The Next Decade: What the World Will Look Like - George Friedman (2011)


President George W. Bush called his response to the al Qaeda attacks of September 11 the Global War on Terror. If he had called the response a war on radical Islam, he would have alienated allies in the Islamic world that the United States badly needed. If he had called it a war on al Qaeda, he would have precluded attacking terrorists who were not part of that specific group. Bush tried to finesse this problem with a semantic sleight of hand, but this left him open to political and strategic confusion.

President Obama dropped the term war on terror, and rightly so. Terrorism is not an enemy but a type of warfare that may or may not be adopted by an enemy. Imagine if, after Pearl Harbor, an attack that relied on aircraft carriers, President Roosevelt had declared a global war on naval aviation. By focusing on terrorism instead of al Qaeda or radical Islam, Bush elevated a specific kind of assault to a position that shaped American global strategy, which left the United States strategically off-balance.

Obama may have clarified the nomenclature, but he left in place a significant portion of the imbalance, which is an obsession with the threat of terrorist attacks. As we consider presidential options in the coming decade, it appears imperative that we clear up just how much of a threat terrorism actually presents and what that threat means for U.S. policy.

According to the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, war is a continuation of politics by other means. Victory in World War II did not consist of compelling Japan to stop using aircraft carriers. Victory meant destroying Japan’s ability to wage war, then imposing American will—a political end. If a president is to lead a nation into war, he must crisply designate both the enemy and the end being sought. If terror was the enemy after September 11, then everyone who could use terror was the enemy, which is an awfully long list. If for political reasons a president cannot clearly identify who is to be fought and why, then he must carefully reexamine whether he can win, and thus whether or not he should engage. If the cost of naming the enemy is diplomatically or politically unacceptable, then the war is not likely to go well.

Despite Bush’s decision to focus the war on terrorism, the Islamic world knew that the real enemy being targeted was radical Islam. This was the ground that al Qaeda had sprung from, and Bush was not going to fool anyone into thinking otherwise. When he could not truthfully and coherently explain his reason for invading Iraq, the strategy began to unravel.

Bush’s semantic and strategic confusion intensified when his war on terror expanded to include the effort to unseat the Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein, targeted by that effort, was a secular militarist rather than a religious Islamist, and he was no friend of al Qaeda. He had not been involved in al Qaeda terrorism prior to the invasion of Iraq, but he and al Qaeda did share a common enemy: the United States. For this reason, Bush felt that he could not discount the danger of an alliance of convenience between the state of Iraq and the stateless radicals, al Qaeda. His solution was to make a preemptive attack. Bush and his advisers reasoned that destroying Saddam’s regime and occupying Iraq would deny al Qaeda a potential base while gaining the United States a strategic base of operations of its own.

Nonetheless, inasmuch as the larger strategy had been identified as a war on terror and inasmuch as Saddam had not recently engaged in terrorism, the invasion of Iraq appeared unjustified. If the war had been more clearly focused on al Qaeda as the enemy, then the invasion would have appeared much more plausible, because a war against a specific group would have included hostility toward that group’s allies and even potential allies, which Saddam certainly was.

In a democracy, the foundation of public support is a clear picture of the enemy’s threat and of your own purpose in confronting that threat. Such clarity not only mobilizes the public, it provides a coherent framework for communicating with that public. Truman’s presidency never recovered from his use of the term police action to refer to the Korean War, a conflict in which more than thirty thousand Americans died. Roosevelt’s war against Germany, Japan, and Italy, on the other hand, survived endless subterfuges, attacks on the innocent, and alliances with the truly evil, because Roosevelt made it clear who the enemy was and why we had to fight and defeat it.


Terrorism is an act of violence whose primary purpose is to create fear and, through that, a political result. The bombing of London by Germany in World War II was a terror attack, in that the goal was not to cripple the British ability to wage war, but to generate a psychological and political atmosphere that might split the public from the government and force the government into negotiations. Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, from assassination to hijacking aircraft, was designed to draw attention to their cause and maximize the appearance of Palestinian power. As I’ve tried to show, al Qaeda’s terrorism was also designed for a political end. The issue is simple: how much effort should be devoted to stopping terror and its consequences compared to other strategic tasks?

