In the aftermath of September 11 commentators from across the American political spectrum argued that "everything had changed," that the terrorist attacks marked a "watershed" event of historical significance, comparable to the Pearl Harbor attack and the end of the Cold War. The United States was no longer invulnerable, its power no longer invincible. Some dissenters stated that they were "skepticalthat this [was] a great rupture in the fabric of history."1 While the magnitude of change can be debated, significant shifts in world affairs did result from the terrorist attacks against the United States. The emergence of the so-called "War on Terror" — the American-led global counterterrorism campaign —
and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq allow scholars to perceive September 11 as a transformational event that has generated notable alterations in the American government’s practice of strategy, both in the immediate and the long term. Most significantly, the emergence of the terrorist threat transformed the presidency of George W. Bush and committed the United States to a generational conflict that lasts to this
day, in various forms, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

"Strategy" is defined here as the deliberate planning and promulgation of policies designed to harness the country’s political, military, diplomatic, and economic resources towards the fulfillment of its national interest2. In the broadest possible sense, the so-called "grand" strategy involves the act of synchronizing the means and the ends at the highest levels of government3. Without being limited to wartime decision-making or military planning, the definition also includes other domains of policy, such as the conduct of diplomacy. Diplomatic strategy, in turn, could emphasize "unilateralism," defined as the tendency by the United States to act alone, without consulting other countries or international organizations, or "multilateralism," defined as the tendency to seek cooperation with other countries.

First, I scrutinize the immediate impact of September 11 on the Bush administration while arguing that the terrorist attacks did not mark a "watershed" moment in America’s strategic practice. While it was modified, the strategy did not become terrorism-centric, and it remained focused on the post-Cold War desire to maintain American global supremacy vis-à-vis rival states. Second, I examine the novel aspects in the Bush administration’s strategic response to September 11, which I analyze with reference to three basic concepts: preventive war, forcible regime change, and deterrence. Although the longer-term effects of any historical event are consistently more difficult to determine, I search for
continuity and change in the strategic practice of subsequent administrations.

I argue that the non-state character of the organization that perpetrated the September 11 attacks precipitated a revision of the threat and, by extension, the ends of American strategy, which remained mostly state-centric in its focus. The newly-emergent threat of terrorism was grafted onto the existing state-centric strategy, which remained preoccupied with the post-Cold War belief that America’s security interests are best served with the United States retaining unrivaled military force and preventing the emergence of rival state competitors. This meant that the ways implemented to counter the stateless threat — like preventive war and forcible regime change — principally targeted states linked to terrorism. Importantly, although a wide range of means – diplomatic, political, economic – was required to wage the War on Terror, traditional military means were prioritized by the Bush administration in the wake of September 11.

Part I: The Immediate Elevation of Terrorism Concerns

Some have claimed that in "completely transforming" the international environment, September 11 inaugurated "the start of a new era in American strategic thinking."4 It has been argued that the threat of another devastating terror attack, one that could involve weapons of mass destruction, necessitated a nearly-fundamental revision of American grand strategy; the "war on nuclear terrorism" could become comparable to the Cold War5. The publication of the presidential National Security Strategy of 2002, however, maintained vital parts of the existing American strategic posture, whose origins could be traced to the Defense Planning Guideline of 1992. The latter document essentially argued that the focus of American grand strategy in the post-Cold War era should be "preventing the emergence of a rival superpower," and retaining predominant military capabilities to deter "potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role."6 Also, if a multilateral approach was not feasible, the United States should not hesitate to take "unilateral action" to safeguard its vital national interests7.

