The End of the War on Terror and a new New World Order? By Ali Abunimah

Palestine Center Information Brief No. 165 (29 August 2008)

By Ali Abunimah
Palestine Center Fellow


Since the 11 September 2001 attacks, United States foreign policy and national security doctrine have been organized around the concept of the “War on Terror.” This article argues that the U.S. security establishment will find it increasingly difficult to sustain this framework and, with the January 2009 change in administration, may begin to pursue its goals through a discourse that emphasizes a more flexible and multi-dimensional narrative. It also examines deeper geopolitical tectonic shifts that exploded to the surface with the Russia-Georgia war that will affect Palestine and the broader region.

Over the past eight years, critical challenges such as climate change, competition for energy, population growth, the economic emergence of China, Russia, India and Brazil and domestic economic problems have gradually superseded the “War on Terror” as primary public concerns. Conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, South Asia and Africa, which the U.S. hoped would be subsumed under the “terrorism” and “reform” agendas, have also proven persistent and resilient to such redefinition.

Even if the “War on Terror” framework is revised, this would not necessarily portend a fundamental revision of U.S. objectives or methods but would reflect a shifting global balance in which the United States is no longer the unchallenged superpower. Of course, the change may be faster or slower depending on the outcome of U.S. elections, and another major attack on the U.S. mainland would have dramatic repercussions.

In the short-run, there may be more internal strife in Palestine and other countries as proxy wars between the United States and emerging powers intensify. In the long-run, Israel is likely to see its power further eroded amidst a regional realignment.

Background: From the Cold War to the War on Terror

As the Cold War ended, culminating in the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. stood as the world’s sole superpower. [Former U.S.] President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “new world order” of collective security, albeit U.S.-led, with an emphasis on international institutions and law. The U.N. endorsed international “coalition,” which reversed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, was held up as a model for how this new order would function. Raising further hope that this was a durable shift, the United States countered skepticism that its newly found attachment to multilateralism was genuine by launching the peace process between Israelis and Arabs. Many Arab regional observers perceived that this initiative, advanced despite stiff Israeli resistance and inaugurated with the 1991 Madrid peace conference, was more even-handed and serious than any effort since the [former U.S. President Jimmy] Carter administration.

At the same time, a radically different and ultimately triumphant vision of how to capitalize on unchallenged U.S. power was in development. In 1992, under the supervision of then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, several future officials of the [U.S. President] George W. Bush administration including Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby, drafted the “Defense Policy Guidance” (DPG), a high-level periodic strategy document. A draft was leaked to The New York Times about a month before Cheney was due to publish it, causing a major uproar and eventually leading President George H.W. Bush to publicly repudiate its contents.

The DPG reflected the view that in the post-Cold War world the United States should actively seek to maintain its own supremacy in a “one-superpower world” and deter the emergence of rivals using military force where necessary to achieve this. It amounted to the “clearest rejection to date of collective internationalism.”[1] To stymie an independent European defense capacity, it argued that the U.S. should maintain its forces in Europe and expand NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to encompass former Warsaw Pact countries and develop anti-missile defenses.

Although the [former U.S. President Bill] Clinton administration pursued some of this agenda, the most aggressive elements were not enshrined in official U.S. doctrine until after George W. Bush became president. After September 11, the principal ideas reflected in the 1992 DPG were incorporated into the official National Security Strategy of the United States almost intact but now with “terrorism” as their main rationale. The assumption behind the “War on Terror” was that the U.S. was succeeding in preventing rivals from emerging, and the integration of the former Soviet bloc into the “Euro-Atlantic” NATO umbrella was proceeding smoothly. The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) stated confidently that, “Today, the world’s great powers find ourselves on the same side—united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos.”

Yet in the absence of a state-centered threat, there remained a need to define an enemy formidable enough to support increasing national security budgets to levels unprecedented even in the midst of the Cold War:

Enemies in the past needed great armies and great industrial capabilities to endanger America. Now, shadowy networks of individuals can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technologies against us.[2]

And whereas previously “freedom” and “democracy” were the universal medicine with which to overcome communism, “terrorism” provided a continued rationale for the kinds of U.S. intervention in the Middle East that was originally advocated by the authors of the 1992 DPG. The 2002 NSS stated that:

[The] United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world. The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.

