Redefining the War on Terror

Redefining the War on Terror

The Bush administration’s global war on terror has become an unchallenged doctrine in American politics. Iraq expert and Boston University history professor Andrew J. Bacevich says the next U.S. president should take another look.

July 30, 2008 1:32 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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In the nearly eight years since the terror attacks of 9/11, the phrase "global war on terror" has morphed from a jingoistic slogan to the cornerstone of American foreign policy. While the candidates for president disagree on how to wage this war, both Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) agree the global fight against Islamic extremism must continue. But Andrew J. Bacevich, a Boston University history professor and author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, argues this characterization is misguided. Bacevich says instead of pushing for a protracted global war, U.S. foreign policy should focus on "a new version of containment" to prevent another 9/11. "The answer to the problem is not to invade and occupy countries, which we did in Iraq and Afghanistan," he says, "but relying on other instruments of power to try to prevent Islamic radicalism from increasing its reach and its influence in the world."

You recently wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe that was highly critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. And you argued that regardless who is elected in November, moving away from the current president’s policies vis-à-vis terrorism will be difficult. Can you explain this criticism?

The real object of the exercise was less to offer a critique of the Bush administration than to suggest that the legacy of this administration, in my view at least, is really much greater than most people seem to appreciate. In my mind, so much of the debate has been focused on Iraq, narrowly and specifically. I believe that most observers have not fully appreciated the enormity of either the changes that the Bush administration has made or changes they’ve been able to prevent, in terms of both the content of our foreign policy and the apparatus that makes our foreign policy. Now there are some people who may argue that that legacy is a very positive one. If you are a neo-conservative, my guess is you think the Bush doctrine of preventative war is a good thing. If you’re a critic, you think it’s wildly reckless and stupid. But the real point is that there is this great legacy and, in my judgment, it is that larger legacy that we have to have as the focus of the tension in the presidential campaign, not simply [asking], ’Were you for the surge or were you against the surge?’ That was really the object of the exercise.

What are some examples of detrimental policy decisions that you believe the next president will have a hard time undoing?

I think a good example is the concept of global war as the appropriate response to terrorism, or the appropriate response to violent Islamic radicalism. When we say terrorism, we are really using that term as a substitute for violent Islamic radicalism.  It’s an enormous accomplishment to have persuaded both the American people on the one hand, and really, political elites almost across the political spectrum, that global war really is the correct paradigm, is the correct approach, the proper basis for formulating strategy. Again, I think it’s utterly and totally completely wrong. But that’s less important than acknowledging the significance of what they have done. Unless we first acknowledge it, you can’t really go back and reassess it and reexamine it. Democrats and Republicans alike take it for granted that a global war, assumed to be a war that is going to last decades, is the correct way to prevent the occurrence of 9/11 or something even worse then 9/11.

So if we’re not, as you see it, involved in a global war on terror, what are we in? What are we dealing with?

To me, one of the problems of the paradigm of global war is that it has not signified war in the metaphorical sense, like war on AIDS, war on drugs, and war on poverty. It has signified war in a literal sense that the employment of military power, on a large scale, in pursuit of very large ambitions—like the liberation or dominance or transformation of Iraq—ought to really be the principle instrument in order to achieve our purposes. I think that takes us down the wrong road. I think, and others have argued, that a new version of containment actually provides the basis to begin thinking about how to prevent another 9/11. Not a new war, not a global war, not a protracted war. The answer to the problem is not to invade and occupy countries, which we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, but relying on other instruments of power to try to prevent Islamic radicalism from increasing its reach and its influence in the world.

I’ve reviewed [Robert] Kagan’s new book [The Return of History and the End of Dreams] in the most recent issue [of Foreign Affairs], and I was very critical of the book. I really didn’t like it, but the one thing that really bowled me over, and that I emphatically agree with, is that what the Islamists have on offer cannot win. The plan that they have, the concept for how people should live, is simply not responsive to what ordinary folk want for their lives. I mean, they are fighting against modernity, and as Robert Kagan says, that is a fight that they cannot win.

Almost everything on this struggle is on our side, and therefore we should approach it with the confidence and patience, and shouldn’t run pell-mell into these military adventures that the Bush administration has approached. Our adversaries are contemptible. Our adversaries are criminals. Our adversaries are murderers. We ought not to dignify their cause as if it were the equivalent of Marxism or Leninism or National Socialism or something of the last century, because they don’t deserve that type of status.

But using diplomacy to win over the enemy of our enemy is a slow undertaking. Americans seem to want immediate satisfaction. So domestically, can our politics sustain the approach you seem to favor? Can a U.S. politician put your idea out there and be successful? Wouldn’t they be labeled weak on terror?

