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10 September 2002

September 11 Launched a New Era in U.S. Strategic Thinking

(Terrorist attacks re-directed foreign policy) (2740)
(The following article by Robert J. Lieber, professor of government
and foreign service at Georgetown University, appears in the
International Information Programs Electronic Journal "September 11:
One Year Later" issued in September 2002. This article and the rest of
the journal may be viewed on the Web at
(begin byliner)
September 11 Launched a New Era in U.S. Strategic Thinking
By Robert J. Lieber
Professor of Government and Foreign Service
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
(The post-Cold War era, which began with the collapse of the Soviet
Union almost 12 years ago, ended abruptly on the sunny, clear morning
of September 11, 2001, In an instant, coordinated terrorist attacks
transformed the international security environment and dictated a new
"grand strategy" for the United States.)
September 11 marked the start of a new era in American strategic
thinking. The terror attacks of that morning have had an impact
comparable to the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, that
propelled the United States into World War II. Before September 11,
the Bush administration had been in the process of developing a new
national security strategy. This was taking place through the
Quadrennial Defense Review as well as in other venues. In an instant,
however, the September 11 attacks transformed the international
security environment. An entirely new and ominous threat suddenly
became a reality, and dictated a new grand strategy for the United
States. This new policy, now dubbed the "Bush Doctrine," now focuses
on the threat from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
End of the Post-Cold War Era
September 11 brought to a sudden end the post-Cold War era that had
begun almost exactly 12 years earlier. That period originated with the
dramatic opening of the Berlin Wall on the night of November 9, 1989,
followed in rapid succession by the collapse of communism in Eastern
Europe, the end of the Cold War, and, in December 1991, the breakup of
the Soviet Union. For the first time in more than half a century, the
United States seemed no longer to face a single great threat to its
national security and way of life. In the late 1930s and in World War
II that menace had come from fascism. During the Cold War, it was the
Soviet Union and Soviet communism. In both cases, the danger was
massive and unambiguous. As a result, within the United States and
among its allies, there existed a broad consensus about the existence
of a major threat, even though differences sometimes arose -- as in
the case of Vietnam -- over specific courses of action.
During the years from 1989 to 2001, a multiplicity of lesser dangers
existed -- for example, ethnic conflict, weapons proliferation,
terrorism, political and financial instability, failed states, the
impact of climate changes, infectious diseases, and poverty. While no
one danger proved dominant, the United States did find itself drawn
into a number of military interventions in response to local or
regional conflicts, as in the case of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait
(1990-91), Somalia (1991-92), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo
(1999). At the same time, there were other conflicts in which the
United States did not intervene, most notably during the Rwandan
genocide (1994), in Bosnia from 1992 until July 1995, and in civil
wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(formerly known as Zaire), and elsewhere.
"Grand strategy" is the term describing how a country will use the
various means it possesses -- military, economic, political,
technological, ideological, and cultural -- to protect and promote its
overall security, values, and national interests. During World War II,
this meant a grand alliance, mobilization, and total war to defeat
Nazi Germany and Japan. During the Cold War, American foreign policy
doctrine could be described with one word -- containment. Unlike the
Cold War era, formulation of a grand strategy or any one specific
doctrine proved elusive during the 1990s. In contrast to the four
decades of the Cold War, there was no consensus about the nature of
threats to American national interests or even about how to
characterize the new era. As a result, a number of tentative doctrines
were put forward during the 1990s, among them ideas concerning a new
world order, assertive multilateralism, and a strategy of engagement
and enlargement to encourage the spread of democracies and market
economies. Each of these approaches had its strong points, but none
proved sufficiently comprehensive or durable as a grand strategy for
the new era.
In retrospect, even without a grand strategy, three broad elements did
condition American foreign policy during the post-Cold War years. The
first of these was America's situation of primacy. That is, after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States stood in an almost
unprecedented position across all the dimensions by which power is
typically measured: economic, military, technological, cultural. No
other country came close to the same level, and none appeared to be a
likely challenger in the immediate future. As the historian Paul
Kennedy, author of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," has
written, "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power;
nothing." (London Financial Times, February 1, 2002). This
preponderance has precipitated reactions both of admiration and
Second, as a result of primacy, as well as the relatively limited
capacities of international or regional bodies such as the United
Nations and European Union, the United States possessed a unique role
in coping with the most urgent international problems, whether in
regional conflicts, ethnic cleansing, financial crises, or other kinds
of issues. This did not mean that the United States could or would
serve as the world's policeman, but it did mean that unless America
was actively engaged, management of the world's most dangerous
problems was unlikely to be effective.