Terrorism is normally undertaken in lieu of more effective action. Had the Germans been able to destroy the British navy or the Palestinians been able to destroy the Israeli army, they would have done so. It would have been a more efficient and direct route to their ends. Terrorism derives from weakness, focusing on the psyche in order to make the terrorist appear more powerful than he is. The terrorist’s goal is to be treated as a significant threat when in fact he isn’t one. As the name implies, the terrorist is creating a state of mind. His ultimate goal is to be taken as an enormous, indeed singular threat. This creates the foundation for the political process the terrorist wants to initiate. Some merely want to be taken seriously. Al Qaeda wanted to convince the Islamic world that it was so powerful it was the most important thing on American minds.

Al Qaeda in fact achieved that goal.

By declaring a war on terror, the United States signaled that it regarded this single threat as transcending all others. Protecting the United States against terrorist acts became the central thrust of American global strategy, consuming enormous energy and resources. But terrorism as practiced by al Qaeda does not represent a strategic danger to the United States. It can and at times will kill perhaps thousands of Americans, and it will cause pain and generate fear. But terrorism in and of itself cannot destroy the material basis of the American republic.

Because terrorism—even including nuclear terrorism—does not represent an existential threat to the United States, a foreign policy focused singularly on terrorism is fundamentally unbalanced. The lack of balance consists of devoting all available resources to one threat among many while failing to control other threats that are of equal or greater significance and danger. This is not an argument to ignore terrorism, but rather an argument that terrorism needs to be considered within the context of national strategy. This is where George W. Bush got trapped, and his successors run the risk of falling into the same snare.

Like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan, Bush had to manage the psychology of the country while pursuing his strategic end, but two phenomena proved to be his undoing. First, the more successful he was at blocking al Qaeda, the more the psychological trauma faded. Some of the public moved from demanding the most extreme measures to being shocked at the measures being taken. Bush should have anticipated this, but by regarding the war on terror as an end in itself, he lost his sense of its place in the broader strategic and political context. Second, he was not able to shift his focus in keeping with the change in public opinion, because he did not understand the purpose of his own global war on terror. That purpose was not to defeat terrorism but to satisfy the psychological needs of the public. Yet Bush continued at full bore long after the country no longer felt at risk.

In being fixated on terrorism as a freestanding strategic goal, Bush devoted huge resources to battles he couldn’t win and to theaters that were not obviously connected to terrorism. In fighting a Global War on Terror, he not only lost perspective, he forgot to manage the full range of other U.S. strategic interests. He was so obsessed with the Islamic world, for example, that he didn’t devote the attention and resources necessary to deal with the reemergence of Russia.

The issue therefore is how to transition from a complete focus on terrorism and the Islamic world to a more balanced strategy. Part of the problem is public opinion. Dealing with the Islamic world is a passionate subject in the United States, one that divides the country. Many regard the Islamic world as not only the prime issue but the only issue on the American agenda. It is the president’s job to align with public opinion and to tack with it while quietly pursuing his own moral and strategic ends. The problem that President Obama and other presidents will face in the next decade is to place terrorism and al Qaeda in perspective while redefining American interests in the Islamic world. This needs to be done in such a way that the public doesn’t turn on the president, particularly when the inevitable terrorist attacks do occur. He must satisfy public opinion both when it is terrified and outraged by attacks and when it turns complacent about terrorism and is shocked at the things that have been done to battle it. Above all, the president must deal with the Islamic world as it is, without allowing public passion to influence his ultimate intentions.

This is not an argument for complacency. For example, even though the likelihood is small, the consequences of an attack with weapons of mass destruction would be enormous. Appropriate resources must be devoted to the threat. That does indeed mean war, covert or overt, and war potentially involves costs and commitments that run the risk of outstripping the threat. The president’s task is to align threat, consequences, and effort with other challenges, and shape them into a coherent strategy. The United States has many threats and interests and cannot respond to only one. Fear alone cannot drive strategy.

The president must, as we have said, always soothe the nerves of the public, and must always show his commitment to stopping terrorism. At the same time, he must resist the temptation to try the impossible or undertake actions that have disproportionate costs relative to effect. He can lie to the public, but he must never lie to himself. Above all, he must understand the real threats to the country and act against those.

