Global War on Terror

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Editor: Spencer C. Tucker
Date: 2010
Document Type: Event overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Global War on Terror

Term used to describe the military, political, diplomatic, and economic measures employed by the United States and other allied governments against organizations, countries, or individuals that are committing terrorist acts, that might be inclined to engage in Page 487  |  Top of Articleterrorism, or that support those who do commit such acts. The Global War on Terror is an amorphous concept and a somewhat indistinct term, yet its use emphasizes the difficulty in classifying the type of nontraditional warfare being waged against U.S. and Western interests by various terrorist groups that do not represent any nation. The term was coined by President George W. Bush in a September 20, 2001, televised address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and has been presented in official White House pronouncements, fact sheets, State of the Union messages, and such National Security Council (NSC) position papers as the National Security Strategy (March 2006) and the National Strategy for Combating Terrorism (February 2003 and September 2006 editions). Since 2001, the Global War on Terror has been directed primarily at Islamic terrorist groups but has also been expanded to include actions against all types of terrorism. During the Bush administration, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also called it the “Long War.”

As with the Cold War, the Global War on Terror is being waged on numerous fronts, against many individuals and nations, and involves both military and nonmilitary tactics. President George W. Bush's September 20, 2001, announcement of the Global War on Terror was in response to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States, which led to the deaths of some 3,000 civilians, mostly Americans but representing civilians of 90 different countries.

Although the war constitutes a global effort, stretching into Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, the Middle East remains a focal point of the effort. The ongoing conflict and the manner in which it has been waged has been the source of much debate. There is no widely agreed-upon estimate regarding the number of casualties during the Global War on Terror because it includes the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the war in Iraq, as well as many acts of terrorism around the world. Some estimates, which include the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, claim that well over 2 million people have died in the struggle.

Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, the United States responded quickly and with overwhelming force against the organizations and governments that supported the terrorists. Evidence gathered by the U.S. government pointed to the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. Al Qaeda at the time was being given aid and shelter by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush announced to a joint session of Congress that the Global War on Terror would not end simply with the defeat of Al Qaeda or the overthrow of the Taliban but only when every terrorist group and terrorist-affiliated government with a global reach had been defeated. These broad aims implied attacks on countries known to support terrorism, such as Iran and Syria. Bush further assured the American people that every means of intelligence, tool of diplomacy, financial pressure, and weapon of war would be used to defeat terrorism. He told the American people to expect a lengthy campaign. Bush also put down an ultimatum to every other nation, stating that each had to choose whether they were with the United States or against it. There would be no middle ground. Clearly Bush's pronouncements were far-reaching, yet the enemies were difficult to identify and find.

Less than 24 hours after the September 11 attacks, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), declared the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to be against all member nations, the first time the organization had made such a pronouncement since its inception in 1949.

On October 7, 2001, U.S. and coalition forces (chiefly British) invaded Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden, the head of Al Qaeda, to destroy his organization, and to overthrow the Taliban government that supported him. Eventually Canada, Australia, France, and Germany, among other nations, joined that effort. However, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003, there was considerable international opposition to this campaign being included under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. One problem for national leaders who supported President Bush's policies was that many of their citizens did not believe that the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was really part of the Global War on Terror and questioned other reasons stated by the Bush administration to justify the U.S.-led invasion. International opinion polls have shown that support for the War on Terror has consistently declined since 2003, likely the result of opposition to the Bush administration's preemptive invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later revelations that Iraq possessed neither ties to Al Qaeda nor weapons of mass destruction.

The Global War on Terror has also been a sporadic and clandestine war since its inception in September 2001. U.S. forces were sent to Yemen and the Horn of Africa in order to disrupt terrorist activities, while Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR is a naval operation intended to prevent terror attacks and limit the movement of terrorists in the Mediterranean. Terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines led to the insertion of coalition forces into these countries as well and concerns about the situation in other Southeast Asian countries. In the United States, Congress has also passed legislation intended to help increase the effectiveness of law enforcement agencies in their search for terrorist activities. In the process, however, critics claim that Americans’ civil liberties have been steadily eroded, and government admissions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other agencies have engaged in wiretapping of international phone calls without requisite court orders and probable cause have caused a storm of controversy, as have the methods used to question foreign nationals.

The Bush administration has also greatly increased the role of the federal government in the attempt to fight terrorism at home and abroad. Among the many new government bureaucracies formed is the Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet-level agency that counts at least 210,000 employees. The increase in the size of the government, combined with huge military expenditures—most of which are going to the Iraq War—has added to the massive U.S. budget deficits.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft, center, is seen on video screens discussing the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts wiretap ruling on November 18, 2002, in Washington, D.C. (APWide World Photos) Attorney General John Ashcroft, center, is seen on video screens discussing the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's wiretap ruling on November 18, 2002, in Washington, D.C. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Proponents of the Global War on Terror believe that proactive measures must be taken against terrorist organizations to effectively defeat global terrorism. They believe that in order to meet the diverse security challenges of the 21st century, a larger, global military presence is needed. Without such a force, they argue, terrorist organizations will continue to launch strikes against innocent civilians. Many of the people argue that the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and other countries, which have been the victims of large-scale attacks, must go on the offensive against such rogue groups and that not doing so will only embolden the attackers and invite more attacks. Allowing such organizations to gain more strength may allow them to achieve their goal of imposing militant Islamist rule.

Critics of the Global War on Terror claim that there is no tangible enemy to defeat, as there is no single group whose defeat will bring about an end to the conflict. Thus, it is virtually impossible to know if progress is being made. They also argue that “terrorism,” a tactic whose goal is to instill fear into people through violent actions, can never be truly defeated. There are also those who argue against the justification for preemptive strikes, because such action invites counterresponses and brings about the deaths of many innocent people. Many believe that the Iraqi military posed no imminent threat to the United States when coalition forces entered Iraq in 2003, but the resultant war has been disastrous for both the Iraqi and American people. Civil right activists contend that measures meant to crack down on terrorist activities have infringed on the rights of American citizens as well as the rights of foreign detainees. Furthermore, critics argue that the war and the amount of spending apportioned to military endeavors negatively affects the national and world economies. Others argue that the United States should be spending time and resources on resolving the Arab-Israeli problem and trying to eradicate the desperate conditions that feed terrorism.

As support for the Global War on Terror effort has diminished, the debate over its effectiveness has grown. From late 2007 to the beginning of 2009, terrorist attacks have continued, and the deliberation over the best way to ensure the safety of civilian populations around the world continues.

As of March 2009, the new Barack Obama administration is not using the terms “Global War on Terror” or “Long War” in defense fact sheets. It has instructed U.S. government agencies to use the term “Overseas Contingency Operations.” White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has explained that Obama is “using different words and phrases in order to denote a reaching out to many moderate parts of the world that we believe can be important in a battle against extremists.” However, the term “Global War on Terror” is still deeply embedded.



Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mahajan, Rahul. The New Crusade: America's War on Terrorism. New York: Monthly Review, 2002.

Woodward, Bob. Bush at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1763200329