By the time the National Security Strategy was revised in 2006, the threat had assumed a specific form. The United States, the administration now argued:

…is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War. The 20th century witnessed the triumph of freedom over the threats of fascism and communism. Yet a new totalitarian ideology now threatens, an ideology grounded not in secular philosophy but in the perversion of a proud religion. Its content may be different from the ideologies of the last century, but its means are similar: intolerance, murder, terror, enslavement, and repression.[3]

President Bush elaborated on this point in a September 2006 speech asserting that al-Qaeda and its allies sought nothing less than:

…to establish a violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call a ‘Caliphate’ – where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology… This caliphate would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.[4]

While President Bush may have been right that this is what a few radicals dreamed of, no serious analysis has ever shown that any group including al-Qaeda was remotely likely to command the material means or the popular support to realistically pursue such an agenda. Despite the demonstrated risk of occasional but horrendous attacks on civilians, the overarching narrative was simply not credible.

And though American officials were always careful to state that only a few Muslim radicals were perverting Islam in pursuit of a “totalitarian empire,” this also exposed the contradiction—if it was only a few, how could that justify an unprecedented global mobilization involving wars in several countries, military deployments in dozens more as well as the use of techniques nearly universally regarded as torture? Muslims in general felt targeted as the U.S. acted as if any and all Muslims were suspected of being party to the conspiracy.

To the extent that al-Qaeda-like groups gained limited support, it was because they tried to capitalize – mostly unsuccessfully – on high levels of long-standing public opposition in Arab and Muslim countries to U.S. actions, including arming and financing Israel’s occupation of Arab lands and later the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.[5]

U.S. Power Increasingly Challenged

In the shocking aftermath of September 11, the U.S. was still acknowledged as the sole superpower, and the president could get away with telling the World “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”[6] This was in effect a demand that all other countries subordinate their own priorities to fighting America’s enemies as it alone defined them.

In 2008, the United States has come up against the limitations of this posture—a further built-in contradiction is that it has demanded absolute loyalty to its agenda from countries that increasingly felt much more victimized by American actions than by terrorism. This often put client governments on a collision course with their publics. A case in point is Pakistan where the only criterion for evaluating former President and military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was how much he served narrowly-defined U.S. interests. Unsurprisingly— except perhaps to Washington policymakers—he faced increasing domestic opposition from constituencies that felt their fundamental interests were being trampled, eventually forcing him from office. Similar dynamics are at play to a greater or lesser extent in countries across South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gül recently observed that the era when the United States alone could set the world agenda had ended. “I don’t think you can control all the world from one center. There are big nations. There are huge populations. There is unbelievable economic development in some parts of the world,” Gül said and, returning to a familiar theme, he argued, “What we have to do is, instead of unilateral actions, act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order, if I can say it, should emerge.”[7]

Effects of the New Competition for Global Influence

The erosion of influence experienced by the United States is in part due to flawed analysis and poor decision-making in the “War on Terror” and the lame-duck status of the Bush administration. But it is also due to larger trends. [U.S.] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously said of Hamas’s 2006 Palestinian election victory that she had to ask her staff why “nobody saw it coming.”[8] She might also ask why the United States failed to foresee Russia’s military response to Georgia’s attempt—using American and Israeli weapons and training—to forcibly subdue the breakaway region of South Ossetia.[9]

Russia’s action exposed flaws in U.S. strategic thinking. Veteran U.S. foreign policy analyst and author William Pfaff described U.S. policy towards Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union as “aggressive, militarily overbearing, and threatening to the integrity of Russia, to absolutely no useful purpose.”[10] Indeed, it appears not to have deterred Russia from seeking to regain some balancing role at least in its immediate neighborhood. While under the “War on Terror” framework the U.S. focused on developing light, mobile and agile forces, Russia provided a reminder that there is no substitute for old-fashioned hard armor for projecting power.[11] China, which could mount an even more formidable challenge than still relatively weak Russia, has yet to seriously attempt to project its own power.

As Washington’s influence is contested, the U.S. will have limited options to project power directly if it remains bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and spread thinly elsewhere. Thus, we may see an increase in proxy wars between local U.S. clients and opposing forces in “strategic” regions. This trend has already manifested as “internal strife” in Lebanon and Palestine. Certainly, the U.S. will not willingly relinquish control in the Persian Gulf region.

The U.S. may also attempt to rely more on so-called “soft power”—diplomacy and ‘winning hearts and minds’ to try to retain influence. It is here that the “War on Terror” framework has been particularly costly. Hence, the U.S. may attenuate some of the most alienating anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies of recent years, although powerful domestic constituencies remain invested in this agenda.

