Only a Reckoning With the Disastrous Legacy of the So-called 'War on Terror' Can Heal the United States

The United States will have to reckon with the scale of the disaster it has helped inflict on the world--and on itself--through three presidencies. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Only a Reckoning With the Disastrous Legacy of the So-called 'War on Terror' Can Heal the United States

U.S. foreign policy never recovered from the war on terror.

In a 1996 essay in Foreign Affairs, the conservative authors William Kristol and Robert Kagan proposed a U.S. foreign policy of "benevolent global hegemony." Scoffing at former President John Quincy Adams's maxim that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy," they asked, "But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their hearts' content, as Americans stand by and watch." In Kristol and Kagan's view, it was the United States' responsibility to sally forth and slay--an argument they reprised years later as two of the biggest advocates for the Iraq war.

The last two decades have revealed the folly of this hubris. With the declaration of its global "war on terror" after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States went abroad in search of monsters and ended up midwifing new ones--from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (or ISIS), born in the prisons of U.S.-occupied Iraq; to destabilization and deepening sectarianism across the Middle East; to racist authoritarian movements in Europe and in the United States that feed--and feed off of--the fear of refugees fleeing those regional conflicts. Advocates of the war on terror believed that nationalist chauvinism, which sometimes travels under the name "American exceptionalism," could be stoked at a controlled burn to sustain American hegemony. Instead, and predictably, toxic ultranationalism burned out of control. Today, the greatest security threat to the United States comes not from any terrorist group, or from any great power, but from domestic political dysfunction. The election of Donald Trump as president was a product and accelerant of that dysfunction--but not its cause. The environment for his political rise was prepared over a decade and a half of xenophobic, messianic Washington warmongering, with roots going back into centuries of white supremacist politics.

The United States has an opportunity to change course. But doing so will require honestly accounting for the destruction that the current course has wrought. The United States will have to reckon with the scale of the disaster it has helped inflict on the world--and on itself--through three presidencies. To that end, the next administration should undertake a comprehensive review, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission or the 2006 Iraq Study Group, to explore the consequences of U.S. antiterrorism policy since 9/11: surveillance, detention, torture, extrajudicial killing, the use of manned and unmanned airstrikes, and partnerships with repressive regimes. The review should include perspectives outside of the usual national security circles, such as those of nongovernmental and grassroots advocacy organizations, minority communities that have experienced the most severe domestic effects of U.S. antiterrorism policies, and civilians in countries where the United States has waged war.

The review should aim to assess the actual severity of current terrorist threats and to stimulate vigorous public debate about the conditions and legal authorities under which the United States uses military violence. It should also seek to illuminate the ways in which militarism abroad and racial and economic inequality at home are mutually reinforcing. (The absurdly militarized police response to the recent racial justice protests offers one vivid illustration.)

The review of post-9/11 antiterrorism policy should proceed according to the standards of international humanitarian law that the United States helped to establish after World War II. Those standards obligate the United States to investigate, prosecute, and punish those who committed war crimes. Guided by the findings of the review, the next administration should create avenues for those victimized by the war on terror, both at home and abroad, to seek and receive redress. The United States must own up to the monsters it has created and endeavor not to create any new ones, especially as the Washington herd turns its attention farther east and girds for a new great-power conflict with China.


The United States has been on permanent war footing since September 11, 2001. Its military interventions, most notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The United States has conducted combat operations in 24 different countries since 2001 and remains officially at war in at least seven. It is still fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan. Millions have been displaced as a consequence of these interventions. And yet the war on terror has failed even on its own terms: according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the number of Sunni Islamist militants around the world almost quadrupled between 2001 and 2018.

During the same period, many repressive regimes grew more entrenched. Exploiting the United States' fixation on terrorism and its desire to enlist allies in the fight, authoritarian leaders around the world adopted the antiterrorist rhetoric of the administration of President George W. Bush, using it as an all-purpose excuse to crack down on dissent. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Communist Party officials to "emulate aspects of America's 'war on terror'" in order to justify abusive policies against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities, according to a 2019 New York Timesinvestigation based on internal Chinese government documents. The United States is not responsible for the decisions of all these actors, but its policies helped widen the opportunities for violence and repression.

The United States itself bore enormous costs as a result of its antiterrorism policies. Brown University's Costs of War Project estimates the taxpayer bill for post-9/11 U.S. wars at almost $6 trillion--money not spent on health care, education, infrastructure, clean energy, or public health. The burdens of these wars fell disproportionately on U.S. soldiers and their families. A 2018 RAND study found that 2.77 million service members had served 5.4 million deployments since 9/11. More than 60,000 service members have been killed or wounded. Many have come home with permanent, life-altering injuries. Eighty-three percent of post-9/11 veterans report living with post-traumatic stress disorder. The country thanks its troops for their service but continues to send them on multiple deployments in wars with no clear purpose or strategy for victory.

The United States must own up to the monsters it has created and endeavor not to create any new ones.

