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Criticism of the War on Terrorism

Criticism of the War on Terrorism (also named the War on Terror) addresses the issues, morals, ethics, efficiency, economics, and other questions surrounding the War on Terrorism. Arguments are also made against the phrase itself, calling it a misnomer.

The notion of a "war" against "terrorism" has proven highly contentious, with critics charging that it has been exploited by participating governments to pursue long-standing policy objectives, reduce civil liberties, and infringe upon human rights. Some argue that the term war is not appropriate in this context (as in War on Drugs), since they believe there is no tangible enemy, and that it is unlikely international terrorism can be brought to an end by means of war. Others note that "terrorism" is not an enemy, but a tactic; calling it a "war on terror," obscures differences between conflicts. For example, anti-occupation insurgents and international jihadists.


The phrase "War on Terror" has been referred to as a false metaphor. Linguist George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute has 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."

Jason Burke, a journalist who writes about radical Islamic activity, has this to say on the terms "terrorism" and "war against terrorism":

"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 analyse them in a clearer way." ("Al Qaeda", ch.2, p.22)

Perpetual war

U.S. President George W. Bush articulated the goals of the "war on terrorism" in a September 20, 2001 speech, in which he said it "will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated. In that same speech, he called the war "a task that does not end." To critics, such goals create a state of perpetual war. They have argued that terrorism is itself only a tactic which can never be defeated. It is further disputed that the "War on Terrorism" qualifies as a war as there is no party whose defeat can bring victory. Ira Chernus, professor at the University of Colorado, argues that the ideology underlying the war on terrorism inevitably leads to a state of perpetual war, because it is based on Bush's domestic crusade against sin and evil. The notion of a perpetual war during which governments could take whatever actions they liked to maintain themselves in power, using the state of war as a pretext, forms a major theme in 1984, an influential book by George Orwell.
Gore Vidal also subscribes to this notion in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, first in a critical trilogy against the Bush Administration.

The Bush administration has given various answers concerning what would constitute victory. In a news conference on September 20, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that's going to be over in a month or a year or even five years. It is something that we need to do so that we can continue to live in a world with powerful weapons and with people who are willing to use those powerful weapons. And we can do that as a country. And that would be a victory, in my view".

Jacob Levenson wrote, "Three years after the United States attacked Afghanistan, it is extremely difficult for the press to gauge where the United States stands in the war on terror because the term itself obscures distinction".

It has also been noted that by formally styling the situation as a "war", some semblance of legitimacy is offered to many subsequent retaliatory acts undertaken by terrorists, since they simply become acts of war, wherin offensive strikes are permitted.

In May 2005 a new designation was introduced, "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism (GSAVE)", but it was soon dropped quietly after the scathing public reception it met. The "Long War" has been launched as an alternative slogan, and was used by president Bush in his 2006 State of The Union speech.

Pre-emptive war

The justification given for the invasion of Iraq (prior to its happening) was to prevent terrorist or other attacks by Iraq on the United States or other nations. This can be viewed as a conventional warfare realisation of the war on terror.

A major criticism levelled at this justification is that, according to war opponents, it does not fulfill one of the requirements of a just war and that in waging a war pre-emptively, the United States has undermined international law and the authority of the United Nations, particularly the United Nations Security Council. On this ground it has been advocated that by invading a country that does not pose an imminent threat and without UN support, the US has violated international law, including the UN Charter and the Nuremberg principles and is guilty of committing a war of aggression, which is considered to be a war crime. A fact for which officials and members of the Bush administration are potentially criminally culpable under the command responsibility.

Another criticism that has been raised is that the United States has set a precedent, under the premise of which any nation could justify the invasion of other states.

"War on Terrorism" seen as pretext

Some have argued that part of the "War on Terrorism" 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 US government intelligence agencies has strengthened the claim that engaging in Iraq has increased terrorism in the region.

Domestic civil liberties

The "War on terror" has been seen as a pretext for reducing civil liberties.