In essence, the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy repeated the motif of unique American military power. The strategy maintained that, despite September 11, the United States "[possessed] unprecedented—and unequaled strength and influence in the world," and that the country should continue "to dissuade future military competition."8 Reaffirming the unilateralism of its predecessor, the document stated that the United States "will be prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require."9

Terrorism did not become an exclusive focus of American strategic practice but rather a pillar of a state-centric grand strategy, whose primary focus was maintaining America’s unipolar position in the post-Cold War era10. Some have argued that the terrorist attacks merely served as a "legitimating device"for a grand strategy designed to maintain American global supremacy, one that counters "emerging threats" and "coming dangers" with expansive economic, political, and military strength11. At the same time, a substantial change occurred within the dimension of American strategy concerned with non-state actors, specifically what The 9/11 Commission Report had labeled "the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology."12 

Before September 11, terrorism was a minor consideration in American grand strategy as a whole, and it was perceived as more of a "criminal matter."13 After September 11, an emphasis was placed on the newly-pertinent objective of securing the United States and its interests from another terrorist attack by Al Qaeda, or its decentralized networks. In pursuit of these ends, the Bush administration utilized ways containing elements, both novel and longstanding, which are discussed in the following section.

Part II: Doctrines Both Novel and Longstanding

Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States was moving consistently in the direction of isolationism, as the Bush administration planned to unilaterally withdraw from a number of international treaties and military obligations to other countries. As the Bush administration discouraged hope for American participation in the Kyoto Protocol, which mandated that industrialized nations cut their greenhouse gas emissions to curtail global warming, the United States was also planning to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which sought to limit the deployment of ballistic missile defenses14. The aftermath of September 11 marked a substantial reorganization of American policy priorities, as Bush declared that the United States had been thrust into the global War on Terror which, in turn, legitimized increased military budgets and a series of interventions abroad.

Some observers speculated that September 11 would perhaps engender a degree of multilateralism within the Bush administration as it prosecuted the War on Terror15. However, the Bush administration practically dismissed the argument that a global campaign against terrorist networks necessitated coordinated and multilateral efforts. This was evident in the Bush administration’s much-publicized practice of using military force without consulting others, including the United Nations. These unilateralist tendencies were grounded in the belief — already present in the Defense Planning Guideline of 1992, and reinforced by the experience of the Gulf War of 1991 — that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had acquired a "unipolar position" in the world system, allowing it to be decisive in whatever conflict it chose to initiate16. To the extent that September 11 produced any impetus towards a more multilateralist practice of strategy, the emergent multilateralism of the Bush administration was highly selective, in that it was limited to the so-called "coalition of the willing" as opposed to a broader international mandate sanctioned by the United Nations.

(a) Preventive War

The most visible expression of the Bush administration's unilateralism was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was based on the logic of "prevention/preemption." For accuracy's sake, the two terms ought to be carefully distinguished, especially since they were routinely confused in the Bush administration's rhetoric. Preemption means attacking "at some point between the moment when an enemy decides to attack…and when the attack is actually launched," while prevention "intends to deal with the problem before it becomes a crisis" rather than "in the heat of a crisis."17 In other words, preventive attacks are launched in response to less immediate threats.

Although the National Security Strategy of 2002 repeatedly uses the term "preemption," logically, the Bush administration adopted a doctrine of preventive war, as it called for anticipatory action against terrorists, or state sponsors of terrorism seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, before they could threaten the United States with an attack18. While the preemptive use of force in the face of an imminent attack was both considered and implemented by presidents preceding Bush, the posture of prevention was novel in the practice of American strategy19.

Following the controversial overthrow of Saddam Hussein, some commentators have argued that the preventive war doctrine "met an early death in Iraq," and that the United States would adopt a significantly more cautious approach to such actions20. Indeed, the 2003 invasion of Iraq reduced the probability of subsequent preventive wars launched by the United States because, inter alia , the faulty intelligence used to justify the invasion weakened the credibility of those policymakers who advocated anticipatory attacks. However, as some have argued, the threat of nuclear weapons held by state sponsors of terrorism has narrowed the distinction between prevention and preemption; the nature of the threat has become severe enough to justify either type of attack.