Apart from the killings at Fort Hood in 2009, September 11 was the only successful attack in the United States during ten years of war. Those coordinated attacks on New York and Washington were the result of a multiyear, intercontinental operation that cost al Qaeda nineteen of its most committed and capable operatives. Two major office buildings were destroyed in New York, and in Washington the Pentagon suffered extensive damage. Three thousand Americans were killed. But for a nation of 300 million people, the material consequences of the attack were in fact minimal.

This is not meant to trivialize the deaths or to dismiss the horror that Americans experienced on that day. My point is merely to emphasize that while you and I are allowed the luxury of our pain, a president isn’t. A president must take into account how his citizens feel and he must manage them and lead them, but he must not succumb to personal feelings. His job is to maintain a ruthless sense of proportion while keeping the coldness of his calculation to himself. If he succumbs to sentiment, he will make decisions that run counter to the long-term interests of his country. A president has to accept casualties and move on. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt called for vengeance but privately decided to focus on Germany and not Japan. He understood that a president could not allow himself to craft strategy out of emotion.

The purpose of war, according to von Clausewitz, is to impose your will on another nation by rendering that other nation incapable of resisting. The primary means for doing this is to destroy the nation’s military, or to undermine the population’s will to resist. Instilling terror can destroy an army; for example, the Mongols paralyzed their enemies with the knowledge of their relentless and ruthless cruelty. The Greek city-states would fight their wars to the bitter end, spurred on by fear of the slavery that awaited them if they were conquered. So the net effect of terror is hard to predict.

During World War II, neither the Germans nor the British made any bones about the purpose of what the British called “nighttime area bombing.” The targeting of civilians was a tactic designed to generate terror among the public, in the hope that the civilians would at the very least become less effective in running the wartime economy, and at the extreme possibly rise up against their own regimes. In Japan, the Americans pursued the same ends by using incendiary devices, taking advantage of the fact that most Japanese buildings were made of wood. In three days of conventional bombing over Tokyo, U.S. air forces killed 100,000 Japanese civilians, more than were killed at Hiroshima. Yet until the introduction of the atomic bomb, the terror strategy failed, just as it had failed in both Germany and Britain. Rather than destroying faith in the government, the bombing of civilian areas rallied the public to support the war effort. The attacks inspired outrage while making it easy for the targeted governments to portray the consequences of defeat as being too horrible even to contemplate. If the enemy was willing to go to such lengths to divert resources during a war simply to kill civilians, imagine what they would do when the war was over. Terror made it easy to demonize the enemy and made surrender unthinkable.

In conventional warfare, terror is delivered by massed force. But terror also can be delivered through a covert operation by a very small number of individuals: a commando attack. These operations were once generally confined to assassinations, but after the invention of high explosives—and force multipliers for high explosives, such as airliners—commando terrorism focused on civilian targets with the goal of producing casualties as an end in itself.

It is important here to distinguish carefully between commandos whose goals are military and those whose targets are civilian and whose purpose is terror. The French Resistance in 1944 attacked German transport facilities in an attempt to undermine their invader’s ability to wage war directly. The terror commando’s goal, however, is not to harm the enemy’s military but to undermine enemy morale by generating a sense of vulnerability. Sometimes the audience isn’t even the target country but public opinion elsewhere, as with the attacks of September 11.

By generating fear, helplessness, and rage, terrorism transforms public opinion, which then demands that the government provide protection from terrorists and punish such people for their actions. The more effective the terrorist attack is, the more frightened the population is, and the more compelled the government is to respond aggressively and visibly. Once again, in the face of terror, the president must convince the public that he shares their sentiments while taking actions that appear to satisfy their cravings both for security and for revenge.

One such largely symbolic action taken since September 11 has been the attempt to bolster the airport security system. Despite billions of dollars and untold measures of passenger frustration, a terrorist with training can still devise any number of ways to get explosives or other devices through the system. Some terrorists might be deterred, and the system will find others. But while increased airport security can decrease the threat, it cannot stop it.

There is simply no security system that is both granular enough to detect terrorists reliably and efficient enough to allow the air transport system to function. El Al, Israel’s airline, is frequently held up as an example, but El Al has thirty-five planes. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the combined American air fleet has nearly eight thousand planes and over twenty-six thousand takeoffs per day. The Transportation Security Administration says it screened 1.8 million passengers per day on average in 2009. These are staggering numbers.

