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Criticism of the War on Terror

Criticism of the War on Terror addresses the morals, ethics, efficiency, economics, as well as other issues surrounding the War on Terror. It also touches upon criticism against the phrase itself, which was branded as a misnomer. The notion of a "war" against "terrorism" has proven highly contentious, with critics charging that participating governments exploited it to pursue long-standing policy/military objectives,[1] reduce civil liberties,[2] and infringe upon human rights. It is argued that the term war is not appropriate in this context (as in War on Drugs), since there is no identifiable enemy and that it is unlikely international terrorism can be brought to an end by military means.[3]

Other critics, such as Francis Fukuyama, note that "terrorism" is not an enemy, but a tactic: calling it a "war on terror" obscures differences between conflicts such as anti-occupation insurgents and international mujahideen. With a military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and its associated collateral damage Shirley Williams maintains this increases resentment and terrorist threats against the West.[4] Other criticism include United States hypocrisy,[5] media induced hysteria,[6] and that changes in American foreign and security policy have shifted world opinion against the US.[7]


  • Terminology 1
    • Perpetual war 1.1
    • Preventive war 1.2
  • War on Terror seen as pretext 2
    • Domestic civil liberties 2.1
    • Unilateralism 2.2
    • As a war against Islam 2.3
  • Methods 3
    • Aiding terrorism 3.1
    • Hypocrisy of the Bush Administration 3.2
    • Misleading information 3.3
    • Torture by Proxy 3.4
  • Religionism and Islamophobia 4
  • Decreasing international support 5
  • Role of U.S. media 6
  • British objections 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10


Various critics dubbed the term "War on Terror" as nonsensical. For example, billionaire activist investor Rockridge Institute argued that there cannot literally be a war on terror, since terror is an abstract noun. "Terror cannot be destroyed by weapons or signing a peace treaty. A war on terror has no end."[9]

Jason Burke, a journalist who writes about radical Islamic activity, describes the terms "terrorism" and "war against terrorism" in this manner:

There are multiple ways of defining terrorism and all are subjective. Most define terrorism as 'the use or threat of serious violence' to advance some kind of 'cause'. Some state clearly the kinds of group ('sub-national', 'non-state') or cause (political, ideological, religious) to which they refer. Others merely rely on the instinct of most people when confronted with an act that involves innocent civilians being killed or maimed by men armed with explosives, firearms or other weapons. None is satisfactory and grave problems with the use of the term persist. Terrorism is after all, a tactic. The term 'war on terrorism' is thus effectively nonsensical. As there is no space here to explore this involved and difficult debate, my preference is, on the whole, for the less loaded term 'militancy'. This is not an attempt to condone such actions, merely to analyze them in a clearer way.[10]

Perpetual war

Former terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated." [11] In that same speech, he called the war "a task that does not end", an argument he reiterated in 2006 State of The Union address.

Preventive war

One justification given for the invasion of Iraq was to prevent terroristic, or other attacks, by Iraq on the United States or other nations. This can be viewed as a conventional warfare realization of the War on Terror.

A major criticism leveled at this justification is that it does not fulfill one of the requirements of a just war and that in waging war preemtively, the United States undermined international law and the authority of the United Nations, particularly the United Nations Security Council. On this ground, by invading a country that did not pose an imminent threat without UN support, the U.S. violated international law, including the UN Charter and the Nuremberg principles, therefore committing a war of aggression, which is considered a war crime. Additional criticism raised the point that the United States might have set a precedent, under the premise of which any nation could justify the invasion of other states.

Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that on the eve of U.S. intervention in 2003, Iraq represented, at best, a gathering threat and not an imminent one.[12] In hindsight he notes that Iraq did not even represent a gathering threat. "The decision to attack Iraq in March 2003 was discretionary: it was a war of choice. There was no vital American interests in imminent danger and there were alternatives to using military force, such as strengthening existing sanctions."[13] However, Haass argues that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 began as a war of necessity—vital interests were at stake—but morphed "into something else and it crossed a line in March 2009, when President Barack Obama` decided to sharply increase American troop levels and declared that it was U.S. policy to 'take the fight to the Taliban in the south and east' of the country."[13] Afghanistan, according to Haass, eventually became a war of choice.