Exactly how the United States responds to the relative decline in its power—whether maintaining global interventionism, choosing multilateralism or retrenching—depends on several factors. As noted, the availability of forces is one, and the lack of such forces clearly limited the U.S. response to Russia’s counteroffensive in Georgia to symbolic gestures. In the short-run, several American projects, including the effort to isolate Iran and the war in Afghanistan, require Russian cooperation that is unlikely to be forthcoming if the U.S. maintains a confrontational approach.

In the longer-term, the U.S. will be constrained by relative economic decline and structural challenges. The United States runs massive and growing budget and current account deficits (the latter recently reached a record 7 percent of GDP [gross domestic product]). For the first time in its history, the U.S. is dependent for financing of these deficits on strategic rivals or unstable regions—Russia, China and sovereign wealth funds from the Persian Gulf are now the largest buyers of U.S. Treasury debt. New York University Economist Nouriel Roubini, whose predictions have been pessimistic but strikingly accurate over several years, cites these and other factors as likely indicating the beginning of the “decline of the American empire.”[12]

But even if the most dire economic predictions are not met, the logic of maintaining costly global commitments while public infrastructure and services in the U.S. suffer from crippling underinvestment and degradation may increasingly be questioned.[13]

Implications for Israel

The high point of Israeli unilateralism, for example March-April 2002’s “Operation Defensive Shield”—the large-scale invasion of Palestinian cities with the killings of hundreds of civilians— or the brazen assassinations of Palestinian politicians coincided with America’s own “unipolar moment.” Today, Israel is somewhat constrained and has been forced to negotiate ceasefires on the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts. It is clear the country’s security establishment estimates that it lacks the military capability or political cover to attack Iran independently of the United States, despite continued belligerent rhetoric.

Because Israel relies exclusively on American patronage to maintain its dominant position in the region, it is particularly vulnerable to a relative decline of U.S. power. Following the Georgia crisis and Israel’s role in it, Israel fears Moscow will be less restrained about supporting its adversaries. Already, Syria has announced its intention to rearm with Russian support.[14] While Russia remains unlikely to openly challenge U.S. power in the region, Israel fears that Iran too will gain access to advanced Russian weaponry.

Israel will also be worried by further damage to its deterrence from recent U.S. and Israeli military setbacks: the collapse of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army in 2000, the Israeli failure to defeat Hizballah in July 2006, Hamas’ ability to overcome U.S.-supported Palestinian Authority forces in June 2007, Hizballah’s quick overrun of U.S.-backed militias in Lebanon in May 2008 and now the rapid collapse of Georgian forces despite the investment of well over $2 billion dollars worth of U.S. and Israeli military assistance. Perhaps the greatest danger to the region comes from newly elected Israeli leaders who may try to establish their security credentials by restoring “deterrence,” which they view as fundamental to Israel’s survival, with military adventures short of full-scale wars.

Israelis may also question the credibility of American security guarantees. One analyst warned, “If Israel is dragged into a war, God forbid, it is liable to find itself very much alone. Israel cannot rely on the automatic involvement of America, which did not lift a finger to stop the brutal Russian offensive” in Georgia. He advised that Israel “must do its utmost not to drag the country into actions liable to bring down the wrath of the world,” and, “Above all, we should not be springing surprises on America, or making trouble for a global superpower that is our sole friend and ally.”[15] An assessment from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs warned that, “Twenty-first century geopolitics is presenting significant survival challenges to the Jewish state and the region.” [16]

For the moment, such fears are certainly overstated.  In Israel’s past wars, the United States has always provided extraordinary, direct and immediate military resupply and other forms of assistance. But as U.S. power is increasingly challenged, so too will be Israel’s.

Implications for Palestinians

While the 2002 NSS formally declared the Bush Doctrine, events nearly six years later may signal the end of this period.  In the intervening years, Palestinians have suffered many setbacks. Given that most Palestinians see an extreme pro-Israel bias in American policy, many Palestinians may welcome evidence of increased global resistance to U.S. hegemony.