(b) Deterrence by Denial

Another critical assumption behind this novel doctrine of preventive war was that the Cold War doctrine of deterrence, at least as it was based on the threat of punishment, was no longer adequate in hindering terrorist attacks21. The War on Terror, therefore, entailed a nearly-immediate strategic shift 21 from "deterrence by punishment" to "deterrence by denial."22 The two approaches to deterrence are both defensive, though they are distinguished in that the former threatens severe penalties if an attack occurs,while the latter seeks to prevent attack by making it unworkable or unlikely to succeed23. In other words, deterrence by punishment seeks to convince the attacker that the defender will inflict a level of pain that
far exceeds whatever gains the attacker sought with their action; deterrence by punishment makes aggression unprofitable because of the resulting punishment. On the other hand, deterrence by denial renders aggression unprofitable by making it physically difficult, by making the target of aggression either harder to take, or harder to hold.

The case against the use of deterrence by punishment in countering terrorist activity rests on two pillars. First, many terrorists are thought to be highly motivated, to the extent that they are "willing to die, and so not deterred by fear of punishment."24 Second, even if terrorists are afraid of punishment, they 24 could not be deterred because they lack a "return address," that is, an easily identifiable target to which retaliation could be directed; Al Qaeda, an elusive target, could not be threatened with assured destruction25. In contrast, deterrence by denial, the hardening of targets, could be applied nondiscriminately against both state and non-state actors26. Such deterrence strategies are expected to 26
reduce the terrorists’ power to hurt, thereby lessening the coercive power of terror attacks27.

September 11 set in motion a series of structural changes that sought to mitigate the threat of terrorism through deterrence by denial; for example, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 established measures for the prevention of aircraft hijacking. However, newly-emergent technology allowed for a relative return to deterrence by punishment, especially under Obama, who embraced the covert drone war28. Lethal drones, 28 combined with electronic surveillance, came close to solving the "return address" problem by allowing the military to locate, isolate, and threaten terrorists, and to punish them with nearly-immediate and highly-accurate methods29. In essence, the availability of such technology has bolstered the threats the United States is able to make in deterring by punishment.

 (c) Forcible Regime Change 

Finally, substantial revisions in American strategy occurred with regards to the doctrine of "forcible regime change". The Bush administration argued that the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East perpetuated a culture of aggression and fanaticism, in addition to sponsoring terrorist activity30. According 30 to this logic, the United States could and should use military force to change those regimes into functioning democratic polities, with the view of addressing the underlying causes of September 11. Another element of Bush’s forcible regime-change doctrine was that "the advance of freedom, especially in the Middle East" would complete the victorious march of democracy and free-market capitalism that had gained new impetus with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent democratization and market liberalization within the former Communist sphere.

Certainly, not all of Bush’s predecessors believed that outside military intervention would be a reasonable preamble to democratization, or that democracy was a viable form of governance for all human societies31. This was consistent with the post-Cold War belief that unrivaled American military power would lend itself to unrivaled ability to affect transformational change in whatever part of the world the United States chose to involve itself. At the same time, America's controversial history of managing the post-invasion political transitions in Afghanistan and Iraq — combined with its deep, grinding counterinsurgency commitments — probably means that, of the three concepts considered here, doctrines linking military intervention to regime change had the least staying power in the American government’s practice of strategy32.



The United States homeland has not suffered a major terrorist attack by a foreign terrorist organization since September 11, and the threat of terrorism is no longer the organizing principle of the American political discourse, unlike in the immediate aftermath of the event33. The post-September 11 rhetoric of dramatic change did not translate into a "watershed" in the American practice of strategy, which has remained concerned mainly with possible state rivals, like China. Without affecting a cataclysmic change in America's strategic posture, September 11 had the effect of highlighting the threats posed by terrorists and state-sponsors of terrorism, while causing the Bush administration to revise the doctrines of forcible regime change and preventive war, with the latter remaining in the repertoire of American strategy.

Indeed, the Bush administration's practice of strategy following September 11 was entirely consistent with the post-Cold War belief in the essential nature of American power and the utility of military force in world affairs. The emergence of the War on Terror, and the litany of controversies surrounding the Bush administration’s practice of strategy, have predictably ignited a vigorous and lasting debate about America’s place in world politics and the purposes of unrivaled American power.


