No, There Won’t Be a Second War on Terror
But what’s coming may be worse than George W. Bush’s freedom crusade.
Are the United States and its allies about to stage a rerun of the conflict that used to be known as the Global War on Terror? That’s the anxiety among both antiwar progressives and conservative restrainers, who fret that the West is sleepwalking into yet another “forever war” involving multiple Muslim adversaries. Yet these fears are likely overstated, since several of the key ingredients of that earlier conflict are missing from today’s crisis.
What’s looming around the corner is a different kind of confrontation. And it’s been made more dangerous and costly precisely because the U.S.-led global bloc wasted the past two decades on the freedom crusade launched by President George W. Bush after 9/11.
For starters, it’s worth asking (once again): Whom did the West intend to wage war against in the Global War on Terror? The name of the war itself gives away its misbegotten nature. Terror, as critics of Bush and the neoconservatives insisted back in the day, is a tactic, not an identifiable enemy.
Various state and nonstate actors through the ages have created fear through violence to achieve political ends. On September 11, 2001, one such actor, Al Qaeda, launched a massive terror strike against the United States that killed some 3,000 Americans. The obvious enemy, then, was Al Qaeda, or Sunni jihadists more broadly, if you wish. But Team Bush, in its wisdom, chose instead to frame the conflict as one pitting America against terror as such: both groups like Al Qaeda that committed acts of terror and governments that harbored or otherwise supported them.
This conceptual mistake soon generated a strategic tangle in which Washington found itself caught. For one thing, the “terror” category was both overly broad and too-narrow: It obviously included traditional U.S. allies, like Saudi Arabia, that nurtured Sunni-jihadist ideologues, both on their own soil and in the wider Muslim world, but Washington wasn’t about to wage war against the House of Saud. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had no meaningful ties to Al Qaeda, proved an easier punching bag for the antiterror warriors.
At the same time, it excluded rivals that should have demanded greater vigilance but came to be treated as friends merely because they formally rejected “terror.” The too-narrow problem applied to both China and Russia: While the facts are often conveniently overlooked today, China’s Uyghurs population used to be seen as a war-on-terror problem in the United States, while Vladimir Putin’s “antiterror” policy in Chechnya once garnered him American laurels.
As the post-9/11 wars devolved into quagmires—and it didn’t take long for that to happen—Team Bush increasingly played up a secondary justification: replacing Mideast despotism with liberal democracy and thus finishing the business of the End of History. But the democratic framing posed its own problems: Either Washington insisted on democracy everywhere, which meant throwing friendly autocracies under the bus and coming to peace with Arabs electing Islamists; or it could play the freedom crusade hypocritically, advocating for democracy in Iran, say, while winking at the barbarisms of the Persian Gulf states.
In the end, the United States under the Bush and Obama administrations did a bit of both, with terribly messy results to show for it. Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority was permitted to repress its Shiite majority, but Syria’s Alawite dictatorship was targeted for toppling, an effort that enlisted Islamists of various shades, some of the identical to the ones Washington had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hosni Mubarak’s regime was discarded, but when the military overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government empowered by the Arab “Spring,” the U.S. foreign-policy establishment welcomed the restoration of secular-ish autocracy. Libya was also “regime-changed” and to this day remains mired in civil war and state failure.
In 2023, however, the United States has a somewhat clearer sense of what it stands for in the Middle East. Freedom and human-rights talk is almost entirely absent from Washington’s discourse about the region (even as such rhetoric resurged with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). This is good. American policy today is marginally more honest than it was in the two decades after 9/11.
Since the Trump administration embarked on its Abraham Accords, Washington has sought to strengthen the alliance between Israel and the Sunni-Arab state system, over and against Iran and its proxies, including the Syrian regime, Iraq’s Shiite militias, Yemen’s Houthis, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. The idea was to build up bloc against bloc in such a way as to allow America to pivot away from the whole damned place to pursue more urgent and attractive strategic priorities, not least in East Asia.
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More generally, American strategists like National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan see a return of great-power industrial rivalry, a very different game from nation-building among tribesmen in the Hindu Kush. In this sense, the “Iranian problem” is no longer about “terror” (per se), much less “freedom.” Rather, it’s one piece of a broader interstate competition involving Russia and China, with something like a new non-aligned movement at stake.
Whether the United States should defend every inch of the spheres of influence claimed by powers like Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing is another big and difficult question. I lean toward general restraint and reasonable accommodation (while insisting on honoring hard treaty commitments).
But what you or I or even Sullivan thinks is of much less consequence than whether Washington can wage the sort of industrial war that appears likely to dominate the 21st century. America’s domestic hearth—its manufacturing capacity, the quality and competence of its workforce, and its culture—was neglected and left to crumble during the two decades of the Global War on Terror. Decline is a choice, as the arch-terror-warrior Charles Krauthammer used to say. Yes, and men like him chose decline for the rest of us.