What the limitations of airport screening tell us is that if al Qaeda failed to strike the United States again during the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was not because of security precautions per se. It is even doubtful that the people who design the airport security system expect it to work. Their real objective is to calm the public by ostentatiously demonstrating that steps are being taken. The greater the ostentation and inconvenience, the more comforting the system appears.

But the increasing sophistication of explosives makes it possible to kill dozens of people with a device carried by an individual, hundreds of people with a device hidden in a car or truck, and thousands of people with an aircraft that acts as an explosive. The world is awash in such explosives, and the borders of the continental United States are about nine thousand miles long. The United States is also a trading country, and ships and planes and trucks arrive daily. Any one of those conveyances could contain people and explosives prepared to kill other people. It is also true that among 300 million Americans, there could be any number of homegrown terrorists preparing to strike at any time.

For these reasons, true homeland security in a country like the United States is impossible, and the task will remain impossible in the next decade. There are no silver bullets. Eliminating Islamist terrorism is similarly impossible. It is possible to reduce the threat, but the greater the reduction we hope to achieve, the greater the cost. Given unlimited possibilities and limited resources, it is safe to say that there will continue to be terrorist attacks on the United States, regardless of the efforts being made.

The president of the United States must know this with crystal clarity, and he must always act on the basis of what he knows, but he must never admit these limits to the public. He must constantly demonstrate that he is doing all he can to destroy the enemy and to protect the homeland, and he must always convey a sense that the elimination of Islamist terrorism is possible, all the while knowing that it is not.

As we embark on the policy decisions of the next decade, the larger point is that turning all American resources to an end that is unobtainable, against a threat that can and will have to be endured, is not only pointless but something that can create windows of opportunity for other enemies and other assaults.

While terrorism can kill Americans and can create a profound sense of insecurity, the obsessive desire to destroy terrorism can undermine—as it already has undermined—the United States strategically. This is an important point for the leaders of the next decade to consider. This is why even though thousands of Americans might be killed by terrorists—myself and my loved ones among them—terrorism should not be elevated to the status of an issue towering above all others. At all times, strategy must remain proportional to the threat.


Another unpleasant reality that will loom over the next ten years, which needs to be considered separately, is weapons of mass destruction. The existence of such weapons will occasionally prompt severe responses from the presidents who lead us. The damage that a nuclear device might do would dwarf that of conventional terrorism. Whereas conventional terrorism is rarely strategic, weapons of mass destruction can have a profound effect on the material condition of the country.

To turn our attention back to Bush, there was in fact more to his response to September 11 than simply stopping conventional terrorism. After that day, the Bush administration received intelligence that a nuclear device—a Soviet-era suitcase bomb, to be specific—had been stolen and might be in the hands of al Qaeda. Thus the specter that haunted the administration in the closing months of 2001 was that at any moment an American city might be destroyed by a nuclear weapon.

It was this threat that defined the Bush administration’s initial efforts. The president and vice president were never in the same city at the same time, and all intelligence and security services were directed to find the weapon. It would appear that they never found it, or it may never have existed. After years of mishandling, it may have malfunctioned, or it may have been intercepted and the government chose not to reveal its existence.

Regardless, weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear devices, represent a class of threat that cannot be tolerated. It would take many nuclear weapons to actually destroy the infrastructure and population of the United States, but a single attack by a nuclear weapon could destabilize public morale to such an extent that it would paralyze the country for an extended period of time.

In a small terrorist attack in which dozens die, like the suicide bombings in Israel, the probability that any one individual out of a population of 300 million will be a victim is small. The probability of dying from an ordinary accident or from disease in the next year is far higher than that of being killed in a suicide bombing. The events of September 11 distorted the perception of danger for a while, and people avoided flying, and perhaps avoided crowded places and landmark buildings. But as time passed, the sense of being subject to attack declined. The danger was on most people’s minds when they went to the airport, and perhaps when they entered the Sears Tower or the Empire State Building or the Capitol. But over time, the perceived risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time was assimilated into the general background noise. As this happened, for many people the demand that all steps be taken to guard against terror turned to dismay at what they regarded as excesses, inconveniences, and intrusions.

