Whose Version of the War on Terror Won?
With the Global War on Terror so widely discredited in Washington, it is striking that the city still can’t agree on why. Was the mistake simply thinking that the United States could shape foreign societies by force, or was it an overly ambitious conception of the country’s role in the world?
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, neoconservative and liberal narratives built bipartisan support for a highly interventionist response. Despite their differences, these narratives converged in concluding that the solution to terrorism was transforming the countries from which it emerged, specifically through the application of U.S. military power in the Middle East. But when the war in Iraq turned into a violent quagmire, anti-interventionist critics from the nationalist right and progressive left got a new hearing for their ideas. Both sets of critics rejected the idea of transforming foreign societies, and were more skeptical of military intervention in general.
Indeed, the larger crisis of the U.S. political establishment is linked to the failure of the interventionist visions of the Global War on Terror. Support for the Iraq War became a political liability, as figures like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush discovered in the 2016 primaries. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both gained political momentum from their once-marginal critiques of an elite that had misconceived and misled the response to terrorism while neglecting domestic problems. Former interventionist intellectuals now focus on defending liberal democracy against assaults from within and without rather than on efforts to democratize the world.
In short, the constituency for post-9/11 dreams of global transformation has collapsed. In response, the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations have all sought to limit U.S. interventions. Now, as President Biden seeks to rally political support for his policy in Ukraine, it remains to be seen just how much the Global War on Terror and its backlash have transformed debates over U.S. foreign policy.
The Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist Consensus
At first, the dominant view of the war on terrorism came from the right. Neoconservatives in the Bush administration, the Republican Party, and the conservative intelligentsia saw terrorism as a problem of state sponsorship. Groups like al-Qaeda could not operate without protection from sovereign states, and they could become much deadlier if states offered them resources like unconventional weapons. Thus, their war on terror targeted both terrorist groups and state sponsors like Afghanistan and Iraq.
The demonstration of U.S. power and resolve also lay at the heart of the neoconservative conception of counter-terrorism. Since the Vietnam War, conservatives had proclaimed that the image of the United States as a declining, vacillating power invited abuses ranging from Soviet cheating on détente to terrorist attacks. In Scooter Libby’s words, terrorists and rogue states believed that “the Americans don’t have the stomach to defend ourselves. … They are morally weak.”
The solution was the resolute use of force to crush foes and re-establish generalized deterrence. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld explained this concept on 9/11 itself: “We need to bomb something else [other than Afghanistan] to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.” Removing Iraq’s Baathist regime with overwhelming military power would scare other state sponsors into changing their behavior.
Crucially, the neoconservative Global War on Terror also embraced moral universalism and political transformation. President Bush rejected clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, declaring that “Islam is peace” and that the hijackers were “traitors to their own faith.” His universalism was on display in June 2002 when he asserted: “The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation.”
According to this view, modern jihadist terrorism was a product of radical Islamism, which became the ultimate target of the Global War on Terror. Neoconservatives viewed Islamism as a broad political movement that sought to take power in the region, erase Western influences, and impose its strict ideology. Radical Islamism, in turn, drew strength from the stagnancy and authoritarianism of the Middle East, as well as from many Muslims’ resentment of Western power and influence.
Following this logic, neoconservatives called for the political transformation of Middle Eastern societies as the long-term solution to terrorism. Liberal democracies, as Bush and others asserted, did not breed extremism because they gave people peaceful means of seeking change and expression. Democratizing Iraq could transform the entire region and eradicate the roots of terrorism. A belief that Western political values were universally applicable and that the Iraqi people were modern and pro-Western facilitated the embrace of this transformational project.
In response to this approach, liberals offered their own distinct counter-vision. Thinkers like George Packer, Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman, and Paul Berman argued that Bush was too unilateral and jingoistic and that his pursuit of global hegemony would provoke more anti-Americanism. Yet, their vision was still an interventionist and transformational one.
Building on the humanitarian interventionist doctrines of the 1990s, these liberals envisioned a Global War on Terror that would affirm human rights, multilateralism, and international law, not erode them. They agreed that the Middle East’s democratic deficit was one key cause of terrorism, but they also saw economic inequality and the disruptions of globalization as causes. Many of these liberals supported regime change against hostile states, but they were more eager than their conservative counterparts to pressure allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to democratize in order to attack terrorism’s roots. They also believed that the United States had to offer a vision of social and economic justice to the world. This meant challenging neoliberal economics and fostering reforms, including environmental regulations, alternative energy, women’s rights, labor rights, progressive taxes, and limits on capital flows.
