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Political and moral myths in American foreign policy: the neoconservative question

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The United States, under the two presidential terms of George W. Bush, entered in two major wars and saw enacted a series of controversial anti-terrorism measures (warrantless wiretapping, military prison at Guantanamo Bay, the use of enhanced interrogation techniques [torture]). In light of these extreme policies in post-September 11 America, much attention has been paid to the neoconservative ideology and its shaping of Bush Administration policy. Appropriately, opponents of the policies of the Bush administration including John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 have suggested a return to a traditional American foreign policy, emphasizing military restraint and multilateral cooperation. Underlying these appeals is the notion that neoconservatism represents a break from American foreign-policy tradition, an aberration that can be reversed. The approach in this essay instead treats neoconservatism not as an aberration in American thought, but as a virulent strain of the enduring American ideology, chiefly exceptionalism. The recurring moral motifs in America's foreign policy are examined, with particular focus on the Cold War era and the subsequent post-Soviet era, which culminated in today's War on Terror. It is further argued that the recurring rhetorical themes of US foreign policy its moral example, its democratic mission, permanent threats to democracy were drawn upon to justify the War on Terror, and more particularly, the Iraq war. Because of the nature of the enemy in this case (Islamofascists in their parlance), this American narrative took on interesting mutations, stressing the supposed medievalism and backwardness of the enemy which drew upon well-established Orientalist motifs and stereotypes; the selling of the war was hence facilitated by these cultural reference points, which characterized America's War on Terror as a struggle between modernity and the premodern.
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Keywords: American exceptionalism; American foreign policy; Islam; Islamism; September 11; neoconservatism; war on terror

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Calgary.

Publication date: February 1, 2009

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  • The International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies is a new peer-reviewed, tri- annual, academic publication devoted to the study of modern Iraq. In recognition of Iraq's increasingly important position on the world stage, the time is right for a new journal dedicated to scholarly engagement with the country.
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