Doubting the Global War on Terror



How to Cite

Burns, A. (2011). Doubting the Global War on Terror. M/C Journal, 14(1).
Vol. 14 No. 1 (2011): doubt
Published 2011-01-24

Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)
      Photograph by Gonzalo Echeverria (2010)

Declaring War

Soon after Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration described its new grand strategy: the “Global War on Terror”. This underpinned the subsequent counter-insurgency in Afghanistan and the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Media pundits quickly applied the Global War on Terror label to the Madrid, Bali and London bombings, to convey how Al Qaeda’s terrorism had gone transnational. Meanwhile, international relations scholars debated the extent to which September 11 had changed the international system (Brenner; Mann 303).

American intellectuals adopted several variations of the Global War on Terror in what initially felt like a transitional period of US foreign policy (Burns). Walter Laqueur suggested Al Qaeda was engaged in a “cosmological” and perpetual war. Paul Berman likened Al Qaeda and militant Islam to the past ideological battles against communism and fascism (Heilbrunn 248). In a widely cited article, neoconservative thinker Norman Podhoretz suggested the United States faced “World War IV”, which had three interlocking drivers: Al Qaeda and trans-national terrorism; political Islam as the West’s existential enemy; and nuclear proliferation to ‘rogue’ countries and non-state actors (Friedman 3). Podhoretz’s tone reflected a revival of his earlier Cold War politics and critique of the New Left (Friedman 148-149; Halper and Clarke 56; Heilbrunn 210).

These stances attracted widespread support. For instance, the United States Marine Corp recalibrated its mission to fight a long war against “World War IV-like” enemies. Yet these stances left the United States unprepared as the combat situations in Afghanistan and Iraq worsened (Ricks; Ferguson; Filkins). Neoconservative ideals for Iraq “regime change” to transform the Middle East failed to deal with other security problems such as Pakistan’s Musharraf regime (Dorrien 110; Halper and Clarke 210-211; Friedman 121, 223; Heilbrunn 252). The Manichean and open-ended framing became a self-fulfilling prophecy for insurgents, jihadists, and militias. The Bush Administration quietly abandoned the Global War on Terror in July 2005. Widespread support had given way to policymaker doubt.

Why did so many intellectuals and strategists embrace the Global War on Terror as the best possible “grand strategy” perspective of a post-September 11 world? Why was there so little doubt of this worldview? This is a debate with roots as old as the Sceptics versus the Sophists. Explanations usually focus on the Bush Administration’s “Vulcans” war cabinet: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who later became Secretary of State (Mann xv-xvi). The “Vulcans” were named after the Roman god Vulcan because Rice’s hometown Birmingham, Alabama, had “a mammoth fifty-six foot statue . . . [in] homage to the city’s steel industry” (Mann x) and the name stuck. Alternatively, explanations focus on how neoconservative thinkers shaped the intellectual climate after September 11, in a receptive media climate. Biographers suggest that “neoconservatism had become an echo chamber” (Heilbrunn 242) with its own media outlets, pundits, and think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and Project for a New America. Neoconservatism briefly flourished in Washington DC until Iraq’s sectarian violence discredited the “Vulcans” and neoconservative strategists like Paul Wolfowitz (Friedman; Ferguson).

The neoconservatives' combination of September 11’s aftermath with strongly argued historical analogies was initially convincing. They conferred with scholars such as Bernard Lewis, Samuel P. Huntington and Victor Davis Hanson to construct classicist historical narratives and to explain cultural differences. However, the history of the decade after September 11 also contains mis-steps and mistakes which make it a series of contingent decisions (Ferguson; Bergen).

One way to analyse these contingent decisions is to pose “what if?” counterfactuals, or feasible alternatives to historical events (Lebow). For instance, what if September 11 had been a chemical and biological weapons attack? (Mann 317). Appendix 1 includes a range of alternative possibilities and “minimal rewrites” or slight variations on the historical events which occurred. Collectively, these counterfactuals suggest the role of agency, chance, luck, and the juxtaposition of better and worse outcomes. They pose challenges to the classicist interpretation adopted soon after September 11 to justify “World War IV” (Podhoretz).

