American Choices in the ‘War on Terror’

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 1, 2004

Reprinted by permission of Survival, (Volume 46, Issue 1, Spring 2004).

Winning Modern Wars: Iraq, Terrorism and the American Empire
Wesley K. Clark. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror
David Frum and Richard Perle. New York: Random House, 2003.

The massive destruction and emotional trauma caused by the 11 September attacks on the United States, unprecedented in U.S. history, made President Bush’s declaration of war almost a political and psychological necessity. Almost immediately, Americans across the political spectrum accepted and internalized the notion the that the United States was indeed at war. What remains contested is just who the United States is at war against. Is the enemy Al-Qaeda, the organization that planned and carried out the attacks? Is it the state sponsors and supporters of terrorist groups? Is it governments whose mistreatment of their own people create the climate in which terrorism breeds? Or is the United States fighting an even broader war against terrorism itself, the technique of warfare that on 11 September gave just a glimpse of its capacity to visit destruction on the American populace?

The answers to these questions define the U.S. strategy in the war on terrorism. In the frightening days after 11 September, the Bush administration answered them rapidly and forcefully. It began the war with an effort to find and punish those responsible for 11 September—Al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. But a second phase quickly followed before the first had even finished. In the second phase, the United States made clear it would not tolerate a world marked by the unholy trinity of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and rogue regimes. The administration wrapped the invasion of Iraq in the mantle of this wider war on terrorism and continues to hint that other states that support terrorists or develop weapons of mass destruction risk similar treatment.

Now, with a presidential election campaign underway and in the difficult aftermath of the controversial decision to invade Iraq, the president’s approach to the war on terror is coming under considerable scrutiny. Two recent books—Winning Modern Wars by General Wesley K. Clark, and An End to Evil, by David Frum and Richard Perle—help to frame the choices with which Americans are faced. Clark, the retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander who published his book before announcing a decision to run for the Democratic nomination for president last year, takes what might be called the ‘targeted’ approach to the terrorism problem. His central argument is that the war in Iraq was a strategic error and that the U.S. focus should have been, and should now be, on the al-Qaeda network and its supporters. Like many Democrats, Clark also denounces the Bush administration for alienating key American allies and for failing to take advantage of international institutions like the UN and NATO to build legitimacy for the war against and occupation of Iraq. He criticizes the administration for infringing on civil liberties in their approach to holding terrorist suspects without trial and its investigation of American Muslims, and fears these measures will create more problems than they solve. In short, Winning Modern Wars is a sweeping case that the Bush administration, by widening the war on terror, is leading the United States down a path toward isolation and insecurity.