Within the United States, critics argue that the Bush Administration and lower governments have restricted civil liberties and created a "culture of fear". Bush introduced the USA PATRIOT Act legislation to the United States Congress shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks, which significantly expanded U.S. law enforcement's power. It has been criticized as being too broad and having been abused for purposes unrelated to counter-terrorism. President Bush had also proposed Total Information Awareness, a federal program to collect and process massive amounts of data to identify behaviors consistent with terrorist threats. It was heavily criticized as being an "Orwellian" case of mass surveillance.

Many opponents focus on the domestic aspects, complaining that the government is systematically removing civil liberties from the population or engaging in racial profiling. They also allege that this approach increases public hostility to dissenting voices by encouraging the view that such people are being unpatriotic or even treasonous for simply disagreeing with the administration. Some, such as Giorgio Agamben, criticize a "generalised state of exception", which could be followed by a more or less deliberate strategy of tension (using false flags terrorist attacks and other ruse of war tactics).

In the United Kingdom, critics have claimed that the Blair government has used the War on Terrorism as a pretext to radically curtail civil liberties, some enshrined in law since Magna Carta. For example: detention-without-trial in Belmarsh prison ; controls on free speech through laws against protests near Parliament and laws banning the "glorification" of terrorism ; and reductions in checks on police power, as in the case of Jean Charles de Menezes (a Brazilian electrician shot dead after being mistaken for a terrorist ) and Mohammed Abdul Kahar (a Londoner shot by the Metropolitan Police after a false tip-off, but then released along with his brother without any charges ).

Former Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Menzies Campbell has also condemned Blair's inaction over the controversial US 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.

Defiance of international laws

Opponents feel the Bush administration is creative in suggesting legal loopholes and exception laws. However, most human rights organizations and even allies of America think there are breaches of international and US law. They point to the use of enemy combatant status, extraordinary rendition, alleged use of prisoner abuse which to observers outside the Bush administration constitutes torture.

The status "enemy combatant" was used by the Bush administration because the Taliban regime was never internationally recognized as a state, and that their supporters thus had no right to the treatment expected of a legitimate military of uniformed soldiers and officers under the Third Geneva Convention.

After adoption of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, any non-American national, anywhere on earth, can be designated "enemy combatant." The Bush administration's position is that unlawful combatants have no rights under the Geneva Conventions and therefore can be sent anywhere without trial or charges. However, this claim is widely disputed by legal experts. For details on the subject see unlawful combatant. More specific is the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian-Syrian dual-citizen. During a flight transfer in New York, he was approached by authorities and eventually sent to a Syrian prison for 374 days without charges. American birth is the only defense against forced exile. American national birth should not protect American-born terrorists or fail to protect naturalized citizens, yet it does both.

Whatever the legal justification of the Bush administration, commentators note that command responsibility is a well established doctrine, making those responsible for these policies liable for prosecution.


"You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror," a remark by U.S. President Bush in November 2001, 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.

The US has a network of secret jails for terrorist suspects; Abu Ghraib is but one example. Many of the countries those jails are in would consider the existence of secret torture jails in their territory without their knowledge as an act of war if a lesser nation would have done it.

Independent journals in Iraq were repeatedly bombed to the ground in several locations (amid claims of mistaking them for al-Qaeda buildings), yet a memo about the planned bombing of the very same al-Jazeera TV headquarters without notifying first the peaceful allied nation of Qatar (where al-Jazeera resides) surfaced and embarrassed the Bush administration.

This suggests the rights of other nations are to be rearranged retroactively by loopholes and exceptions to fit the needs of the "war on terror" being waged. In part by misleading allies rather than negotiating with them, which has been the reaction of smaller democracies fighting terrorism.

Pax Americana

One analysis is that the United States intends "to establish a new political framework within which [it] will exert hegemonic control" (World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board). Many people say the United States seeks to do this by controlling access to oil or oil pipelines.

This view is shared by a broad variety of ideological streams, including social democrats (e.g. Michael Meacher: "The global war on terrorism has the hallmarks of a political myth propagated to pave the way for a wholly different agenda -- the U.S. goal of world hegemony, built around securing by force command over the oil supplies required to drive the whole project"); anarchists, Greens (e.g. George Monbiot); and Marxists. In addition, many people on this side of the political spectrum opine that the war is being fought to benefit domestic political allies of the Bush administration, especially arms manufacturers. (See Military-industrial complex.)