A ‘Two-Track’ Process for ‘World War IV’

After the September 11 attacks, I think an overlapping two-track process occurred with the “Vulcans” cabinet, neoconservative advisers, and two “echo chambers”: neoconservative think-tanks and the post-September 11 media. Crucially, Bush’s “Vulcans” war cabinet succeeded in gaining civilian control of the United States war decision process. Although successful in initiating the 2003 Iraq War this civilian control created a deeper crisis in US civil-military relations (Stevenson; Morgan). The “Vulcans” relied on “politicised” intelligence such as a United Kingdom intelligence report on Iraq’s weapons development program. The report enabled “a climate of undifferentiated fear to arise” because its public version did not distinguish between chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons (Halper and Clarke, 210). The cautious 2003 National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) report on Iraq was only released in a strongly edited form. For instance, the US Department of Energy had expressed doubts about claims that Iraq had approached Niger for uranium, and was using aluminium tubes for biological and chemical weapons development.

Meanwhile, the post-September 11 media had become a second “echo chamber” (Halper and Clarke 194-196) which amplified neoconservative arguments. Berman, Laqueur, Podhoretz and others who framed the intellectual climate were “risk entrepreneurs” (Mueller 41-43) that supported the “World War IV” vision. The media also engaged in aggressive “flak” campaigns (Herman and Chomsky 26-28; Mueller 39-42) designed to limit debate and to stress foreign policy stances and themes which supported the Bush Administration. When former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey’s claimed that Al Qaeda had close connections to Iraqi intelligence, this was promoted in several books, including Michael Ledeen’s War Against The Terror Masters, Stephen Hayes’ The Connection, and Laurie Mylroie’s Bush v. The Beltway; and in partisan media such as Fox News, NewsMax, and The Weekly Standard who each attacked the US State Department and the CIA (Dorrien 183; Hayes; Ledeen; Mylroie; Heilbrunn 237, 243-244; Mann 310). This was the media “echo chamber” at work. The group Accuracy in Media also campaigned successfully to ensure that US cable providers did not give Al Jazeera English access to US audiences (Barker). Cosmopolitan ideals seemed incompatible with what the “flak” groups desired.

The two-track process converged on two now infamous speeches. US President Bush’s State of the Union Address on 29 January 2002, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations on 5 February 2003. Bush’s speech included a line from neoconservative David Frumm about North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an “Axis of Evil” (Dorrien 158; Halper and Clarke 139-140; Mann 242, 317-321). Powell’s presentation to the United Nations included now-debunked threat assessments. In fact, Powell had altered the speech’s original draft by I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was Cheney’s chief of staff (Dorrien 183-184). Powell claimed that Iraq had mobile biological weapons facilities, linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Mohamed El-Baradei, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and the Institute for Science and International Security all strongly doubted this claim, as did international observers (Dorrien 184; Halper and Clarke 212-213; Mann 353-354). Yet this information was suppressed: attacked by “flak” or given little visible media coverage. Powell’s agenda included trying to rebuild an international coalition and to head off weather changes that would affect military operations in the Middle East (Mann 351).

Both speeches used politicised variants of “weapons of mass destruction”, taken from the counterterrorism literature (Stern; Laqueur). Bush’s speech created an inflated geopolitical threat whilst Powell relied on flawed intelligence and scientific visuals to communicate a non-existent threat (Vogel). However, they had the intended effect on decision makers. US Under-Secretary of Defense, the neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz, later revealed to Vanity Fair that “weapons of mass destruction” was selected as an issue that all potential stakeholders could agree on (Wilkie 69). Perhaps the only remaining outlet was satire: Armando Iannucci’s 2009 film In The Loop parodied the diplomatic politics surrounding Powell’s speech and the civil-military tensions on the Iraq War’s eve.

In the short term the two track process worked in heading off doubt. The “Vulcans” blocked important information on pre-war Iraq intelligence from reaching the media and the general public (Prados). Alternatively, they ignored area specialists and other experts, such as when Coalition Provisional Authority’s L. Paul Bremer ignored the US State Department’s fifteen volume ‘Future of Iraq’ project (Ferguson). Public “flak” and “risk entrepreneurs” mobilised a range of motivations from grief and revenge to historical memory and identity politics. This combination of private and public processes meant that although doubts were expressed, they could be contained through the dual echo chambers of neoconservative policymaking and the post-September 11 media. These factors enabled the “Vulcans” to proceed with their “regime change” plans despite strong public opposition from anti-war protestors.

Expressing Doubts

Many experts and institutions expressed doubt about specific claims the Bush Administration made to support the 2003 Iraq War. This doubt came from three different and sometimes overlapping groups. Subject matter experts such as the IAEA’s Mohamed El-Baradei and weapons development scientists countered the UK intelligence report and Powell’s UN speech. However, they did not get the media coverage warranted due to “flak” and “echo chamber” dynamics. Others could challenge misleading historical analogies between insurgent Iraq and Nazi Germany, and yet not change the broader outcomes (Benjamin). Independent journalists one group who gained new information during the 1990-91 Gulf War: some entered Iraq from Kuwait and documented a more humanitarian side of the war to journalists embedded with US military units (Uyarra). Finally, there were dissenters from bureaucratic and institutional processes. In some cases, all three overlapped.

