13th December 2010: GWOT Counterfactuals

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, suggests that the 2003 Iraq War was a significant recruitment tool and self-justification for Al Qaeda. This prompts what political scientist Richard Ned Lebow calls a counterfactual: an alternative history or series of events if different choices had been made. What if the US neoconservatives had not strongly influenced the Bush Administration’s foreign policy? What if the US had pursued a more multilateral and international approach to fighting Al Qaeda? What if the US had killed Bin Laden at Tora Bora in late November or early December 2001? What if the US had not invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

The Bush Administration — along with many counterterrorism analysts and policymakers — embraced the frame ‘Global War on Terrorism’ or GWOT immediately after September 11. Apart from making war on a tactic, this immediately locked the Bush Administration into a line of thinking based on historical analogies including to previous wars and antifascism. It didn’t leave a lot of room to maneuver when conditions worsened in Afghanistan and pre-surge Iraq. Lebow’s counterfactuals approach suggests that rather than taken as a given, GWOT unfolded as a series of foreign policy decisions where other possibilities and strategies existed and that remained unexplored. Perhaps that’s why in his second term Bush quietly abandoned the term, and the successor Obama Administration has conceptualised its national security in a different way.