The “axis of evil” speech and National Security Strategy sent shock waves around the world. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, a wave of sympathy for the United States had swept across the globe. Most of the world supported the war in Afghanistan as a legitimate response to the terrorist attacks. By late 2002, however, many persons overseas feared that the United States was claiming the right to act as a world policeman in violation of international law.

Relations between the United States and Europe, warned Ivo Daalder, a Dutch-born former official of the Chnton administration, were on a “collision course,” because Washington had become “dismissive of the perspectives of others.” Critics, including leaders of close American allies, wondered whether dividing the world into friends and enemies of freedom ran the danger of repeating some of the mistakes of the Cold War. Anti-Americanism in the Middle East, they argued, reached far beyond bin Laden’s organization and stemmed not simply from dislike of American freedom but, rightly or wrongly, from opposition to specific American policies—toward Israel, the Palestinians, and the region’s corrupt and undemocratic regimes. And like the battle against communism, the war on terrorism seemed to be leading the United States to forge closer and closer ties with repressive governments like Pakistan and the republics of Central Asia that consistently violated human rights.

Charges quickly arose that the United States was bent on establishing itself as a new global empire. Indeed, September 11 and its aftermath highlighted not only the vulnerability of the United States but also its overwhelming strength. In every index of power—military, economic, cultural— the United States far outpaced the rest of the world. It accounted for just under one-third of global economic output and more than one-third of global military spending. Its defense budget exceeded that of the next twenty powers combined. The United States maintained military bases throughout the world and deployed its navy on every ocean. It was not surprising that in such circumstances many American policymakers felt that the country had a responsibility to impose order in a dangerous world, even if this meant establishing its own rules of international conduct.

In public discussion in the United States after September 11, the word “empire,” once a term of abuse, came back into widespread use. The need to “shoulder the burdens of empire” emerged as a common theme in discussions among foreign policy analysts and political commentators who embraced the new foreign policy. As we have seen, the idea of the United States as an empire has a long history, dating back to Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” (see Chapter 7) and McKinley’s “benevolent imperialism” (see Chapter 17). But talk of a new American empire alarmed people at home and abroad who did not desire to have the United States reconstruct the world in its own image.


The National Security Strategy of the United States

(September 2002)

The National Security Strategy, issued in 2002 by the Bush administration, outlined a new foreign and military policy for the United States in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It announced the doctrine of preemptive war—that the United States retained the right to use its military power against countries that might pose a threat in the future. But the document began with a statement of the administration’s definition of freedom and its commitment to spreading freedom to the entire world.

The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.... These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society....

Today, the international community has the best chance since the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century to build a world where great powers compete in peace instead of continually prepare for war.... The United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world....

In building a balance of power that favors freedom, the United States is guided by the conviction that all nations have important responsibilities. Nations that enjoy freedom must actively fight terror. Nations that depend on international stability must help prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.... Throughout history, freedom has been threatened by war and terror; it has been challenged by the clashing wills of powerful states and the evil designs of tyrants; and it has been tested by widespread poverty and disease. Today, humanity holds in its hands the opportunity to further freedom’s triumph over all these foes. The United States welcomes our opportunity to lead in this great mission.

From President Barack Obama,

Speech to the Islamic World (2009)

In June 2009, President Obama traveled to Egypt to deliver a speech aimed at repairing American relations with the Islamic world, severely damaged by the war in Iraq and the sense that many Americans identified all Muslims with the actions of a few terrorists. Entitled “A New Beginning,” it acknowledged past American misdeeds and promised to respect Islamic traditions and values rather than trying to impose American ideas on the world’s more than і billion Muslims.

I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect. ... I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known.... We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words—within our borders, and around the world.... Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state of our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders.... America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.

Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.... And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter our principles. 9/11 was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year....

Let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other. That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.


1. How does the National Security Strategy define the global mission of the United States?

2. How does Obama hope to change relations between the United States and Islamic countries?

3. In what ways is Obama’s speech a repudiation of the assumptions of the National Security Strategy?


These tensions became starkly evident in the Bush administration’s next initiative. The Iraqi dictatorship of Saddam Hussein had survived its defeat in the Gulf War of 1991. Hussein’s opponents charged that he had flouted United Nations resolutions barring the regime from developing new weapons. During the Clinton administration, the United States had occasionally bombed Iraqi military sites in retaliation for Hussein’s lack of cooperation with UN weapons inspectors.

From the outset of the Bush administration, a group of conservative policymakers including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz were determined to oust Hussein from power. They developed a military strategy to accomplish this—massive initial air strikes followed by invasion by a relatively small number of troops. They insisted that the oppressed Iraqi people would welcome an American army as liberators and quickly establish a democratic government, allowing for the early departure of American soldiers. This group seized on the opportunity presented by the attacks of September 11 to press their case, and President Bush adopted their outlook. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who believed the conquest and stabilization of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and should not be undertaken without the support of America’s allies, found himself marginalized in the administration.

Even though Hussein was not an Islamic fundamentalist, and no known evidence linked him to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bush administration in 2002 announced a goal of “regime change” in Iraq. Hussein, administration spokesmen insisted, must be ousted from power because he had developed an arsenal of chemical and bacterial “weapons of mass destruction” and was seeking to acquire nuclear arms. American newspaper and television journalists repeated these claims with almost no independent investigation. The UN Security Council agreed to step up weapons inspections, but the Bush administration soon declared that inspectors could never uncover Hussein’s military capabilities. Early in 2003, despite his original misgivings, Secretary of State Powell delivered a speech before the UN outlining the administration’s case. He claimed that Hussein possessed a mobile chemical weapons laboratory, had hidden weapons of mass destruction in his many palaces, and was seeking to acquire uranium in Africa to build nuclear weapons. (Every one of these assertions later tinned out to be false.) Shortly after Powell’s address, the president announced his intention to go to war with or without the approval of the United Nations. Congress passed a resolution authorizing the president to use force if he deemed it necessary.

Steve Benson’s 2001 cartoon, which alters a renowned World War II photograph of soldiers raising an American flag, illustrates widespread skepticism about American motivations in the Iraq War.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!