The post-9/11 interventionist consensus built on a longstanding bipartisan commitment to U.S. global power that began in the early Cold War and was reinvigorated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1990s, many Americans saw an opportunity to use unparalleled U.S. power to promote apparently universal values. After 9/11, they concluded, spreading these values was a matter of direct national security, not just the cultivating of a friendlier global system.
As a result, it remains hard to fully disentangle the neoconservative and liberal conceptions of the Global War on Terror. They both treated radical Islamism as the enemy and embraced moral universalism and political transformation. In 2003, Packer proclaimed that “a liberal foreign policy starts with the idea that the things U.S. liberals want for themselves and for their own country … should be America’s goal for the rest of the world.” Friedman stressed the importance of political transformation in undercutting terrorism: “The only way to begin defusing that threat is by changing the context in which these young men grow up — namely all the Arab-Muslim states that are failing at modernity.” And, of course, many prominent liberals supported the Iraq War, viewing it as a humanitarian intervention and a way to, in Berman’s words, “foment a liberal revolution in the Middle East.”
Importantly, many neoconservatives and liberals also viewed the Global War on Terror as an opportunity for transformation at home, albeit in different ways. On the right, cultural critics like William J. Bennett hoped the conflict might reverse moral decline by reasserting old-fashioned patriotism, traditional values, and confidence in the superiority of the American way of life. Liberals, in contrast, sought to use the conflict to forge a newly patriotic and self-confident liberalism that could reverse the conservative political ascendency of the previous three decades and provide purpose to the faltering Democratic Party.
As a result, for both mainstream liberals and conservatives, the Global War on Terror was about more than just protecting the homeland and defeating al-Qaeda. It was a project of global and domestic transformation with U.S. interventionism as the main tool.
Nationalist and Leftist Anti-Interventionism
Despite its dominance in the early 2000s, the interventionist consensus would prove short-lived. The Iraq War quickly bogged down in insurgency and civil war, ultimately helping to spawn the Islamic State and a new wave of global terrorism. Today, Freedom House rates Iraq as “not free.” The war in Afghanistan remained inconclusive for years, and in 2021 the country relapsed into Taliban rule. Meanwhile, controversies over surveillance, war powers, and other counter-terror measures roiled domestic politics. As the Global War on Terror faltered, alternative visions that had remained marginal at first gained credence and bolstered broader critiques of the U.S. political establishment.
Nationalist criticism of the Global War on Terrorism stemmed from the traditionalist, paleo-conservative right. It was led by politicians and thinkers like Patrick Buchanan, Samuel Huntington, and writers at The American Conservative, which was founded in 2002 largely to oppose the pending war with Iraq. The nationalists focused on securing the homeland rather than changing the world. Like the neoconservatives and liberals, nationalists exhorted the United States to hunt down terrorists and instill fear in foes. Unlike the interventionists, however, they rejected nation-building efforts post-regime change.
The nationalists rejected the hegemonic interventionism and universalistic pretensions of the interventionists on philosophical and cultural grounds, not just strategic ones. They faulted the policy elite for thinking that the United States could transpose its values to the Islamic world. In their view, principles like democracy, religious freedom, and constitutional government were inescapably Western. Like some on the left, they argued that U.S. intervention provoked extremist backlashes. Buchanan argued: “9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted.” Angelo Codevilla, an international relations scholar associated with the far-right Claremont Institute, stated that victory against terrorism does not require Arab nations to “become democratic, free, or decent. … We have neither the power nor the right to make such changes.”
Codevilla supported the invasion of Iraq mainly to demonstrate U.S. power, not to spark a political revolution. Many other nationalists opposed the invasion as a foolish form of overreach or a futile quest to sow Western values in infertile soil. Nationalists took the Iraq War’s failure and the stalemate in Afghanistan as confirmation of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment’s incompetence. Many of a more libertarian bent, like Buchanan and Ron Paul, resented how the Global War on Terror had led to a massive expansion of the federal government.
In keeping with this anti-universalism, nationalists often cast the fight against terrorism as a clash of civilizations in which the United States must defend its unique civilization against a hostile Muslim world. Trump speechwriter and Claremont fellow Michael Anton put this starkly in a 2016 apologia for his future boss: “Islam is not ‘a religion of peace’; it’s a militant faith that exalts conversion by the sword and inspires thousands to acts of terror.” Repudiating Bush’s rhetoric, he argued that “Islam and the modern West are incompatible.” The problem was not radical Islam, authoritarianism, or inequality, but Islam itself. Ordinary Americans, largely imagined as white, had seen their children bleed in pointless wars while the same elite hollowed out the middle class with free trade and a “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners.” “A million more Syrians, anyone?” Anton mockingly asked, linking immigration and terrorism.
