“9/11 changed everything” became a popular cliché over the past 10 years. Nowhere has it been more deployed, however, than in the Bush administration’s defense of its foreign policy decisions—most notably the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. As then-Vice President Dick Cheney put it in September of that year, 9/11 purportedly “changed the way we think about threats to the United States.”
But 9/11 changed conservative foreign policy thinking less than both the Bush administration and outside observers like to think. The doctrine of preventive war used to justify the invasion of Iraq has been viewed as new, revolutionary, and a departure from traditional conservative foreign policy ideas. But it in fact has deep intellectual roots in the history of the conservative movement’s style of foreign policy thinking.
It’s important to distinguish the foreign policy style of the conservative movement from the foreign policy of Republican presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush during the Cold War. As a group, Cold War Republican presidents embraced the policy of containment articulated by Harry Truman at the beginning of the Cold War and pursued negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit nuclear arsenals and superpower tensions. This tradition of realist statecraft reached its apex in the late 1980s when President Ronald Reagan negotiated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to achieve the world’s first nuclear arms reduction treaty.
The conservative movement, on the other hand, bitterly opposed containment throughout the Cold War. To conservatives, communism was not simply an adversary in the traditional game of international power politics whose aggression could be checked—it was evil incarnate with which there could be no compromise.
Worse still, time was not on America’s side. It would only grow weaker as the Soviet Union grew stronger, and it would eventually succumb to communism if it limited itself to containment. As a result, containment, according to leading conservative movement foreign policy theorist James Burnham, was merely “a formula for Soviet victory.”
To counter this apocalyptic threat, conservatives proposed an offensive strategy of “rollback” or “liberation” of communist-dominated countries. Since it was living on borrowed time, America had to roll back the ever-increasing tide of communism. Or, as Burnham proposed, the United States had to achieve “freedom for all the peoples and nations now under communist domination, including the Russian people.” 
In short, the foreign policy of the conservative movement was grounded on twin fears of an apocalyptic threat from communism and a constantly diminishing window in which to defeat that threat.
Opposition to containment remained a constant in the conservative movement’s foreign policy thinking throughout the Cold War, even as Republican presidents as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan embraced it and arms control talks with Moscow. Conservatives repeatedly denounced these leaders as sell-outs and appeasers, with some going so far as to compare Reagan with Neville Chamberlain.
While communism collapsed and deprived the conservative movement of one of its main enemies, the rollback impulse in its foreign policy thinking remained alive. At the same time, by the 1990s the conservative movement had become the dominant faction within the Republican Party, increasing the chances that its foreign policy thinking would finally be put into practice the next time a Republican occupied the White House.
When 9/11 occurred, it did not fundamentally alter the conservative impulse toward an offensive foreign policy. Rather, it amplified the sense of fear and narrow window for action that had characterized conservative advocacy of rollback during the Cold War. Like Burnham, who stated it was “hard to see even what it means to try to ‘contain’” an ideology like communism, President George W. Bush argued at West Point in 2002 that containment was “not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”
Like postwar conservatives, who advocated rollback because they lacked faith that democracies could outlast communism in the long run, the Bush administration justified prevention in Iraq by emphasizing that time was not on America’s side when confronting the threat of Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction.
As President Bush put it before the congressional vote to authorize the war in October 2002: “The danger [from Iraq] is already significant, and it only grows worse with time.” This impatience manifested itself earlier in President Bush’s West Point commencement: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long.”
Since time was short, strategies conservatives thought overly defensive would not pass muster. Burnham criticized Truman’s containment policy for its passivity: It was “purely defensive.” Likewise, President Bush asserted at West Point in 2002 that “the war on terror will never be won on the defensive” and that preventive war would be necessary.
What 9/11 changed was not conservative foreign policy thinking—which remained fear-based and focused on offense despite the collapse of communism—but the political environment in which it operated. The conservative argument that a strategy centered on preventive war could keep the country safe against dire threats that would only grow worse with time found additional purchase after the most devastating attack in American history.
The rollback impulse has not retreated with the debacle of Iraq or George W. Bush’s departure from the White House. Conservatives such as John McCain, William Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz advocate for regime change in Iran on the grounds that it is irrational and cannot be deterred if it acquires nuclear weapons. Tehran is, in Mitt Romney’s words, a “suicidal” regime. Once again, America faces a threat of apocalyptic magnitude in which time is not on its side.
Despite the claims of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others both inside and outside the Bush administration, 9/11 did not change the basic offensive impulses that have driven the foreign policy thinking of the conservative movement for the last 60 years. It simply gave conservatives a chance to apply their long-standing ideas with disastrous results.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.
- Remembering 9/11 by Rudy deLeon
- The Evolution of Terrorism Since 9/11 by Ken Sofer
- Video: Growing Up in a Post-9/11 World
- The 9/11 Generation by Eleni Towns
. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “Middle-Aged Man With a Horn,” The New Republic, March 16, 1953, p. 16.
. J. Peter Scoblic, U.S. vs. Them (New York: Viking, 2008),p. 30.
The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.
Senior Policy Analyst