Assessing America’s War on Terror: Confronting Insurgency, Cementing Primacy
NBR Analysis vol. 15, no. 4

Assessing America's War on Terror
Confronting Insurgency, Cementing Primacy

by Ashley J. Tellis
December 1, 2004

This study analyzes the relevance of terrorist groups as substatal actors in international politics, their influence on deeper dynamics of the international system, and the challenges facing the United States posed by transnational terrorist organizations. It argues that international terrorism, although currently salient, does not necessarily replace or even alter the traditional concerns of international politics, but rather subsists among them.

The U.S.–led war on terrorism has become the defining feature of George W. Bush’s presidency. It is likely to remain, directly or indirectly, one of the central issues facing American grand strategy in Asia and beyond for at least this decade, if not longer. The United States did not seek this war. Rather, it was thrust upon an administration that, like its predecessors, came into office planning to manage more conventional problems of international politics. When George W. Bush became the 43rd president after a tightly contested election, he presided over a country that, having emerged triumphant from almost 50 years of the Cold War, hoped to enjoy a long period of tranquil security. Its principal adversary, the Soviet Union, had disappeared, and the Warsaw Pact, which had posed such a formidable military threat to the United States and its allies, was also no more. By and large, this state of affairs was judged to be both propitious and desirable. Although some analysts expressed skepticism about the stability of this new post–Cold War order, most viewed this “unipolar moment” [1] as offering the United States an unprecedented opportunity to create a durable peace that would provide order and stability globally, while permitting its citizens to enjoy the “peace dividend” that could only be dreamt about during their struggle with the Soviet Union. [2]

This monograph assesses the Bush administration’s war on terrorism with special reference to Asia in the context of the larger geopolitical challenges facing the United States. Toward that end, it is divided into four sections. The first examines the logic of the administration’s effort to consolidate American primacy, reviews the record of achievement in this regard, and examines how it shifted gears to deal with the threat of terrorism given its original interest in reorienting U.S. grand strategy to deal with the rising Asian powers of the future. The second section evaluates three conceptual issues arising out of the war on terrorism—concerns that while apparently theoretical in nature have important practical consequences for policy. The third section surveys how the United States has performed thus far in the war on terrorism in Asia. Finally, the conclusion highlights some long–term consequences of the confrontation with terrorism for America’s role in the world.

The Global War on Terrorism in a Geopolitical Context

The new era of peace and prosperity that America sought as a result of the Cold War’s denouement…

[1] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 70, no. 1 (America and the World 1990/91), pp. 23–33.

[2] The debate about the stability of the post-Cold War era is well covered in Graham Allison and Gregory Treverton, eds., Rethinking America’s Security: Beyond Cold War to New World Order, New York: Norton, 1992; Brad Roberts, ed., Order and Disorder After the Cold War, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995; Richard K. Betts, ed., Conflict After the Cold War: Arguments on Causes of War and Peace, New York: Longman, 2002; see also Ann Markusen, ed., America’s Peace Dividend: Income Tax Reductions from the New Strategic Realities, Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1990.