Nationalists rallied to Trump in part because he echoed these criticisms of the Global War on Terror and blasted policy elites for their botched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His denigration of Muslims and efforts to reduce Muslim immigration reflected the nationalist belief that they were uniquely prone to terrorism and unfit for U.S. citizenship. Trump’s declaration that “I’m a nationalist, okay!” and his promises to revive waterboarding and “bomb the shit out of ISIS” were fodder for those who wanted the war on terror to defend Americans by any means necessary, not become “an open-ended mission of global social reform.”
From entirely different starting points, leftist anti-interventionist criticism of the Global War on Terror became prominent in academia, activist circles, and the Democratic Party’s progressive wing. In this interpretation, 9/11 was not an unprovoked attack on an innocent nation. Rather, as Susan Sontag argued, it was “an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” The United States had bombed various peoples, fomented coups, backed autocrats, and spread inequality. Now it faced predictable if regrettable “blowback.”
The leftist interpretation treated a vengeful United States as a greater threat to world peace than any terrorist group. Building on longstanding critiques of U.S. foreign policy, leftists protested the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as racist imperial ventures that would provoke more terrorism. They opposed the expansion of the national security state, which they argued was being used against protest movements and vulnerable populations. They defended whistleblowers who exposed controversial programs. They believed the Global War on Terror fueled Islamophobia and facilitated the rise of nativist politicians like Trump. Leftist critics particularly faulted Obama for failing to reduce executive powers and expanding the War on Terror in some ways, including the use of drones.
Leftists, like the liberals, envisioned justice as crucial for stopping terrorism. But to them, achieving justice required withdrawing much of U.S. power from the world, not reasserting it. Dismantle the worldwide network of military installations, remove support for Israel and allied dictatorships, cease military interventions in the Global South, end neoliberal trade policies, and the root causes of terrorist anger would abate.
Despite key differences, the nationalist and leftist critiques of the interventionist consensus overlap in important ways. Both are skeptical of moral universalism to different degrees, the nationalists because of the presumed superiority of U.S. civilization, the leftists out of the conviction that a deeply flawed United States had no moral standing to reform the world. The nationalists were more comfortable with the use of force, but both groups held that the bipartisan elite had overextended U.S. power with negative consequences at home and abroad.
Finally, leftists, like nationalists, viewed the failed Global War on Terror as an indictment of the political establishment as a whole, which they believed should no longer be trusted with power. They rallied to Sanders, who had opposed the Iraq War from the outset. As a presidential candidate in both 2016 and 2020, he promised a break from the interventionism of his primary rivals, Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden, respectively, who, he claimed, represented a liberal foreign policy elite still fixated on “benevolent global hegemony.” Without dismissing the threat of terrorism, Sanders labeled the Global War on Terror a “disaster for the American people and for American leadership.” His campaigns pledged to dismantle much of the national security state and “dramatically de-emphasize military power” in foreign policy.
Ukraine in the Shadow of the Global War on Terror
As U.S. foreign policy slowly transitions from terrorism to great power issues like the war in Ukraine, it is crucial to understand the tangled history of the Global War on Terrorism not just as a matter of foreign affairs but a battle over ideas, culture, and politics.
President Biden is an establishment leader with establishment foreign policy advisors who supported the Iraq War. However, he has developed a skeptical streak toward nation-building and counter-insurgency, particularly in Afghanistan. He has framed the war in Ukraine as a defense of global democracies against rising authoritarianism. In doing so, he appears to cast this crisis as the foreign policy establishment’s chance to redeem itself by addressing a more conventional menace, without putting boots on the ground or trying to transform a foreign society.
Members of the anti-interventionist consensus do not necessarily oppose military aid to Ukraine. But they fear the United States being dragged into a hot war and often blame the United States for the crisis, citing NATO expansion as another case of U.S. overreach. More concerningly, many on the nationalist right openly admire Putin, in large part because they believe he embodies their value system.
Two decades on, the failures of the Global War on Terror continue to hang over U.S. policy in Ukraine. Many in the establishment hope that they can rebuild bipartisan support for the exercise of U.S. power by distancing it from the overreach of Iraq. For critics on both the left and right, however, conflicting understandings of what went wrong have created a deeper public skepticism that constrains Biden’s options today. Squeezed between these poles, the establishment now operates on a much shorter leash as it fights to restore the legitimacy it forfeited in its response to terrorism.
Joseph Stieb is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003. He has published articles in Diplomatic History, Modern American History, The International History Review, War on the Rocks, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, American Purpose, and elsewhere.