerged by looking at the implications of the unipolar order and 9/11. This essay will consider the impact of neo-conservatism by analysing the effects of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The consequences that will be considered include the rise of sectarianism, the emergence of transnational political actors in the power vacuum in Iraq and the change in perception of Arab states towards the US. All of these factors underpin the overarching impact of neo-conservatism which is that it produced anti-American sentiments in the region.

Overall, this essay aims to argue that neo-conservative foreign policy in the middle east, most notably the invasion of Iraq, had a transformative impact is it destabilised the region and reconfigured the power politics of the Middle East.

The systemic transformation of the international system from a bipolar to a unipolar order was the global context in which the neoconservative persuasion permeated American foreign policy. Unipolarity changed the way American foreign policy was generated and enacted onto the world stage.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War meant that the US was the unchallenged world hegemon dominating the global economy and politics. Despite the change in the international system the generation of neo-conservatives that heavily influenced the Bush administration still understood the world through the prism of Cold War politics.

Applying Cold War logic to the new world order creates a problem as the pursuit of unipolar global hegemony was one that was against everyone and no one at the same time. It was against everyone in the sense that Soviet power had disappeared and thus needed to be “replaced with possible rivals over whom the US must be dominant.”

However, it was against no one as the political culture of so called ‘rival states’ was not one in which challenging the wider status quo of US hegemony seemed possible. Therefore unipolarity is an important factor in understanding the nature of neoconservative foreign policy because the dramatic change in the global social order had a direct impact on the way the US behaved in the global arena.

Also, the failure of the neocons to abandon Cold War logic in a new world order feeds into the strategies employed when creating foreign policy targeting the Middle East.

In addition to unipolarity, the attacks made on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11th 2001 transformed the direction of US foreign policy towards the Middle East. 9/11 provided an opportunity for those of the neoconservative persuasion to gain influence in the Bush administration as they were able to provide a road map for post 9/11 foreign policy.

This new direction was packaged as the War on Terror which specifically targeted the Middle East. Neocons argued that terrorism was rooted in the lack of democracies in the Middle East. Therefore the exportation of democracy and a radical political transformation of the region would end terrorism.

This logic is rooted in neo-conservatism being closely identified with Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” thesis during the post-Cold War era. Liberal democracy had triumphed as the only legitimate form of political organisation and the spread of liberal ideology and Western values is the best guarantor of peace.

The Bush administration was socialised with the idea that the US is the winner of history. 9/11 presented the US with an unprecedented security threat posed by a network of non-state actors and was a direct challenge to the unipolar order. Washington capitalised on 9/11 as it provided an opportunity to accelerate campaigns for regime change in Iraq and there was a strong emphasis on the necessary use of military force in order to achieve this.

Therefore it can be strongly argued that the events of 9/11 accelerated and strengthened the influence of neo-conservatism in foreign policy making. It was a turning point in the foreign policy of the US as the Bush administration redefined the relationship with Middle East along neoconservative lines.

Unipolarity and the events of 9/11 combined gave the US the ability to dominate the Middle East through more aggressive foreign policy. It legitimized their military activity and overtly aggressive behaviour as neocons attempt ted to implement their world vision onto the region: a democratised, Saddam-free zone. Unipolarity and 9/11 were pivotal in galvanising the neoconservative ideology as the driving force of the Bush administration and consequently as the key figures of foreign policy making.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 set in motion a chain of events that fundamentally destabilised the Middle East. One impact that the invasion had was that it intensified sectarian division in Iraq and consequently the region. Middle Eastern states blamed the US for creating the conditions for Iraq to be consumed by sectarian violence.

The war had “exacerbated existing sectarian tensions and their significance to the political process”. It intensified the divide between Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq and sectarian polarisation manifested on a regional scale as a result. Sectarian division is demonstrated by the opposition of a new regime in Iraq from Gulf States as they feared that this would increase Iran’s influence in the region.

Sectarian division in the region illuminates the shift in the regional balance of power that took place as a result of the invasion. Neoconservative foreign policy did not consider existing power politics in the region. The US severely undermined the strategic geo-political importance of Iraq in the region as they acted as a buffer between Iran and the rest of the Arab world.

Following the invasion and the collapse of the Iraqi state and its weak political institutions the regional balance of power had shifted towards the Iranians. With the election of a Shia majority in Iraq, security concerns over Iran from Arab countries increased.

The polarisation of sectarian identities was greatly aggravated by the neo-conservative decision to invade Iraq. Sectarianism made its way from the peripheries of Middle Eastern politics to centre stage after the invasion of 2003.

The failure of the US to establish a stable democratic government in Iraq to replace the Saddam regime opened up a power vacuum for groups to seize power within a fragile political system. The long term impact this had was that groups were able to take advantage of Iraq vulnerable political situation.

These groups, such as ISIS and Kurdish nationalists, sought to challenge fixed borders threatening the territorial sovereignty of neighbouring states. After the invasion Kurdish nationalist parties in Iraq were able to strongly influence Baghdad and “manipulate the practices and institutions of democracy for their own ends”.

This strained relations with Turkey and America as Turkey feared that the invasion would give momentum to their domestic Kurdish movement, threatening the border between Turkey and Iraq. This generated strong anti-American sentiments within Turkey which is reflected in the negative approval ratings.