War on Terror seen as pretext

Some have argued that part of the War on Terror has little to do with its stated purpose, since Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and the invasion was carried out on the basis of faulty or doctored intelligence. Excerpts from an April 2006 report compiled from sixteen U.S. government intelligence agencies has strengthened the claim that engaging in Iraq has increased terrorism in the region.[14]

Domestic civil liberties

Picture of Satar Jabar, one of the prisoners subjected to torture at Abu Ghraib. Abar was not in Abu Ghraib on charges of terrorism, as was commonly believed, but rather for carjacking.[15]

In the United Kingdom, critics have claimed that the Blair government had used the War on Terror as a pretext to radically curtail civil liberties, some enshrined in law since Magna Carta. For example, the detention-without-trial in Belmarsh prison:[16] controls on free speech through laws against protests near Parliament[17] and laws banning the "glorification" of terrorism:[18] and reductions in checks on police power, as in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes[19] and Mohammed Abdul Kahar.[20]

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell has also condemned Blair's inaction over the controversial U.S. practice of extraordinary rendition, arguing that the human rights conventions to which the UK is a signatory (e.g. European Convention on Human Rights) impose on the government a "legal obligation" to investigate and prevent potential torture and human rights violations.[21]


U.S. President George W. Bush's remark of November 2001 claiming that "You're either with us or you are with the terrorists,"[22] has been a source of criticism. Thomas A. Keaney of Johns Hopkins University's Foreign Policy Institute said "it made diplomacy with a number of different countries far more difficult because obviously there are different problems throughout the world."[23]

As a war against Islam

Since the War on Terror revolved primarily around the United States and other NATO states intervening in the internal affairs of Muslim countries (i.e. in United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark,[24] among others. After his release from Guantanamo in 2005, ex-detainee Moazzam Begg appeared in the Islamist propaganda video 21st Century CrUSAders and claimed the U.S. was engaging in a new crusade:[25][26]

I think that history is definitely repeating itself and for the Muslim world and I think even a great part of the non-Muslim world now, are beginning to recognize that there are ambitions that the United States has on the lands and wealth of nations of Islam.


Protestors dressed as hooded detainees and holding WCW signs in Washington DC on January 4, 2007

Critics believe that interrogation methods employed by U.S. forces in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were immoral and unethical, making them no better than the insurgents they are trying to find. The War on Terrorism has been effectively called an act of terrorism in itself by some who point to incidents such as the Bagram torture and prisoner abuse scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, the alleged use of chemical weapons against terrorists in Fallujah,[27] and the use of military force to disperse anti-American demonstrations in Iraq.[28]

Aiding terrorism

Each month, there are more suicide terrorists trying to kill Americans and their allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as other Muslim countries than in all the years before 2001 combined. From 1980 to 2003, there were 343 suicide attacks around the world and at most 10 percent were anti-American inspired. Since 2004, there have been more than 2,000, over 91 percent against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, as well as other countries.

University of Chicago professor and political scientist, Robert Pape has written extensive work on suicide terrorism and states that it is triggered by military occupations, not extremist ideologies. In works such as Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism and Cutting the Fuse, he uses data from an extensive terrorism database and argues that by increasing military occupations, the US government is increasing terrorism. Pape is also the director and founder of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), a database of every known suicide terrorist attack from 1980 to 2008.

In 2006, a National Intelligence Estimate stated that the war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism. The estimate was compiled by 16 intelligence agencies and was the first assessment of global terrorism since the start of the Iraq war.[30]

Cornelia Beyer explains how terrorism increased as a response to past and present military intervention and occupation, as well as to 'structural violence'. Structural violence, in this instance, refers to economic conditions of backwardness which are attributed to the economic policies of the Western nations, the United States in particular.[31]

British Fidel Castro's regime, while the American government claims to be anti-terrorism.

Hypocrisy of the Bush Administration

The alleged mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 attacks was part of the Mujahedin who were sponsored, armed, trained and aided by the CIA to fight the Soviet Union after it intervened in Afghanistan in 1979.[35][36][37][38]

Venezuela accused the U.S. government of having a double standard towards terrorism for giving safe haven to Luis Posada Carriles.[39] Some Americans also commented on the selective use of the term War on Terrorism, including 3 star general William Odom, formerly President Reagan's NSA Director, who wrote:

"As many critics have pointed, out, terrorism is not an enemy. It is a tactic. Because the United States itself has a long record of supporting terrorists and using terrorist tactics, the slogans of today's war on terrorism merely makes the United States look hypocritical to the rest of the world. A prudent American president would end the present policy of "sustained hysteria" over potential terrorist attacks..treat terrorism as a serious but not a strategic problem, encourage Americans to regain their confidence and refuse to let al Qaeda keep us in a state of fright."[5][40]

Misleading information

Critics argued that some politicians supporting the War on Terror are motivated by reasons other than those they publicly state. Others accuse those politicians of cynically misleading the public to achieve their own ends. For instance, in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush and members of his administration indicated that they possessed information which demonstrated a link between Gulf War."[42]

Torture by Proxy

The term "torture by proxy" is used by some critics to describe situations in which the CIA[43][44][45][46] and other US agencies transferred supposed terrorists, whom they captured during their efforts in the 'War on terrorism', to countries known to employ torture as an interrogation technique. Some also claimed that US agencies knew torture was employed, even though the a transfer of anyone to anywhere for the purpose of torture is a violation of US law. Nonetheless, Condoleezza Rice (then the United States Secretary of State) stated that:[47]

“the United States has not transported anyone and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured. Where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured."

