[This essay is slightly adapted from Jonathan Schell’s 2003 book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It originally appeared at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of its publisher, Metropolitan Books. Schell died in March 2014.]
Then came the attack of September 11th. Like the starting gun of a race that no one knew he was to run, this explosion set the pack of nations off in a single direction—toward the trenches. Although the attack was unaccompanied by any claim of authorship or statement of political goals, the evidence almost immediately pointed to al-Qaeda, the radical Islamist, terrorist network, which, though stateless, was headquartered in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of its fundamentalist Islamic government. In a tape that was soon shown around the world, the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was seen at dinner with his confederates in Afghanistan, rejoicing in the slaughter.
Historically, nations have responded to terrorist threats and attacks with a combination of police action and political negotiation, while military action has played only a minor role. Voices were raised in the United States calling for a global cooperative effort of this kind to combat al-Qaeda. President Bush opted instead for a policy that the United States alone among nations could have conceivably undertaken: global military action not only against al-Qaeda but against any regime in the world that supported international terrorism.
The president announced to Congress that he would "make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them." By calling the campaign a "war," the administration summoned into action the immense, technically revolutionized, post-Cold War American military machine, which had lacked any clear enemy for over a decade. And by identifying the target as generic "terrorism," rather than as al-Qaeda or any other group or list of groups, the administration licensed military operations anywhere in the world.
In the ensuing months, the Bush administration continued to expand the aims and means of the war. The overthrow of governments—"regime change"—was established as a means for advancing the new policies. The president divided regimes into two categories—those "with us" and those "against us." Vice President Cheney estimated that al-Qaeda was active in 60 countries. The first regime to be targeted was of course al-Qaeda’s host, the government of Afghanistan, which was overthrown in a remarkably swift military operation conducted almost entirely from the air and without American casualties.
Next, the administration proclaimed an additional war goal—preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, the president announced that "the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons." He went on to name as an "axis of evil" Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—three regimes seeking to build or already possessing weapons of mass destruction. To stop them, he stated, the Cold War policy of deterrence would not be enough—"preemptive" military action would be required, and preemption, the administration soon specified, could include the use of nuclear weapons.