According to two definitions on the web, 9/11 was not an act of war. Definition 1 (dictionary.com) states “an act of aggression by a country against another with which it is nominally at peace.” In the 14 years that have passed since 9/11, no country has been identified as having aggressed against America. Definition 2 (British dictionary) states “an aggressive act, usually employing military force, which constitutes an immediate threat to peace.” No conventional “military force” has ever been identified as carrying out the 9/11 attacks.
One might identify those who did 9/11 as jihadist guerilla warriors or as terrorists — there is a degree of ambiguity. However, it stretches ordinary meaning to think that the 9/11 terrorists and/or whoever set them in motion were some kind of military force making war on America. If a man with some beefs were to assassinate the mayor of some city and die in doing so, we would not think Battlefield America: T... Best Price: $10.95 Buy New $18.80 (as of 10:15 UTC - Details) that he was a military force making war against that city. The scope of 9/11 was much larger, but that doesn’t mean that it automatically makes it an act of war.
In fact, Bush’s initial reaction saw the 9/11 perpetrators as terrorists, not as attackers in a war.
Bush’s 9/11 speech spoke of “deliberate and deadly terrorist acts”. He spoke of “terrorist attacks”. He spoke of “acts of mass murder”. He didn’t identify a country as a foe: “The search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts.” He spoke of the persons responsible as if they were law-breakers: “I have directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice.” Progressivism: A Prime... Best Price: $8.99 Buy New $10.95 (as of 08:30 UTC - Details)
All of this suggests two things: that 9/11 was not an act of war or at least not conventional war and that Bush’s first reaction was not to identify 9/11 as an act of war but as terrorist acts.
However, near the end of the speech, Bush said “we stand together to win the war against terrorism.” This suggested several things. It suggested that, even though 9/11 was not an act of war, Bush saw the U.S. embarking on a war against terrorism. His remark also suggested confusion as to basic strategy. He didn’t know what to do about the 9/11 attacks; he wasn’t committed to a strategy that reflected that 9/11 was not an act of conventional war but terrorism writ large.
At this point, he departed radically from his 9/11 speech. He characterized 9/11 as an “act of war”:
“On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country.”
Bush went on to identify several enemies specifically and to declare war against them. Furthermore, he declared a very wide war geographically and with respect to existing government regimes:
“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there.
“It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Suicide Pact: The Radi... Buy New $5.49 (as of 11:45 UTC - Details)
He had already mentioned that
“This group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
“There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries.”
Against the State: An ... Best Price: $5.02 Buy New $5.52 (as of 11:35 UTC - Details) Therefore, this speech committed the U.S. to a war that was to become known as the “Long War”. Had Bush continued to identify 9/11 as terrorist acts of mass murder and not chosen to use a concept (act of war) that characterizes states making war against one another, usually by conventional means, he might instead have called for other approaches, such as a coordinated law enforcement approach or a counter-insurgency or anti-guerilla approach in which U.S. forces had a light footprint. He might have called for action under the U.N. Instead, he chose to use the available U.S. armed forces, which were not geared to rooting out terrorists.
Bush’s two decisions to conceptualize 9/11 as an act of war and to set the U.S. upon a very broad warpath crossing many borders and lasting many, many years both need to be seen as huge and costly mistakes. These decisions, still guiding the ship of state, need to be seen, understood, admitted and reversed. At the very least, the scope of Bush’s declaration has to be drastically scaled back.
This issue of properly identifying the nature of terrorism and what to do about preventing and containing it was recognized very soon after Bush had launched the nation into the Long War. See, for example, Michael Howard’s article in January 2002 in Foreign Affairs. He already and wisely pointed out a number of negatives of falling into the error of declaring war on terrorists. His article is prescient in many ways and well worth reading.
Very often, the Washington establishment merely rationalizes such debacles as Iraq and Afghanistan while continuing along the same basic flawed paths. But Washington is not geared to making “right” decisions, even when critics and think tanks manage to produce cogent analyses. The adventures of Obama in Libya, Syria, Iraq anew, Yemen and Ukraine all testify to the failure to learn and adapt. Although there has been some reduction in the American conventional armed forces footprint, there has been expansion in other ways (drones, special forces, sanctions). Only the negotiations with Iran show some alteration in the Long War.