In their separate analyses of the post-September 11 debate on intelligence “failure”, Zegart and Jervis point to a range of analytic misperceptions and institutional problems. However, the intelligence community is separated from policymakers such as the “Vulcans”. Compartmentalisation due to the “need to know” principle also means that doubting analysts can be blocked from releasing information. Andrew Wilkie discovered this when he resigned from Australia’s Office for National Assessments (ONA) as a transnational issues analyst. Wilkie questioned the pre-war assessments in Powell’s United Nations speech that were used to justify the 2003 Iraq War. Wilkie was then attacked publicly by Australian Prime Minister John Howard. This overshadowed a more important fact: both Howard and Wilkie knew that due to Australian legislation, Wilkie could not publicly comment on ONA intelligence, despite the invitation to do so.

This barrier also prevented other intelligence analysts from responding to the “Vulcans”, and to “flak” and “echo chamber” dynamics in the media and neoconservative think-tanks. Many analysts knew that the excerpts released from the 2003 NIE on Iraq was highly edited (Prados). For example, Australian agencies such as the ONA, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Department of Defence knew this (Wilkie 98). However, analysts are trained not to interfere with policymakers, even when there are significant civil-military irregularities. Military officials who spoke out about pre-war planning against the “Vulcans” and their neoconservative supporters were silenced (Ricks; Ferguson). Greenlight Capital’s hedge fund manager David Einhorn illustrates in a different context what might happen if analysts did comment. Einhorn gave a speech to the Ira Sohn Conference on 15 May 2002 debunking the management of Allied Capital. Einhorn’s “short-selling” led to retaliation from Allied Capital, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, and growing evidence of potential fraud. If analysts adopted Einhorn’s tactics—combining rigorous analysis with targeted, public denunciation that is widely reported—then this may have short-circuited the “flak” and “echo chamber” effects prior to the 2003 Iraq War.

The intelligence community usually tries to pre-empt such outcomes via contestation exercises and similar processes. This was the goal of the 2003 NIE on Iraq, despite the fact that the US Department of Energy which had the expertise was overruled by other agencies who expressed opinions not necessarily based on rigorous scientific and technical analysis (Prados; Vogel). In counterterrorism circles, similar disinformation arose about Aum Shinrikyo’s biological weapons research after its sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system on 20 March 1995 (Leitenberg). Disinformation also arose regarding nuclear weapons proliferation to non-state actors in the 1990s (Stern). Interestingly, several of the “Vulcans” and neoconservatives had been involved in an earlier controversial contestation exercise: Team B in 1976. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assembled three Team B groups in order to evaluate and forecast Soviet military capabilities. One group headed by historian Richard Pipes gave highly “alarmist” forecasts and then attacked a CIA NIE about the Soviets (Dorrien 50-56; Mueller 81). The neoconservatives adopted these same tactics to reframe the 2003 NIE from its position of caution, expressed by several intelligence agencies and experts, to belief that Iraq possessed a current, covert program to develop weapons of mass destruction (Prados).

Alternatively, information may be leaked to the media to express doubt. “Non-attributable” background interviews to establishment journalists like Seymour Hersh and Bob Woodward achieved this. Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange has recently achieved notoriety due to US diplomatic cables from the SIPRNet network released from 28 November 2010 onwards. Supporters have favourably compared Assange to Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND researcher who leaked the Pentagon Papers (Ellsberg; Ehrlich and Goldsmith). Whilst Elsberg succeeded because a network of US national papers continued to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers despite lawsuit threats, Assange relied in part on favourable coverage from the UK’s Guardian newspaper. However, suspected sources such as US Army soldier Bradley Manning are not protected whilst media outlets are relatively free to publish their scoops (Walt, ‘Woodward’). Assange’s publication of SIPRNet’s diplomatic cables will also likely mean greater restrictions on diplomatic and military intelligence (Walt, ‘Don’t Write’).

