20 Years After the War on Terror Started | Opinion

Twenty years ago this week, then-President George W. Bush stepped up to the podium during a joint session of Congress and delivered an ultimatum: If you weren't with the United States in fighting the scourge of international terrorism, you were effectively against the United States. "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make," Bush told the nation that day. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

At the time, Bush's address was widely applauded as an honest, heart-felt, emotional appeal in front of a nation nursing the wounds of the worst terrorist attack the United States witnessed in its history. The president received multiple standing ovations that night, including from lawmakers who ordinarily opposed his policies. "In a firm and forceful address, Mr. Bush rose to the challenge of making what may be the most critical speech of his life," a New York Times editorial observed a day later.

But as one looks back, you can't escape the conclusion that it was this specific address, and this address alone, that served as the intellectual blueprint of the war on terrorism—one that by its very definition was a never-ending enterprise. Buried underneath the touching anecdotes and displays of affection was a policy objective that couldn't realistically be achieved: The complete and utter destruction of terrorism as we know it. Bush's declaration that the war would only end when "every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated," was at its core a prelude to limitless military operations and executive branch overreach seen in the decades since.

Today, the U.S. military is operating in dozens of countries across multiple continents, all under the guise of fighting terrorism. Brown University's Costs of War Program, which tallies the economic, social and human impacts of the war on terrorism, found that between 2018-20, the U.S. operated counterterrorism training programs in 79 countries, from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Madagascar to India and Indonesia. In addition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has conducted some degree of air or drone strikes against Al-Qaeda or ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups in Somalia, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen. There are so many U.S. counterterrorism operations going on in the world at any one time that members of Congress are often clueless as to what's going on. When four U.S. special operations troops were ambushed and killed near the Niger-Mali border during a train-and-advise mission, senior lawmakers had no idea U.S. forces were in Niger to begin with.

What should have been a discrete military operation against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks snowballed into a war that by its very nature would continue in perpetuity. The costs, whether it's to the U.S. taxpayer ($8 trillion), U.S. forces (over 7,000 killed in action, tens of thousands injured), or civilians (as many as 48,000 fatalities in airstrikes alone), have been far more extensive than U.S. officials might have thought in those first few weeks in September. Nor is it likely those officials would have predicted the degree to which the U.S. military footprint would expand around the world, encompassing hundreds of military bases by the count of American University's David Vine.

A flag flies at half staff
A flag flies at half staff at the Mt. Soledad National War Memorial on Aug. 27, 2021, in La Jolla, Calif. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Not to be forgotten, the war on terror also eroded—and continues to erode—the fundamental pillar of the U.S. Constitution: separation of powers. The legislative branch, the one most directly accountable to the American public and the body responsible for critical oversight functions within the U.S. government, all but mailed it in.

Whether it was the establishment of warrantless wiretapping at the National Security Agency, so-called enhanced interrogation techniques at the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Department's decision to set up a prison at Guantanamo Bay, the executive branch effectively exploited the pain and fear in the weeks and months after 9/11 to increase its own power immeasurably.

Congress, which in an ideal world would serve as an institutional check on an expansive executive, largely gave the White House whatever it asked for. As the years went by, lawmakers allowed the executive branch to reinterpret the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), which added more terrorist groups on the target list without even a cursory debate on the subject. Congress was more than happy to oblige. The 2001 AUMF, debated, passed and signed by the president in a miraculous five days, transformed into a catch-all legal basis for four consecutive U.S. administrations whenever a president needed legal justification to use force—even if the mission, like airstrikes in support of Somali government forces, had nothing whatsoever to do with the original intent of the resolution.

Bush's invocation of a war on terror was also an unhelpful paradigm with respect to the age-old problem of terrorism. It was as if U.S. policymakers believed terrorism itself, in all its forms and manifestations, could be abolished through arms, will, gritted teeth and sheer determination. Unfortunately, waging war on terrorism was about as productive a policy as waging war on drugs or crime—two issues that, like terrorism, can only be chipped away and managed. Rather than addressing terrorism smartly and discriminately, Washington chose to fight terrorism wherever it appeared. Extremist groups with local objectives suddenly became a U.S. national security threat.

Twenty years after Bush's infamous Sept. 20 speech to a frightened nation, the war on terrorism continues to this very day. While President Joe Biden has finally withdrawn U.S. troops from Afghanistan and proclaimed the end of an era of boundless warfare, the fact remains that the U.S. is still prosecuting the very same war the Bush administration announced two decades earlier. The authorities bestowed upon the presidency, both by Congress and by the executive itself, are now taken for granted as the new normal.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.