1 Douglas Kellner, From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, (2003): 39

2 Hal Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, (2014): 1-16

3 B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy. New York: Praeger, (1967): 333-372.

4 Robert Liber, The American Era: Power and Strategy for the 21st Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2005): 25

5 See, for example, Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastroph , New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003.

6 National Security Council, Defense Planning Guideline, FY 1994-1999, (1992): 1-3.

7 National Security Council, Defense Planning Guideline, FY 1994-1999, (1992): 1-3.

8 White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, (2002): 1-31

9 Ibid.

10 Stephen Biddle and Peter D. Feaver, "Assessing Strategic Choices in the War on Terror," In How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War, Edited by James Burk, Stanford: Stanford University Press, (2007): 31-33

11 Patricia L. Dunmire, "‘9/11 Changed Everything:’ An Intertextual Analysis of the Bush Doctrine." Discourse and Society, Vol. 20, No. 2, (2009): 195-196

12 National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report, (2001): 362

13 Timothy Naftali, "U.S. Counterterrorism Before bin Laden." International Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1, (2004/2005): 25

14 See, for example, Strobe Talbott, "Unilateralism: Anatomy of a Foreign Policy Disaster." Brookings, 2007.

15 See, for example, Eric Hershberg and Kevin W. Moore, "Place, Perspective, and Power: Interpreting September 11."In Critical Views of September 11: Analyses from Around the World, Edited by Eric Hershberg and Kevin W. Moore, New York: Norton and Company, (2002): 3

16 Bruce Cummings, "Black September, Infantile Nihilism, National Security." In Critical Views of September 11, Edited by Eric Hershberg and Kevin W. Moore, New York: Norton and Company, (2002): 204-205

17 Lawrence Freedman, Deterrence. Cambridge: Polity Press, (2004): 85-6

18 Josef Joffe, Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America. New York: Norton and Company, (2014): 43-44

19 Saki Ruth Dockrill, "Dealing with Fear: Implementing the Bush Doctrine of Attack," Politics and Policy, Vol. 34, No. 2, (2004): 347-328

20 Ivo H. Daalder and James Lindsay, " The Preemptive-War Doctrine Has Met an Early Death in Iraq." Brookings, 2004.

21 Ibid: 345-346

22 Richard A. Falkenrath, "Deterrence and Democracy: Reflections in American Post-9/11 Homeland Security." In The Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy, Edited by Benedict Wilkinson and James Gow, London: Hurst, and Company, (2017): 73-75

23 Michael J. Mazarr, "Understanding Deterrence," RAND Corporation, (2018): 2

24 Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, (2005): 5

25 Richard K. Betts, "The Soft Underbelly of American Primacy: Tactical Advantages of Terror," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 117, No. 1, (2002): 45

26 Robert F. Trager and Dessislava P. Zagorcheva, "Deterring Terrorism: It Can be Done." International Security, Vol. 30, No. 3, (2005/2006): 106-107

27 Ibid.

28 The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, "Obama’s Covert Drone War in Numbers: Ten Times More Strikes Than Bush," (2017)

29 Richard A. Falkenrath, "Deterrence and Democracy: Reflections in American Post-9/11 Homeland Security." In The Art of Creating Power: Freedman on Strategy, Edited by Benedict Wilkinson and James Gow, London: Hurst, and Company, (2017): 80-82

30 Robert Kaufman, In Defense of the Bush Doctrine. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, (2007): 1-2

31 Stephen E. Ambrose, and Douglas G. Brinkley, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, London:Penguin, (2010): 490-491

32 See, for example, Stephen Sestanovich, "Obama’s Focus Is on Nation-Building at Home" The New York Times, 2016.

33 Ronald R. Krebs, "The Rise, Persistence, and Decline of the War on Terror." In How 9/11 Changed Our Ways of War, Edited by James Burk, Stanford: Stanford University Press, (2013): 56-57.

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