With weapons of mass destruction, the probabilities and the persistence of fear are different. Assume that an American city were destroyed by a nuclear device. Once a WMD attack had destroyed one city, the number of targets a terrorist might want to hit next would be relatively small, but for anyone living in one of the major cities, there would be the immediate, reasonable fear that the enemy had more such weapons and that at any instant they might strike again.

From a terrorist’s perspective, wasting a nuclear weapon on Spokane, Washington, or Bangor, Maine, makes no sense. It is the major cities that are the centers of political, economic, and social life. For them to be evacuated by frightened citizens would bring not only chaos but abandonment of entire economic and communications systems while millions of refugees fled to nowhere in particular. This response to the fear of mass annihilation from a completely random threat would be the ultimate objective of terrorism using WMDs.

Terrorists of many stripes—Palestinian, European, Japanese—have been operating since the late 1960s, and most of these groups would have jumped at the chance to inflict the kind of damage a weapon of mass destruction can engender. Many of these groups have been technically far more sophisticated than al Qaeda. So why has there never been an effective attack with a weapon of mass destruction?

The simple answer is that while constructing and deploying a WMD is easy to imagine, it is very difficult to execute. Existing weapons are relatively few, heavily guarded, difficult to move, and likely to kill the terrorist well before the terrorist gets a chance to kill anyone else. There have been many reports of Soviet-era nuclear weapons, and biological and chemical weapons, being available on the black market, but most of the offers were made by intelligence agencies trying to lure terrorists into a trap. If you were a terrorist offered a suitcase nuke by a former Soviet colonel, how could you possibly tell whether what you were looking at was the real thing or just a box stuffed with wires and blinking lights? The same uncertainty would have to hold for chemical or biological weapons as well. Intelligence services don’t have to know who is selling real WMDs in order to scare away the customers, and the allure of acquiring these weapons contracted considerably when the number of intelligence officers offering them for sale as entrapment outnumbered legitimate offers by one hundred to one.

There is, of course, the option of making such a weapon yourself, and every year some undergraduate posts a diagram of how to build a nuclear device. Between that sketch and success are the following steps: acquiring the fissile material, along with all the necessary circuitry and casings; acquiring the machinery needed to machine the fissile material to the precise tolerances needed in order to detonate it; engaging the experts who could actually do these things once you had the material and the equipment; finding a very secure facility where these experts could work and live, and so on. The chances of being detected are compounded at each stage of this torturous process. Even if you could acquire the highly guarded fissile material, the machines needed for producing a nuclear weapon are highly specialized, and their manufacturers are few and far between. When a private individual shows up with his American Express card to order one of these machines, the chances that he will be detected are very good indeed.

With biological and chemical weapons, you add to these same risks the likelihood that the only person you’ll kill will be yourself and your immediate accomplices. Chemical and biological weapons carry an extra layer of complexity in that they have to be dispersed. When a Japanese group released sarin, an extremely deadly nerve gas, in a Tokyo subway, the contamination remained localized and only a few people were killed, not the substantial numbers the terrorists had hoped for. People always speak of how a speck of this or that could wipe out an entire city. Certainly—but first you have to figure out how to spread it around.

Only one country ever produced a nuclear weapon from scratch, and that was the United States. The British got their nukes in compensation for their contribution to the American research effort. The French also acquired the technology from the Americans, which they then regifted to Israel. The Russians stole the knowledge from the Americans, then transferred it to both the Chinese and the Indians. The Chinese gave the technology to the Pakistanis. The point is, the development of these weapons through an independent research program is enormously difficult, which is why Iran is still struggling and North Korea has never gotten it quite right.

Just as the financial crisis has created a domestic imbalance in the United States, September 11 has generated a strategic imbalance. This will have to be addressed in the next decade, and difficult decisions will have to be made. A strategy designed to prevent regional hegemons from threatening American interests is a balance-of-power strategy. It requires an American presence in multiple regions. The next decade, therefore, will be about redefining American strategy so that it can pursue these interests. That will mean moving beyond the war on terror and redefining interests throughout each region as well as the world. A good place to begin thinking about this is Israel.