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The Path to a New 1914? How America Chose War After 9/11

Posted on Jul 24, 2014

    Two parallel walls point toward where the World Trade Center towers once stood. Photo by joiseyshowaa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Jonathan Schell, TomDispatch

This piece by the late American journalist Jonathan Schell, who died in March, first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

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[This essay is slightly adapted from Jonathan Schell’s 2003 book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, and appears at with the kind permission of its publisher, Metropolitan Books.]

Then came the attack of September 11th. Like the starting gun of a race that no one knew he was to run, this explosion set the pack of nations off in a single direction—toward the trenches. Although the attack was unaccompanied by any claim of authorship or statement of political goals, the evidence almost immediately pointed to al-Qaeda, the radical Islamist, terrorist network, which, though stateless, was headquartered in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of its fundamentalist Islamic government. In a tape that was soon shown around the world, the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was seen at dinner with his confederates in Afghanistan, rejoicing in the slaughter.

Historically, nations have responded to terrorist threats and attacks with a combination of police action and political negotiation, while military action has played only a minor role. Voices were raised in the United States calling for a global cooperative effort of this kind to combat al-Qaeda. President Bush opted instead for a policy that the United States alone among nations could have conceivably undertaken: global military action not only against al-Qaeda but against any regime in the world that supported international terrorism.

The president announced to Congress that he would “make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them.” By calling the campaign a “war,” the administration summoned into action the immense, technically revolutionized, post-Cold War American military machine, which had lacked any clear enemy for over a decade. And by identifying the target as generic “terrorism,” rather than as al-Qaeda or any other group or list of groups, the administration licensed military operations anywhere in the world.


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In the ensuing months, the Bush administration continued to expand the aims and means of the war. The overthrow of governments—“regime change”—was established as a means for advancing the new policies. The president divided regimes into two categories—those “with us” and those “against us.” Vice President Cheney estimated that al-Qaeda was active in 60 countries. The first regime to be targeted was of course al-Qaeda’s host, the government of Afghanistan, which was overthrown in a remarkably swift military operation conducted almost entirely from the air and without American casualties.

Next, the administration proclaimed an additional war goal—preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, the president announced that “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” He went on to name as an “axis of evil” Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—three regimes seeking to build or already possessing weapons of mass destruction. To stop them, he stated, the Cold War policy of deterrence would not be enough—“preemptive” military action would be required, and preemption, the administration soon specified, could include the use of nuclear weapons.

Beginning in the summer of 2002, the government intensified its preparations for a war to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and in the fall, the president demanded and received a resolution from the Security Council of the United Nations requiring Iraq to accept the return of U.N. inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction or facilities for building them. Lists of other candidates for “regime change” began to surface in the press.

Leaving Cooperative Action Behind

In this way, the war on terror grew to encompass the most important geopolitical issue facing the world: the disposition of nuclear weapons in the second nuclear age. The Clinton administration had already answered the question regarding American possession of nuclear weapons: even in the absence of the Soviet Union, the United States planned to hold on to its nuclear arsenal indefinitely.

In 2002, the Bush administration gave an answer to the question regarding nonproliferation, which throughout the nuclear age had been dealt with exclusively by diplomacy and negotiation, or, on occasion, economic sanctions. The new answer was force. Nuclear disarmament was to be achieved by war and threats of war, starting with Iraq. One complementary element of the new policy, embraced long before September 11th, was the decision to build a national missile defense system to protect the United States against nuclear attack by “rogue nations.” But the fundamental element was a policy of preemptive war, or “offensive deterrence.”

This momentous shift in nuclear policy called, in addition, for programs to build new nuclear weapons and new delivery vehicles; confirmed new missions for nuclear weapons—retaliation for chemical or biological attacks, attacking hardened bunkers unreachable by other weapons—in the post-Cold War world; and listed seven countries (Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria) for which contingency plans for nuclear attack should be considered. To achieve all these aims, nuclear and conventional, the president asked for an increase in military spending of $48 billion—a sum greater than the total military spending of any other nation.

The sharp turn toward force as the mainstay of the policies of the United States was accompanied by a turn away from treaties and other forms of cooperation. Even before September 11th, the trend had been clear. Now it accelerated. The Bush administration either refused to ratify or withdrew from most of the principal new international treaties of the post-Cold War era. In the nuclear arena alone, the administration refused to submit to the Senate for ratification the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would have added a ban on underground tests to the existing bans on testing in the air; withdrew from the A.B.M. Treaty, which had severely limited Russian and American deployment of antinuclear defensive systems; and jettisoned the START negotiations as the framework for nuclear reductions with Russia—replacing them with the Strategic Offensive Reduction Agreement, a three-page document requiring two-thirds of the strategic weapons of both sides to be removed from their delivery vehicles, but then stored rather than dismantled.

In addition, the Bush administration withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which had become the world’s principal forum for making decisions about reducing emissions that cause global warming; refused to ratify the Rome treaty establishing an international criminal court; and declined to agree to an important protocol for inspection and enforcement of a U.N. convention banning biological weapons.

The consequences of this revolution in American policy rippled through the world, where it found ready imitators. On December 12th, the Indian Parliament was attacked by terrorists whom India linked to Pakistan. Promptly, nuclear-armed India, citing the American policy of attacking not only terrorists but any state that harbored them, moved half a million men to the border of nuclear-armed Pakistan, which responded in kind, producing the first full-scale nuclear crisis of the twenty-first century.

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