Beyond ‘Doubt’

Iraq’s worsening security discredited many of the factors that had given the neoconservatives credibility. The post-September 11 media became increasingly more critical of the US military in Iraq (Ferguson) and cautious about the “echo chamber” of think-tanks and media outlets. Internet sites for Al Jazeera English, Al-Arabiya and other networks have enabled people to bypass “flak” and directly access these different viewpoints. Most damagingly, the non-discovery of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction discredited both the 2003 NIE on Iraq and Colin Powell’s United Nations presentation (Wilkie 104). Likewise, “risk entrepreneurs” who foresaw “World War IV” in 2002 and 2003 have now distanced themselves from these apocalyptic forecasts due to a series of mis-steps and mistakes by the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda’s over-calculation (Bergen). The emergence of sites such as Wikileaks, and networks like Al Jazeera English and Al-Arabiya, are a response to the politics of the past decade. They attempt to short-circuit past “echo chambers” through providing access to different sources and leaked data.

The Global War on Terror framed the Bush Administration’s response to September 11 as a war (Kirk; Mueller 59). Whilst this prematurely closed off other possibilities, it has also unleashed a series of dynamics which have undermined the neoconservative agenda. The “classicist” history and historical analogies constructed to justify the “World War IV” scenario are just one of several potential frameworks. “Flak” organisations and media “echo chambers” are now challenged by well-financed and strategic alternatives such as Al Jazeera English and Al-Arabiya. Doubt is one defence against “risk entrepreneurs” who seek to promote a particular idea: doubt guards against uncritical adoption. Perhaps the enduring lesson of the post-September 11 debates, though, is that doubt alone is not enough. What is needed are individuals and institutions that understand the strategies which the neoconservatives and others have used, and who also have the soft power skills during crises to influence critical decision-makers to choose alternatives.

Appendix 1: Counterfactuals

Richard Ned Lebow uses “what if?” counterfactuals to examine alternative possibilities and “minimal rewrites” or slight variations on the historical events that occurred. The following counterfactuals suggest that the Bush Administration’s Global War on Terror could have evolved very differently . . . or not occurred at all.

Fact: The 2003 Iraq War and 2001 Afghanistan counterinsurgency shaped the Bush Administration’s post-September 11 grand strategy.

Counterfactual #1: Al Gore decisively wins the 2000 U.S. election. Bush v. Gore never occurs. After the September 11 attacks, Gore focuses on international alliance-building and gains widespread diplomatic support rather than a neoconservative agenda. He authorises Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan and works closely with the Musharraf regime in Pakistan to target Al Qaeda’s muhajideen. He ‘contains’ Saddam Hussein’s Iraq through measurement and signature, technical intelligence, and more stringent monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Minimal Rewrite: United 93 crashes in Washington DC, killing senior members of the Gore Administration.

Fact: U.S. Special Operations Forces failed to kill Osama bin Laden in late November and early December 2001 at Tora Bora.

Counterfactual #2: U.S. Special Operations Forces kill Osama bin Laden in early December 2001 during skirmishes at Tora Bora. Ayman al-Zawahiri is critically wounded, captured, and imprisoned. The rest of Al Qaeda is scattered.

Minimal Rewrite: Osama bin Laden’s death turns him into a self-mythologised hero for decades.

Fact: The UK Blair Government supplied a 50-page intelligence dossier on Iraq’s weapons development program which the Bush Administration used to support its pre-war planning.

Counterfactual #3: Rogue intelligence analysts debunk the UK Blair Government’s claims through a series of ‘targeted’ leaks to establishment news sources.

Minimal Rewrite: The 50-page intelligence dossier is later discovered to be correct about Iraq’s weapons development program.

Fact: The Bush Administration used the 2003 National Intelligence Estimate to “build its case” for “regime change” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Counterfactual #4:  A joint investigation by The New York Times and The Washington Post rebuts U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United National Security Council, delivered on 5 February 2003.

Minimal Rewrite: The Central Intelligence Agency’s whitepaper “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs” (October 2002) more accurately reflects the 2003 NIE’s cautious assessments.

Fact: The Bush Administration relied on Ahmed Chalabi for its postwar estimates about Iraq’s reconstruction.

Counterfactual #5: The Bush Administration ignores Chalabi’s advice and relies instead on the U.S. State Department’s 15 volume report “The Future of Iraq”. 

Minimal Rewrite: The Coalition Provisional Authority appoints Ahmed Chalabi to head an interim Iraqi government.

Fact: L. Paul Bremer signed orders to disband Iraq’s Army and to De-Ba’athify Iraq’s new government.

Counterfactual #6: Bremer keeps Iraq’s Army intact and uses it to impose security in Baghdad to prevent looting and to thwart insurgents. Rather than a De-Ba’athification policy, Bremer uses former Baath Party members to gather situational intelligence.

Minimal Rewrite: Iraq’s Army refuses to disband and the De-Ba’athification policy uncovers several conspiracies to undermine the Coalition Provisional Authority.


Thanks to Stephen McGrail for advice on science and technology analysis.


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