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American Grand Strategy After 9/11: An Assessment

Authored by Dr. Stephen D. Biddle. | April 2005

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?Grand strategy? integrates military, political, and economic means to pursue states? ultimate objectives in the international system. American grand strategy had been in a state of flux prior to 2001, as containment of the Soviet Union gave way to a wider range of apparently lesser challenges. The 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade towers, however, transformed the grand strategy debate and led to a sweeping reevaluation of American security policy. It may still be too early to expect this reevaluation to have produced a complete or final response to 9/11? policies as complex as national grand strategy do not change overnight. But after 3 years of sustained debate and adaptation, it is reasonable to ask what this process has produced so far, and how well the results to date serve American interests.

The author argues that, heretofore, the grand strategic response to 9/11 has combined ambitious public statements with vague particulars as to the scope of the threat and the end state to be sought. This combination of ambition and ambiguity creates important but unresolved tensions in American strategy. If the costs are low enough, these tensions are tolerable: the United States can avoid making hard choices and instead pursue ill-defined goals with limited penalties. But the higher the cost, the harder this becomes. And the costs are rising rapidly with the ongoing insurgency in Iraq. Eventually something will have to give?the ambiguity in today?s grand strategy is fast becoming intolerable.

There are two broad alternatives for resolving these ambiguities and creating a coherent strategy: rollback and containment. Rollback would retain the ambitious goals implicit in today?s declaratory policy and accept the cost and near-term risk inherent in pursuing them. These costs include a redoubled commitment to nation building in Iraq and elsewhere, accelerated onset of great power competition, heightened incentives for proliferation, and hence an increased risk of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by terrorists in the near term. But in exchange, it offers the mid-term possibility of rolling the terrorist threat, and hence the ultimate danger of WMD use, back to a level below the severity of September 10, 2001. By contrast, containment would settle for more modest goals in exchange for lower costs and lower near-term risks. In particular, it would permit America to withdraw from nation building in the Mideast, it would slow the onset of great power competition, and it would moderate the risk of near-term WMD terrorism. But this retrenchment would leave the underlying causes of Islamist terror unassailed, and would therefore accept a persistent risk of major terrorist attack for the indefinite future.And it could never eliminate entirely the risk of those terrorists acquiring WMD; though it might reduce the probability per unit time, by extending the duration of the conflict indefinitely it could ultimately increase, not decrease, the odds of WMD use on American soil in the longer term.

Neither alternative dominates the other on analytical grounds. Both involve serious costs as well as benefits. And to resolve these costs and benefits requires at least two critical value judgments. Is accepting near-term risk for a long-term payoff preferable to the opposite? Rollback tolerates higher risk in the near term for a possibly lower cumulative risk in the longer term; containment reduces near-term risks but may increase them in the longer term. And is high payoff at high risk preferable to a sure thing for a smaller payoff? Rollback swings for the fences (it pursues something closer to absolute security) at the risk of striking out (catastrophe if we fail); containment ensures contact with the ball (lower risk of catastrophic failure), but promises only singles in return (it cannot eliminate the threat of terror). Neither question is analytically resolvable: the answers turn on value judgments, not analytical findings.

But though neither is analytically superior, either is defensible?either one could, in principle, provide a coherent grand strategy and a sound response to the attacks of 9/11. Today, however, we have neither. And the result is an incoherent?or at best, incomplete?strategy in which the costs of failing to make critical choices are mounting rapidly. The time has come to choose.


Three years of post-9/11 strategic debate have left America with a combination of ambition and ambiguity. And whereas the costs of strategic ambiguity were relatively modest for the first 2 years of the War on Terror, the campaign in Iraq is now rapidly increasing the financial, human, and strategic opportunity costs of leaving basic choices unmade. Perhaps the most important of these ambiguities concerns our end-state goal for countering terrorism: should we insist on reducing this threat to a level as close to eradication as we can manage, or should we tolerate greater terrorist violence as a quasi-permanent condition?

The natural answers to this question imply the strategic alternatives of rollback and containment. Rollback accepts the implicit ambition of today?s declaratory policy?and the high costs and near-term risks required to realize that ambition. Containment fills in the ambiguities in today?s strategy with an explicit acceptance of noncatastrophic terror in order to avoid the near-term risks and costs of seriously seeking an end to Islamist terror altogether.

Neither strategy is unambiguously superior to the other. They each have important drawbacks?in particular, they each imply serious risks. For rollback, the chief risk is of near-term chaos resulting from failed political engineering in the Mideast?and the ensuing danger of Islamist terrorists obtaining WMD and using it against Americans. Rollback also involves heavy financial costs if done properly; it implies an elevated risk of additional military campaigns in the Mideast; and it aggravates the challenge of great power competition. Containment, by contrast, is hard to justify normatively and leaves Islamist terror organizations in the field long enough to pose a long-term risk of terrorist WMD use, even if the likelihood in any given year is low. It also, by definition, tolerates the greater terrorist violence associated with al Qaeda?s long-term survival as the price of reducing the risk of near-term chaos in the effort to remake the Mideast politically.

These costs, benefits, and risks cannot be resolved analytically. The choice between rollback and containment turns on a series of value judgments. Should we prefer higher risk and cost now in order to get a chance at something closer to absolute security in the future? Or should we prefer lower risks and lower costs now, with a danger that sometime in the unspecified future al Qaeda might eventually hit a longshot chance and obtain WMD? How much security is enough? What risks and costs are appropriate to pursue it? And how should we balance risk today against risk in the possibly distant future? Analysis can identify these risks and costs, bound their magnitudes, and show how these vary and interact over time. But analysis cannot provide the value choices needed to select among them. The latter is a fundamentally political process. Indeed, it is perhaps the most important political responsibility of our elected officials in the defense domain.

My purpose here is thus not to prescribe a choice between rollback and containment?it is to advise those who must choose by clarifying the choices to be made, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of the alternatives, and identifying the values at stake in the choice. There are no easy options for grand strategy in the aftermath of 9/11: something important must be sacrificed whichever way one chooses. But the failure to choose embodied in the ambiguity of today?s grand strategy is fast becoming intolerable. For better or worse, we must decide.