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Bounding the Global War on Terrorism

Authored by Dr. Jeffrey Record. | December 2003

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In the wake of the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States, the U.S. Government declared a global war on terrorism (GWOT). The nature and parameters of that war, however, remain frustratingly unclear. The administration has postulated a multiplicity of enemies, including rogue states; weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferators; terrorist organizations of global, regional, and national scope; and terrorism itself. It also seems to have confl ated them into a monolithic threat, and in so doing has subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it strives for in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a course of open-ended and gratuitous confl ict with states and nonstate entities that pose no serious threat to the United States.

Of particular concern has been the conflation of al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein?s Iraq as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat. This was a strategic error of the fi rst order because it ignored critical differences between the two in character, threat level, and susceptibility to U.S. deterrence and military action. The result has been an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaeda. The war against Iraq was not integral to the GWOT, but rather a detour from it.

Additionally, most of the GWOT?s declared objectives, which include the destruction of al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organizations, the transformation of Iraq into a prosperous, stable democracy, the democratization of the rest of the autocratic Middle East, the eradication of terrorism as a means of irregular warfare, and the (forcible, if necessary) termination of WMD proliferation to real and potential enemies worldwide, are unrealistic and condemn the United States to a hopeless quest for absolute security. As such, the GWOT?s goals are also politically, fi scally, and militarily unsustainable.

Accordingly, the GWOT must be recalibrated to conform to concrete U.S. security interests and the limits of American power.The specifi c measures required include deconfl ation of the threat; substitution of credible deterrence for preventive war as the primary vehicle for dealing with rogue states seeking WMD; refocus of the GWOT fi rst and foremost on al-Qaeda, its allies, and homeland security; preparation to settle in Iraq for stability over democracy (if the choice is forced upon us) and for international rather than U.S. responsibility for Iraq?s future; and fi nally, a reassessment of U.S. military force levels, especially ground force levels.

The GWOT as it has so far been defi ned and conducted is strategically unfocused, promises much more than it can deliver, and threatens to dissipate scarce U.S. military and other means over too many ends. It violates the fundamental strategic principles of discrimination and concentration.


The great Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, believed that the ?fi rst, the supreme, most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, not trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its true nature. This is the fi rst of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.?1

In the wake of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York?s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the President declared a ?war against terrorism of global reach.? Subsequently and repeatedly, he and other administration offi cials used the terms ?global war on terrorism,? ?war on global terrorism,? ?war on terrorism,? ?war on terror,? and ?battle against international terrorism.? The ?global war on terrorism,? complete with its acronym, GWOT, soon became the most often used term.

The nature and parameters of the GWOT, however, remain frustratingly unclear. The administration has postulated a multiplicity of enemies, including rogue states, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferators, terrorist organizations, and terrorism itself. It has also, at least for the purposes of mobilizing and sustaining domestic political support for the war on Iraq and other potential preventive military actions, confl ated them as a general, undifferentiated threat. In so doing, the administration has arguably subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it seeks in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a path of open-ended and unnecessary conflict with states and nonstate entities that pose no direct or imminent threat to the United States.

Sound strategy mandates threat discrimination and reasonable harmonization of ends and means. The GWOT falls short on both counts. Indeed, it may be misleading to cast the GWOT as a war; the military?s role in the GWOT is still a work in progress, and the military?s ?comfort level? with it is any event problematic. Moreover, to the extent that the GWOT is directed at the phenomenon of terrorism, as opposed to fl esh-and-blood terrorist organizations, it sets itself up for strategic failure. Terrorism is a recourse of the politically desperate and militarily helpless, and, as such, it is hardly going to disappear. The challenge of grasping the nature and parameters of the GWOT is certainly not eased by the absence of a commonly accepted defi nition of terrorism or by the depiction of the GWOT as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, ?us? versus ?them.?

This monograph examines the GWOT from three vantage points: (1) threat postulation, (2) the scope and feasibility of its objectives, and (3) its political, fi scal, and military sustainability. What are the postulated threats and their relation to one another, and have they been soundly prioritized? What are the aims of the GWOT and how and by what means, military and other, are they to be achieved? Are political ends and the military component of the means in reasonable harmony, or has the United States bitten off more than it can chew? Is the GWOT politically sustainable at home and abroad, and if not, should the GWOT?s ambitious goals be adjusted to conform to the limits of political tolerance and U.S. military power?


1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds., and trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 88.