Proponents of the hegemony hypothesis point out that achieving such a situation is the stated aim of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative think tank that includes many prominent members of the Republican Party and Bush administration among its present and former members. It is even arguable that this attitude was what led to the rise in Middle Eastern hostility in the first place.

As a war against Islam

Some critics claim that the war on terrorism is truly a war on Islam itself.

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. is engaging in a new crusade:

Ex-U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark has described the war on terrorism as a war against Islam.


Many people contend that a "war" against terrorism is plainly wrong since terrorist attacks are considered criminal acts like murder and therefore should be investigated by the police with the perpetrators brought to justice and given a fair trial in a court of law.

Many people believe that interrogation methods employed by U.S. forces violate international Geneva Conventions in places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Ghraib, Iraq. They believe that if U.S. forces act immorally or unethically then those forces are no better than the insurgents they are trying to find.

Another criticism is that the "war on terrorism" is effectively an act of terrorism in itself. Critics 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 residents of Fallujah , and the use of military force to disperse anti-American demonstrations in Iraq

Some Libertarians believe that a "war" against terrorism is wrong because it makes national security into such a high government priority, that any sacrifice of personal liberty and freedom is deemed necessary, no matter how large or small They believe this leads not only to an unjustified erosion of liberty, but to a general climate of fear in which people become unwilling to exercise their civil liberties. They warn of the danger of the public being enslaved under mass surveillance, as eventually everyone comes under suspicion of being a potential terrorist.

Critics also maintain that a strategy of tension was employed prior to the Iraq War, which is now being repeated against countries described as the "axis of evil", such as Iran.

Aiding terrorism

British Liberal Democrat politician Shirley Williams writes that the American and United Kingdom governments "must stop to think whether it is sowing the kind of resentment which is the seedbed of future terrorism. The United Kingdom ambassador to Italy, Ivor Roberts, said that U.S. President Bush is "the best recruiting sergeant ever for al Qaeda. The United States granted "protected persons" status under the Geneva Convention to the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian group classified by the U.S. Department of State as a terrorist organization, sparking criticism. Other critics have noted that the American government has granted political asylum to several terrorists and terrorist organizations that attack Cuba to try and overthrow Fidel Castro, while the American government claims to be anti-terrorist.

Political Double-Standards of the Bush Administration

There have been important criticisms that there are double-standards in Bush Administration's War on Terrorism. These double-standards have involved the unwillingness of the United States to send military troops into Pakistan to search for Osama Bin Ladin because the Bush administration has been unwilling to violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, who has exported nuclear technology to North Korea. Whereas the Bush Administration has had no inhibitions about violating the sovereignty of Iraq on claims that Saddam Hussein used weapons of mass destruction on Kurdish citizens in Iraq, and had ties to al-Qaeda. These actions raise concern to critics about the objective of the invasion, mainly having it look like the real objective of the invasion in Iraq was to secure the oil reserves.

Many observe that the U.S. government has had no qualms about supporting groups opposing local administrations perceived to be hostile to U.S. interests.

Examples are Operation Condor in which the CIA tried to fight communism by supporting military leaders in South-America despite their less than democratic tactics.

Also people note that 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 commit terrorist acts in Afghanistan to fight Russia after it invaded Afghanistan.

And Venezuela accuses the U.S. government of having a double standard on terrorism for giving safe haven to Luis Posada Carriles.

Misleading information

Some critics argue that some politicians supporting the "war on terror" are motivated by reasons other than those they publicly state, and critics 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 demonstranted a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Published reports of the links began in late December, 1998. In January, 1999, Newsweek magazine published a story about Saddam and al-Qaeda joining forces to attack U.S. interests in the Gulf Region. ABC News broadcast a story of the link between the two soon after. ABC News video report Polls suggest that a majority of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was linked to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Although this has been the position of the Bush Administration, an investigation by the 9/11 Commission found no credible evidence that Saddam Hussein helped al-Qaeda with the 9/11 attacks.

Regardless of whether or not the Bush administration was deliberately misleading the people, wrong information was distributed, resulting in increased support for the war.