The war on terror became a route through which open racism was smuggled back into mainstream U.S. politics. Americans essentially pathologized an entire religion to justify their government's violence against its adherents, presuming to ask, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Lewis did in The Atlantic, "What Went Wrong?" with Arab and Muslim societies--as if Western Christian societies hadn't just produced two world wars and the Holocaust within the span of a century. Republicans in particular treated Islam as a source of conflict, preposterously warning of "creeping sharia" and laying the groundwork for Trump's election on the back of a promise--which he kept--to enact a "Muslim ban." But even Democrats talked about Muslim Americans being a "first line of defense" against terrorism, essentially pressing them into service on the basis of their religion.

On the campaign trail in 2016 and then after his election, Trump exploited the xenophobia that was used to justify the United States' post-9/11 wars, even as he tapped into popular anger over the costs of those wars. The United States had securitized its immigration policy after 9/11, viewing many who came seeking refuge from oppression or simply the opportunity for a better life as potential terrorists. Under the current administration, the United States has denied those who approach its borders their legal right to seek asylum, separating families and imprisoning children in cages.

Nineteen years after 9/11, the state of emergency declared after the attacks remains in place. The enormous powers that Americans handed their government in the name of national security are still being abused. Some of the worst excesses of the war on terror were reined in under U.S. President Barack Obama, but no one was ever held accountable. Today, Guantanamo Bay prison remains open, and the former head of a CIA torture prison heads the CIA.


Because of the enormous strategic, economic, political, and moral consequences of the United States' post-9/11 counterterrorism approach, a commission to investigate the war on terror should not be a typical Washington "blue ribbon" panel. It should command a level of attention and resources commensurate with the war on terror itself, and its remit should reflect the enormous impact of U.S. antiterrorism policies both in the United States and around the world. Ideally, the commission should be created through congressional legislation and comprise not only respected former officials but members of impacted communities and civil society experts in relevant fields, including human rights, international law, and foreign policy. The commission must be independent and free of political pressure and given access to all information, classified and unclassified, relevant to U.S. policies and practices undertaken since 9/11.

The commission should consult a wide range of perspectives, in Congress; in the human rights, national security, intelligence, academic, and legal fields; in nongovernmental and grassroots organizations; and, importantly, among constituencies outside the usual Washington bubble. It should hear from communities in the United States who have experienced firsthand the stigmatization of their faith, the violation of their civil rights, and the militarization of policing. It should hear from communities abroad who have lived amid the chaos and violence of U.S. military interventions. The commission's final report should make recommendations upon which both Congress and the attorney general are prepared to act. Prosecuting those who participated in criminal violations of human rights and other abuses is necessary in order for the United States to move forward as a country.


In the same 1821 speech in which he warned Americans not to go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy," Adams proclaimed the United States "the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all" but "the champion and vindicator only of her own." This is insufficient. While the first and best thing Americans can do for the cause of human freedom, democracy, and dignity is to defend those values at home, they still have considerable tools and influence with which they can support those values around the world. An honest accounting of the war on terror will make the United States far more effective in doing so.

A genuine reckoning with the post-9/11 period would spur not a U.S. withdrawal from the world but rather deeper engagement with it. The main challenges of today--the coronavirus pandemic and climate change foremost among them--are shared. The United States must commit to a sustained multilateral approach to meet these challenges, rather than continuing to unilaterally abrogate and undermine the very norms and conventions that it helped to establish.

A review of post-9/11 antiterrorism policy would help expose the folly of seeking security through repression, whether at home or abroad. The United States sometimes has no choice but to work with imperfect partners to advance short-term security goals, but in the long term this approach is a bad bet. Ultimately, governments that are responsive and accountable to the needs of their people are better partners in the pursuit of security, stability, and prosperity.

A review of post-9/11 antiterrorism policy would help expose the folly of seeking security through repression.

Enduring public skepticism of military interventions is one of the few benefits of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, that skepticism is often accompanied by a reflexive suspicion that any support for human rights is a fig leaf for imperialism. Such concerns are not baseless. George W. Bush declared his "freedom agenda" only after his other justifications for the Iraq war had fallen apart, and Trump has justified his strangulation of Iran and Venezuela with unconvincing appeals to human rights. But not all efforts to promote human rights are cynical, and the people of the Middle East made clear what they want during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011-12: economic opportunities, governments that work for them instead of small cabals of self-dealing elites, more political freedom. Those uprisings were quelled, both by a counterrevolutionary crackdown led by the United States' Gulf partners and by the rise of ISIS, but they have not disappeared. Late last year there was another wave of uprisings in the region and around the world, a mass global mobilization against corruption, austerity, and repression. Addressing the crisis of legitimacy that is fueling the global authoritarian wave will require heeding the voices in the streets--both at home and abroad.

A genuine accounting for the war on terror and its unintended consequences should engender a strong sense of humility about the United States' ability to produce grand transformations, especially through military force. The United States has neither the ability nor the right to change other countries' governments, but it can embrace an ethic of solidarity and use its considerable diplomatic and economic power to defend the rights and freedom of people in other countries who are working for positive change. To effectively advance the principles of free and accountable government abroad, however, the United States must practice them at home.