This US programme also prompted several official investigations in Europe into alleged secret detentions and unlawful inter-state transfers involving Council of Europe member states, including those related with the so-called War on Terrorism. A June 2006 report from the Council of Europe estimated that 100 people were kidnapped by the CIA on EU territory with the cooperation of Council of Europe members and rendered to other countries, often after having transited through secret detention centres ("black sites"), some located in Europe, utilised by the CIA. According to the separate European Parliament report of February 2007, the CIA has conducted 1,245 flights, many of them to destinations where these alleged 'terrorists' could face torture, in violation of article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture.[48]

Religionism and Islamophobia

One aspect of the criticism regarding the rhetoric justifying the War on Terror was religionism, or more specifically Islamophobia. Theologian Amir Hussain, who studies contemporary Muslims societies in North America, defines this concept as a stereotyping of all followers of Islam as real or potential terrorists due to alleged hateful and violent teaching of their religion. He goes on to argue that “Islam is reduced to the concept of jihad and Jihad is reduced to terror against the West.”[49] This line of argument echoes Edward Said’s famous piece Orientalism in which he argued that the United States sees the Muslims and Arabs in an essentialized caricatures – as oil supplies or potential terrorists.[50]

Decreasing international support

In 2002, strong majorities supported the U.S.-led War on Terror in Britain, France, Germany, Japan, India and Russia, according to a sample survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. By 2006, supporters of the effort were in the minority in Britain (49%), Germany (47%), France (43%) and Japan (26%). Although a majority of Russians still supported the War on Terror, that majority had decreased by 21%. Whereas 63% of Spaniards supported the War on Terror in 2003, only 19% of the population indicated support in 2006. 19% of the Chinese population still supports the War on Terror and less than a fifth of the populations of Turkey, Egypt, as well as Jordan support the efforts. The report also indicated that Indian public support for the War on Terror has been stable.[51] Andrew Kohut, while speaking to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that and according to the Pew Research Center polls conducted in 2004, "the ongoing conflict in Iraq continues to fuel anti-American sentiments. America’s global popularity plummeted at the start of military action in Iraq and the U.S. presence there remains widely unpopular."[52]


Role of U.S. media

Researchers in communication studies and political science found that American understanding of the "War onTerror" is directly shaped by how mainstream news media reports events associated with the conflict. In Bush's War: Media Bias and Justifications for War in a Terrorist Age[56] political communication researcher Jim A. Kuypers illustrated "how the press failed America in its coverage on the War on Terror." In each comparison, Kuypers "detected massive bias on the part of the press." This researcher called the mainstream news media an "anti-democratic institution" in his conclusion. "What has essentially happened since 9/11 has been that Bush has repeated the same themes and framed those themes the same whenever discussing the War on Terror," said Kuypers. "Immediately following 9/11, the mainstream news media (represented by CBS, ABC, NBC, USA Today, The New York Times, as well as The Washington Post) did echo Bush, but within eight weeks it began to intentionally ignore certain information the president was sharing and instead reframed the president's themes or intentionally introduced new material to shift the focus."

This goes beyond reporting alternate points of view, which is an important function of the press. "In short," Kuypers explained, "if someone were relying only on the mainstream media for information, they would have no idea what the president actually said. It was as if the press were reporting on a different speech." The study is essentially a "comparative framing analysis." Overall, Kuypers examined themes about 9-11 and the War on Terror that President Bush used and compared them to themes that the press used when reporting on what he said.

"Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner," wrote Kuypers. These findings suggest that the public is misinformed about government justification and plans concerning the War on Terror.

Others have also suggested that press coverage contributed to a public confused and misinformed on both the nature and level of the threat to the U.S. posed by terrorism. In his book, Trapped in the War on Terror[6] political scientist Ian S. Lustick, claimed, "The media have given constant attention to possible terrorist-initiated catastrophes and to the failures and weaknesses of the government's response." Lustick alleged that the War on Terror is disconnected from the real but remote threat terrorism poses and that the generalized War on Terror began as part of the justification for invading Iraq, but then took on a life of its own, fueled by media coverage. Scott Atran writes that "publicity is the oxygen of terrorism" and the rapid growth of international communicative networks renders publicity even more potent, with the result that "perhaps never in the history of human conflict have so few people with so few actual means and capabilities frightened so many."[57]

Media researcher Stephen D. Cooper's analysis of media criticism Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers As the Fifth Estate[58] contains several examples of controversies concerning mainstream reporting of the War on Terror. Cooper found that bloggers' criticisms of factual inaccuracies in news stories or bloggers' discovery of the mainstream press' failure to adequately verify facts before publication caused many news organizations to retract or change news stories.