Third, however, a single, overarching, and unambiguous danger was not
apparent. In the domestic realm, this had the effect of relegating
foreign policy to a low priority for most Americans and thus made it
harder for any administration to gain support for the making of
coherent foreign policy or for the allocation of substantial resources
to those efforts. Abroad, despite allied collaboration in the Gulf War
against Iraq and ultimately in dealing with the civil war in Bosnia
and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the absence of the Soviet threat made
cooperation more difficult because there no longer seemed to be an
imperative for collective action in the face of a common enemy.
The Challenge of September 11
All this changed in a single day on September 11, 2001. Terrorism was
no longer one among a number of assorted dangers to the United States,
but a fundamental threat to America, its way of life, and its vital
interests. The al Qaeda terrorists, who masterminded the use of
hijacked jumbo jets to attack the Pentagon, destroy the twin towers of
the World Trade Center, and kill 40 passengers and crew over
Pennsylvania, were carrying out mass murder as a means of political
intimidation. Whether their extreme and nihilistic use of Islam as a
political doctrine constitutes the third great totalitarian challenge
to America after fascism and communism, remains to be determined.
Nonetheless, the willingness of terrorists to carry out mass casualty
attacks, in this case directed at two of the most powerful symbols of
America's commercial and government life, now poses a great and
unambiguous danger.
The gravity of this threat is amplified by two additional factors.
First, the ruthlessness and cold-blooded willingness to slaughter
large numbers of innocent civilians without the slightest moral
compunction has raised fears about potential use of weapons of mass
destruction (WMD). Given the terrorists' conduct and statements by
their leaders, as well as evidence that state sponsors of terrorism
are seeking to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons,
there is now a risk that WMD might in the future be used directly
against the United States as well as against America's friends and
allies abroad. Second, in view of the fact that the 19 terrorists in
the four hijacked aircraft committed suicide in carrying out their
attacks, the precepts of deterrence are now called into question. By
contrast, even at the height of the Cold War, American strategists
could make their calculations based on the assumed rationality of
Soviet leaders and the knowledge that they would not willingly commit
nuclear suicide by initiating a massive attack against the United
States or its allies. September 11 however, undermines this key
A New Grand Strategy for the United States
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Bush administration
turned its attention to a war against terrorism. First, on the
domestic front, the administration sought and received a joint
resolution from Congress authorizing use of military force, in the
exercise of legitimate self-defense. In the language of the
resolution: "The President is authorized to use all necessary and
appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he
determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist
attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001 ... in order to prevent
any future acts of international terrorism against the United States
The resolution passed by a margin of 98-0 in the Senate and 420-1 in
the House of Representatives. Public opinion, which had been deeply
divided since the November 2000 presidential election, rallied in
broad support not only of the war effort, but of the President
Second, the United States sought and received a unanimous U.N.
Security Council vote on September 28. Resolution 1373 -- adopted
under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter that provides wide authority for
the Security Council to enforce its decision and makes the resolution
binding for all U.N. member countries -- requires all member states to
criminalize al-Qaeda financial activities, share intelligence
information, and take measures to prevent the movement of terrorists.
While the resolution has a more symbolic than practical effect, it
provides multilateral legitimacy for the American-led battle against
Third, the 19 members of NATO invoked Article V of the North Atlantic
Treaty for the first time in the history of the alliance. Article V
treats an attack on one member state as an attack on all, and requires
that they take action under their respective constitutional
procedures. Ultimately, some 16 of the 19 countries contributed
personnel to the Afghan campaign, even though the war was not formally
conducted as a NATO operation. Additional political, military, and
intelligence cooperation was also provided by a large number of
states, including Russia, China, and many of Afghanistan's Asian and
Middle Eastern neighbors.
In the ensuing months, American airpower and U.S. Special Forces, in
support of the Afghan opposition, quickly defeated the Taliban regime
that had ruled Afghanistan along with their al-Qaeda allies. This
victory occurred far more rapidly and with far fewer casualties than
many observers had expected, and it was met with celebration by the
local population, which saw itself liberated from oppressive Taliban
From the beginning, however, the president has been explicit in saying
that the war against terror will not be quickly completed, and in
January 2002, speaking to a joint session of Congress, he outlined
what quickly became known as the "Bush Doctrine."