In 2004 the Turks had the lowest approval ratings in Europe of President Bush’s handling of international policies with 81% disapproving. The failure of the neocons to produce a stable democratic government in Iraq had regional consequences as new political bodies posed a threat to neighbouring states and the map of the Middle East.

The invasion of Iraq was viewed by Arab states as a “neo-colonialist adventure to secure American interests” in the region. Many Arab people and states believed that while the US portrayed itself as liberating Iraq, the real motivations for the invasion are far more sinister.

Using Realist logic, there was the perception that the US was trying to secure oil bases in the region and control Middle Eastern oil. It was also a manoeuvre to protect and assist Israel who is their long standing ally in the region, and retaliate against Muslim states to avoid a post 9/11 decline.

The invasion of Iraq was seen as a method in which the US was attempting to dominate the region. Furthermore, the neo-conservative vision was one that aimed to transform the political composition of the region by creating a zone of democracies.

This threatened other dictatorships and monarchies in the region. Such large scale social engineering was seen as a neo-colonial activity attempting to reconfigure the region to align itself with American interests. The War on Terror was now a long term conflict that was about more than combating militant Islam.

The framework included getting the political systems of the Middle East to undergo a structural change. Arab states understood such neo-conservative policies as “America’s neo-colonial tendencies”. This is a significant impact of neo-conservative foreign policy as the perception of the US in the Middle East had transformed.

The role of media outlets such as Al-Jazeera played a significant role in shaping Arab minds against the policies of neo-conservatives by exposing the US military. When incidents such as Abu Ghraib were reported it stigmatised the US presence in the region ultimately transforming the image of the US as an oppressed rather than a liberator. Therefore the impact of neo-conservative foreign policy is that the perception that the US had dramatically shifted in a negative direction.

The overarching impact that can be derived from neoconservative foreign policy in the Middle East is that it unleashed anti-American sentiments across the region. The US packaged the invasion as an attempt to liberate the Iraqi people for an oppressive dictator who had alleged links to an international terrorist organisation al-Qaeda.

For the coalition forces all means were justified in order to achieve these ends. The perception that America was behaving like an imperial power, attempting to restructure the political landscape of the Middle East through military force while causing disruption and violence generated negative sentiments towards Washington from Arab states.

Anti-Americanism is rooted in the political instability that was produced as a result of the regime change in Iraq and the threat that that posed to the region at large. Therefore the impact of neo-conservative foreign policy is that it strained the relations between Middle Eastern states and the US and generated anti-Americanism across the region because the intentions and behaviour of the US was perceived to be neo-colonial and aggressive.

Also, Arab states were the ones who were directly impacted as a result of the neo-conservative foreign policy to invade Iraq. Therefore, the encompassing impact of neo-conservative foreign policy is that it generated a wave of anti-American sentiments and it could be argued that remnants of anti-Americanism remain in the region as a result of the legacy of neo-conservative foreign policy.

In conclusion, neo-conservative foreign policy was only possible in the global context of unipolarity as the US were the lone superpower of the world. 9/11 was a crucial pretext for the War on Terror as it legitimise an American military presence in the region.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 can be seen as the pinnacle of neo-conservative foreign policy. A direct link can be made connecting 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The neo-conservatives that were spearheading the Bush administration attempted to widen the scope of “War on Terror” to go beyond Al-Qaeda and to encompass the Iraqi state.

Therefore the Bush doctrine, heavily influenced by neo-conservatism, can be seen as highly interventionist in nature with a willingness to use unilateral force. The dramatic shift of the regional political landscape, the changed perception of Iran’s role in regional politics and the power vacuum and violence in Iraq are only a few of the ways that neo-conservative foreign policy had transformed the region.

It could be argued that the readiness of the US to use military force means that the impact of neo-conservatives will naturally have devastating affects because neo-conservative foreign policy is inherently aggressive. The neocons foreign policy had severely undermined the significance of Iraq in regional power politics as well as the internal political composition of Iraq.

Neo-conservatism significantly impacted the region as the Bush administration embarked on a project to transform the political composition of the region. Such large scale social engineering had tragic consequences are it destabilised the region to such a degree that the consequences are still felt today.


Baxter, Kylie and Akbarzadeh, Shahram (2008). US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, (Abingdon: Routledge)

Fukuyama, Francis (1989) The End of History? Accessed 10th April 2018 < https://www.embl.de/aboutus/science_society/discussion/discussion_2006/ref1-22june06.pdf>

Isakhan, Benjamin (2015) Legacy of Iraq: From the 2003 War to the ‘Islamic State’ (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Lucas, Scott., and Ryan, Maria (2009) “Against everyone and no one.” In America and Iraq: policy making, intervention and regional politics, by David Ryan and Patrick Kiely, (Abingdon: Routledge)

Mcglinchey, Stephen. Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy, accessed 10th April 2018 < http://www.e-ir.info/2009/06/01/neo-conservatism-and-american-foreign-policy/>

Mearsheimer, John (2005). Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq War: realism versus neo-conservatism, accessed 9th April 2018 https://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/morgenthau_2522.jsp

Rabasa, Angel, Larrabee F. Stephen (2008) The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey, RAND, accessed 12th April 2018 < https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2008/RAND_MG726.pdf>

Wehrey, Frederic, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Jessica Watkins, Jeffrey Martini, and Robert A. Guffey. (2010) The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War. Accessed 11th April 2018 < http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7249/mg892af.>

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