Indeed, if the “War on Terror” rhetoric recedes, Palestinians could capitalize on their advantages (such as demographic numerical superiority and widely-recognized moral and legal claims) to redefine their cause and mobilize international political support for it (one diplomatic opportunity, for example, is to better utilize Russia’s hitherto passive membership of the U.S.-dominated “Quartet” to balance U.S. bias towards Israel). A less unequal balance of power would favor a fairer and more sustainable negotiated settlement.

Yet a period of tectonic geopolitical change also presents enormous dangers. After all, Britain’s withdrawal from empire was neither orderly nor free of ramifications, leaving in its wake the cataclysmic partitions of India and Palestine among other persistent crises. Today, American policymakers are debating whether and on what terms to leave Iraq; if the U.S. does leave, it is impossible to predict what kind of Iraq will be left behind and with what regional consequences.

What Palestinians should not do as power shifts is cast their lot with one or another power—global or regional—and fall further into the pitfalls of intensified geopolitical rivalry. Joining the Soviet camp did not lead to liberation previously and nor has the current dependence of the Palestinian Authority on the United States done anything to bring self-determination for Palestinians closer. Indeed, Palestinians should ask why—if the United States was willing to abandon the Georgian leadership in whom it invested much—it would stand by the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah?

A strategy based on mobilizing the maximum number of Palestinians around a common agenda rooted in restoring the rights of all Palestinians—those in Israel, those in the 1967 Occupied Territories and those in the diaspora—rather than seeking patronage from self-interested powers remains the only way for Palestinians collectively to build on their strengths and begin to shift the agenda in a direction that serves their rights and interests. No matter what form a final political solution takes—whether one common state in historic Palestine or a two-state solution—this form of independence is an urgent requirement that only Palestinians can create for themselves while being aware of the risks and opportunities as a new era unfolds.[17]

Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon.

The views expressed in this information brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.


[1] This was the assessment of The New York Times which published extracts of the leaked document. See Patrick Tyler, “Strategy calls for insuring no rivals develop,” The New York Times, 8 March 1992. In February 2008, a redacted version of the paper was published by the Defense Department and published by the private nonprofit National Security Archive. (
[2] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, September 2002, (
[3] The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, March 2006 (
[4] President Bush, Speech at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, DC, 5 September 2006 (
[5] Consistent survey data have supported this, as well as the observation that the same publics admire much about the United States and its people’s way of life while despising its interventions in their countries. See in particular the regular surveys in many Muslim countries done by the Pew Global Attitudes Project (
[6] President George W. Bush, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, 20 September 2001 (
[7] Stephen Kinzer, “U.S. must share power in new world order, says Turkey’s controversial president,” The Guardian, 16 August 2008 (
[8] Steven Weisman, “Rice admits  underestimated Hamas strength, The New York Times, 30 January 2006.
[9] See for example: Nick Paton Walsh, “U.S. privatises its military aid to Georgia,” The Guardian, 6 January 2004 (; Matti Friedman, U.S. trainers say Georgian troops weren’t ready, Associated Press, 18 August 2008 (; Ali Abunimah, “Tel Aviv to Tbilisi – Israel’s role in the Russia-Georgia war,” The Jordan Times, 18 August 2008 (; Top “Russian general: Israel armed, trained Georgia forces,” Haaretz, 19 August 2008 (
[10] William Pfaff, “Who Is Responsible for  Russian Policy?,” 19 August 2008, Tribune Media Services International (
[11] See the following article for an analysis of how Russia learned tactical lessons from Israeli and U.S. military setbacks and successes in recent years: Martin Sieff, “Defense Focus: Underestimating Russia,” United Press International, 12 August 2008.
[12] See Nouriel Roubini, The Rising Risk of a Systemic Financial Meltdown: The Twelve Steps to Financial Disaster, 5 February 2008, RGE Monitor (;
“The Decline of the American Empire,” 13 August 2008
“The worst economic and financial crisis in decades,” 20 August 2008
Steven Mihm, “Dr. Doom,” New York Times Magazine, 15 August 2008 (
[13] See for example American Society of Civil Engineers, “Report-Card for America’s Infrastructure,” 2005 (
[14] “Syria to Russia: Put your missiles on our soil,” Haaretz, 21 August 2008 (
[15] Yoel Marcus, “Caution: A New Reality,” Haaretz, 19 August 2008 (
[16] Ariel Cohen, “The Russian-Georgian War: Implications for the Middle East,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 15 August 2008.
[17] I wish to thank Osamah Khalil for valuable suggestions and feedback on this paper. The views expressed and any errors are solely my own.

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