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan criticized the use of pro-humanitarian arguments by Coalition countries prior to its 2003 invasion of Iraq, writing in an open letter: "This selective attention to human rights is nothing but a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists. Let us not forget that these same governments turned a blind eye to Amnesty International's reports of widespread human rights violations in Iraq before the Gulf War.

Decreasing international support

In 2002, strong majorities supported the U.S.-led War on Terrorism in Britain, France, Germany, Japan, India, and Russia. By 2006, supporters of the effort were in the minority in Britain (49%), France (43%), Germany (47%), and Japan (26%). Although a majority of Russians still supported the War on Terrorism, that majority had decreased by 21%. Whereas 63% of the Spanish population supported the War on Terrorism in 2003, only 19% of the population indicated support in 2006. 19% of the Chinese population supports the War on Terrorism, and less than a fifth of the populations of Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan support the effort. Indian support for the War on Terrorism has been stable. Andrew Kohut, speaking to the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, noted that, according to the Pew Research Center polls conducted in 2004, "majorities or pluralities in seven of the nine countries surveyed said the U.S.-led war on terrorism was not really a sincere effort to reduce international terrorism. This was true not only in Muslim countries such as Morocco and Turkey, but in France and Germany as well. The true purpose of the war on terrorism, according to these skeptics, is American control of Middle East oil and U.S. domination of the world.

Role of U.S. media

Researchers in the area of communication studies and political science have found that American understanding of the war on terrorism is directly shaped by how the mainstream news media reports events associated with the war on terror. In Bush's War: Media Bias and Justifications for War in a Terrorist Age 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, New York Times, and 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 Terrorism that the President used, and compared them to the themes that the press used when reporting on what the president 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 has 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 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 Terrorism is disconnected from the real but remote threat terrorism poses, and that the generalized War on Terrorism began as part of the justification for invading Iraq, but then took on a life of its own, fueled by media coverage.

Media researcher Stephen D. Cooper's analysis of media criticism Watching the Watchdog: Bloggers As the Fifth Estate contains many 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's failure to adequately check facts before publication caused many news organizations to retrack or change news stories.

Cooper found that bloggers specializing in criticism of media coverage advanced four key points: 1. Mainstream reporting of the war on terrorism 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. 2. 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). 3. 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. 4. Mainstream reporting has tended to concentrate on the more violent areas of Iraq, with little or no reporting of the calm areas.

British objections to the phrase "war on terrorism"

The Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK, Ken McDonald — Britain's most senior criminal prosecutor — has 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.

Pejorative terms

Critics have replaced "war on terrorism" or related phrases with pejorative terms:

  • "So-called War of Terror", due to the perceived disingenuous nature of the phrase many non-US media publications have taken to referring to it as the "so-called War on Terror.
  • "War on Terra", an ad hominem attack on the accent of U.S. President Bush and an allusion to a concept of Pax Americana as worldwide U.S. dominance advocated by the Project for the New American Century ("Terra" being Latin for "Earth" this implies war against the entire world).
  • Some web-sites have satirically used the term "TWAT" (The War Against Terrorism - an offensive word in some dialects of English)
  • Justin Butcher has parodied it as a "War against tourism," partly a reference to the accent of President Bush.
  • "War of Terror", a term used by Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat in the rodeo scene of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.
  • "Operation Iraqi Liberation" — abbreviated as "O.I.L" — is often used to criticise both the euphemistic terminology used by the government for the Iraqi invasion (officially named Operation Iraqi Freedom) and the impoundment of Iraq's oil resources which is considered by some to be the real purpose of the invasion. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer actually used this term in press briefings on 2003/03/24 and 2003/04/01
  • "The War on Errorism" is an album by NOFX, whose cover art also depicts President Bush as a clown.
  • "Department of Fatherland Security" (sometimes spelled Vaterland) as a reference to the United States Department of Homeland Security, a reference to the overuse of the word "Vaterland" by Nazi Germany.
  • "War Against Some Terrorists" was suggested by the late Robert Anton Wilson, with the comment

Just as the War Against Drugs would make some kind of sense if they honestly called it a War Against Some Drugs, I regard Dubya's current Kampf as a War Against Some Terrorists. I may remain wed to that horrid heresy until he bombs CIA headquarters in Langtry.

See also


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.

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