Cooper found that bloggers specializing in criticism of media coverage advanced four key points:

  • Mainstream reporting of the War on Terror has frequently contained factual inaccuracies. In some cases, the errors go uncorrected: moreover, when corrections are issued they usually are given far less prominence than the initial coverage containing the errors.
  • The mainstream press has sometimes failed to check the provenance of information or visual images supplied by Iraqi "stringers" (local Iraqis hired to relay local news).
  • Story framing is often problematic: in particular, "man-in-the-street" interviews have often been used as a representation of public sentiment in Iraq, in place of methodologically sound survey data.
  • Mainstream reporting has tended to concentrate on the more violent areas of Iraq, with little or no reporting of the calm areas.

David Barstow won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting by connecting the Department of Defense to over 75 retired generals supporting the Iraq War on television and radio networks. The Department of Defense recruited retired generals to promote the war to the American public. Barstow also discovered undisclosed links between some retired generals and defense contractors. He reported that "the Bush administration used its control over access of information in an effort to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse".

British objections

The Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK, Ken McDonald, Britain's most senior criminal prosecutor, stated that those responsible for acts of terrorism such as the 7 July 2005 London bombings are not "soldiers" in a war, but "inadequates" who should be dealt with by the criminal justice system. He added that a "culture of legislative restraint" was needed in passing anti-terrorism laws and that a "primary purpose" of the violent attacks was to tempt countries such as Britain to "abandon our values." He stated that in the eyes of the UK criminal justice system, the response to terrorism had to be "proportionate and grounded in due process and the rule of law":

London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered...were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, 'soldiers'. They were deluded, narcissistic inadequates. They were criminals. They were fantasists. We need to be very clear about this. On the streets of London there is no such thing as a war on terror. The fight against terrorism on the streets of Britain is not a war. It is the prevention of crime, the enforcement of our laws and the winning of justice for those damaged by their infringement.[59]

Stella Rimington, former head of the British intelligence service MI5 criticised the War on Terror as a "huge overreaction" and had decried the militarization and politicization of U.S. efforts to be the wrong approach to terrorism.[60] David Miliband, former UK foreign secretary, has similarly called the strategy a "mistake".[61][62] Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, called for Britain to end its involvement in the War in Afghanistan, describing the mission as "wholly unsuccessful and indeed counter-productive."[63]

See also


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Further reading

  • "Wisdom, not intelligence" "Britain needs political wisdom more than the intelligence services to prevent terrorism on its shores". Khaled Diab, The Guardian, January 2008.
  • "Against the War on Terror".
  • Arie, Sophie and MacAskill, Ewen. "Al-Qaida would back Bush, says UK envoy". The Guardian, 21 September 2004.
  • Beyer, Cornelia, "Violent Globalisms: Conflict in Response to Empire", Ashgate, 2008.
  • Beyer, Anna Cornelia, "Counterterrorism and International Power Relations", IB Tauris, 2010.
  • Raimondo, Justin. "We've Been Warned (The state of our union: perpetual war)"., 3 February 2003.
  • Taylor, Scott. Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009. ISBN 978–1-55365-292-2
  • Warner, Daniel. "Perpetual War Poses a Risk to US Power". International Herald Tribune, 28 June 2002.
  • Youssef, Nancy A. "More Iraqis killed by U.S. than by terror". Detroit Free Press, 25 September 2004.
  • Chernus, Ira, Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.
  • "Myths of the War on Terrorism and Iraq". Wilson's Almanac, accessed 26 February 2005.
  • "State Department Lie About Terrorism Levels Bolstered Bush Claims of Success". Capitol Hill Blue, 11 June 2004.
  • Fisk, Robert. "Folly taken to a scale we haven't seen since WWII". The Independent, 11 September 2003.
  • Gonzales, Patrisia and Rodriguez, Roberto. "The Fallacy of the War on Terror". Universal Press Syndicate, 12 December 2003.
  • Igmade (Stephan Trüby et al., eds.), 5 Codes: Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror, Birkhäuser; 2006, ISBN 3-7643-7598-1
  • Record, Jeffrey. Bounding the Global War on Terrorism (PDF). Strategic Studies Institute, December 2003.
  • Khan, L. Ali. A Theory of International Terrorism (Brill, 2006).
  • Edward S. Herman, "There Is No “War on Terror”", January 18, 2008.
  • Human Rights First; Getting to Ground Truth: Investigating U.S. Abuses in the “War on Terror.” (2004)
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