"...(W)e will shut down terrorist camps, disrupt terrorist plans, and
bring terrorists to justice. And ... we must prevent the terrorists
and regimes who seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons from
threatening the United States and the world ....
Yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events while dangers
gather. I will not stand by as peril draws closer and closer. The
United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous
regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
(State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002).
Two elements are crucial to the doctrine. The first is a sense of
urgency, reflected in the words that "time is not on our side." The
second is that the unique danger created by weapons of mass
destruction requires the United States to be prepared to take swift,
decisive, and pre-emptive action. Both of these imperatives reflect
the calculation that whatever the risks of acting, the risks of not
acting are more ominous. Moreover, the president made clear that a
handful of states present the greatest threat, especially Iraq, Iran,
and North Korea, which he termed "the axis of evil." The concern here
is not only the danger of these countries acquiring WMD themselves,
but also the risk that they might ultimately make such weapons
available to others, particularly terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
In the following months, senior foreign policy officials, as well as
the president, have elaborated on the administration's approach,
including the possibility of preemption, i.e., taking preventive
action rather than waiting passively for the United States or its
allies to suffer an attack before responding. For example, Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remarked: "A terrorist can attack at any
time at any place using a range of techniques. It is physically
impossible to defend at every time in every location .... When it's
something like smallpox or anthrax or a chemical weapon or the
radiation weapon or killing thousands of people at the World Trade
[Center], even the U.N. Charter provides for the right of
self-defense. And the only effective way to defend is to take the
battle to where the terrorists are .... So preemption with military
force is now an operative idea." (Interview, Jim Lehrer Newshour, PBS,
February 4, 2002).
Subsequently, in a June 1 address at the U.S. Military Academy, the
president told the assembled cadets that America must be ready for
"preemptive action when necessary" to defend liberty and lives. In a
similar vein, Vice President Cheney pledged that the United States
would "shut down terrorist camps wherever they are," and observed of
Iraq that a "regime that hates America must never be prepared to
threaten Americans with weapons of mass destruction." (Washington
Post, June 25, 2002).
At the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell observed that if
pre-emptive force is used, it must be used decisively. He also noted
that preemption can involve military force, as well as arrests,
sanctions, and diplomatic measures. National Security Advisor
Condoleezza Rice pointed to the 1962 blockade during the Cuban missile
crisis as an example of successful preemptive action. (Quotes from
"The Economist," June 22, 2002, page 29).
The Bush Doctrine and its elaboration embody American grand strategy a
year after September 11, but the doctrine does not exist in a vacuum.
Its viability will depend in part on sustained domestic support,
international reaction, and the ability of the United States to bear
the burdens of this strategy. In the domestic arena, though sharp
partisan differences are evident on other issues, broad bipartisan
support continues in foreign policy. At the same time, public opinion
strongly supports the war on terror. In addition, there is little
indication that the burdens of increased defense spending will prove
difficult to sustain. Prior to September 11, the share of gross
domestic product devoted to defense had dipped to 3 percent, a level
lower than at any time since Pearl Harbor. Even substantial increases
in defense spending, which have raised this figure to 3.3 percent and
could reach as high as 4 percent over a period of years, would not
constitute a drastic burden when compared with Cold War levels.
International reactions to the Bush Doctrine have been more complex,
and differences with allies and other countries have emerged
concerning Iraq, the Middle East, and the extent to which the United
States should be more "multilateral" in its approach to a wide range
of international problems. Much of this dissent remains rhetorical,
however, and extensive cooperation in military and intelligence
efforts continues to take place. Some of the foreign reactions are an
inevitable consequence of American primacy. Yet the muted reaction and
tendency for it to remain largely symbolic reflect the lack of
effective means of international enforcement through existing regional
and world institutions. Ultimately, the Bush Doctrine represents a
strategy to defend the United States against potential attacks with
weapons of mass destruction. Further, it embodies a unique American
world role in helping to protect others against such devastation.
(Lieber is the editor and a contributing author of "Eagle Rules?
Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the 21st Century," a book
published in 2002.)
(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do
not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.)
(end byliner)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site:

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