Well the politicians in the ’40s and ’50s did. I mean, Truman did not promise victory over the Soviet Union tomorrow. Eisenhower didn’t promise victory tomorrow. Kennedy comes to office and describes the Cold War as the long twilight struggle, so they were able to elicit patience from the American people, except when American leaders were guilty of bad judgment and reckless behavior, such as in the Vietnam War—a war that shouldn’t have been fought, a war that was badly managed, a war that American people, by and large, turned against.

I don’t think we need to question whether or not the American people have patience, so long as they’re asked to be patient in pursuit of a policy that makes sense. A strategy of containment during the Cold War seemed to make sense. It was aimed at straining Soviet influence. It aimed at avoiding a nuclear confrontation. It aimed at trying to ensure that there was stability in the world and that the American people could enjoy a level of peace and prosperity at home. It wasn’t necessary to embark upon a great crusade against the Red Threat. There were politicians who advocated a great crusade against the Red Threat, but by and large, they were rejected.

Is the nature of the threat different today than it was in the ’40s and ’50s?

I mean, we’re dealing with non-state actors. They don’t have a great army, they don’t have tanks, and they don’t have nuclear weapons. God forbid they had nuclear weapons. So when we say a strategy of containment, we don’t mean a strategy of containment that would look like or be identical to the strategy of containment used in the Cold War. We don’t need a new NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]; we don’t need a new Marshall Plan. What we do need to do is to very carefully think our way through the means whereby we will prevent the Islamists from enhancing their influence within nations and societies in the greater Middle East. I don’t think that there is a cookie-cutter solution. What we would do toward Egypt is not the same that we would do in regard to Pakistan or Afghanistan. The Islamists are not going to win, and there are ways that we can ensure that they are not going to win, and things that we can do to advance the date when they will have definitively lost. And definitively losing in this sense will be when the people of the Islamic world will decisively reject what people like Osama bin Laden have been offering.

There has been some talk about beefing up one of the State Department operations, to bring the civilian side of the puzzle on par to the defensive side. How serious is the current administration in pursuing soft power options?

I don’t know if we are serious about that because, in general, the people who make policies have embraced such a militarized mindset that it becomes very difficult for us to shift away from that. It’s very encouraging for people to see people like the secretary of defense making the case for a more robust armed service, more robust State Department service. Whether or not that is actually going to translate into the reallocation of serious money, I think it’s too soon to tell. Now, should we putting more emphasis on soft power? Should we be using more effort to win the hearts and minds of the people? Sure we should. On the other hand, we should not have any expectations that our efforts in that regard are going to be decisive.

I think that there are analogies that can be drawn with the Cold War. Americans—especially Americans who are great admirers of Ronald Reagan—like to think that the United States won the Cold War.  I think that’s a misperception. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War. They lost in large part because of development internal to the Soviet Union, or more broadly, to the Soviet Empire, that brought that empire down. The people who won the Cold War were the dissidents of the Soviet Union and the dissidents of Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II, those are the people who ended up demonstrating that the Soviet system had no legitimacy and could not work. And that was decisive. What did we, in the West, do to help the people, to help the dissidents to make their case? We did some things, but it was mostly within the margins. We could provide them with some money, with some tape recorders, with photocopying machines. We could covertly sponsor publications that might have helped to advance the cause of demonstration that communism was bankrupt, but it was all in the margin.

So we should be trying today, in the concept of the strategy of containment, to have that, to make that contribution on the margin. To try to aid those in the Islamic world who represent liberal and humane values. We should do it with no expectation that a few billion dollars or a public diplomacy program there is going to turn the tide, because they’re not. At the end of the day, they are going to have to solve their own problems. People of the Islamic world are going to come to a realization that Osama’s plan, the al-Qaeda program, the program of the mullahs in Iran, is a program that condemns them to live in some sort of pre-modern conditions. And at the end of the day, they are going to reject that. Our strategy is one that simply tries to advance that day while protecting ourselves.

What is your advice to the next president, regardless of who it is?

It seems to me that both Obama and McCain have uncritically accepted President Bush’s concept on a global war on terror. The differences that they have are largely technical differences. Senator McCain has been insisting that Iraq is the central front on the global war on terror. He basically centers his campaign on an argument: "I was right on Iraq, Obama was wrong on Iraq. Vote for me and I will be more effective in dealing with the global war on terror." Obama, on the other hand, is saying: "No, Iraq has never been the central front in the global war on terror. Afghanistan is, and I am the one who has understood this from the beginning. Elect me President, and I will shift our effort toward Afghanistan, and I will be the one who will wage the war on global terror more effectively."

From someone who is in my camp, one of the disappointing things about the presidential election is that neither of the two candidates really seems to have the capacity or the willingness to recognize the collations. Now, McCain isn’t going to because McCain necessarily is a true believer in the global war on terror. One might have hoped that Obama would be the one who would recognize the need to ask more fundamental questions. But as we sit here in the end of July, it seems unlikely that he will pose those fundamental questions. He is going to say, "Elect me, and I will do a better job of prosecuting the global war on terror."

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