Criticism of the War on Terrorism

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Criticism of the War on Terrorism addresses the issues, morals, ethics, efficiency, 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.

Initial opposition to the War on Terrorism was limited in the United States and Europe. On September 14, when the United States House of Representatives voted on a bill authorizing the use of military force in the War on Terrorism, there was only one dissenting vote--Representative Barbara Lee of California. Much of the opposition that existed came from long-standing pacifist groups as well as the anti-globalization (or so-called alternative globalization) movement.


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. The use of the military often escalates violence by killing civilians and potentially creating more terrorists out of bereaved individuals seeking revenge.

Many people believe that interrogation methods employed by the 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.

"War on Terrorism" seen as pretext

Some have argued that part of the "War on Terrorism" has little to do with its stated purpose. They point out that Iraq had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and that the invasion of a largely secular country was carried out on the basis of faulty 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.


Jason Burke, an expert in 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)

Civilian deaths

Civilian deaths caused by United States and Coalition military action have been criticized.

Estimates of civilian deaths vary greatly. Within Iraq, these estimates are between 50,000 to 100,000, with 100 deaths per day. The United States Department of Defense does not record the deaths of non-Coalition persons, a so-called " body count." Estimates prominently cited have come from IraqBodyCount, a database of deaths reported on the mass media; the Iraqi Ministry of Health; and the independent United States report "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq" in The Lancet.

Iraq Body Count has estimated civilian deaths reported by the mass media to be between 41,650 to 46,350, including deaths caused by insurgents and inadequate health care. The report published in The Lancet, "Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq", cited 100,000 (8,000 to 194,000 at a 95% confidence interval) civilian deaths as attributed to the invasion from a statistical survey. This was rejected by United Kingdom Foreign Minister Jack Straw as inaccurate. He gave instead figures from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which were 3,853 dead since the invasion to that time.

In any estimate, non-Coalition civilian deaths exceed those of the United States in the attacks of 11 September 2001 from which the "war on terrorism" began. This has been the subject of criticism such as "it appears that American life is held above all others." The Women of Color Resource Centre opposed the "War on Terrorism," arguing that United States military tactics focus on minimizing U.S. casualties at the cost of civilian casualties as " collateral damage".

United States General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, gave an estimate of 30,000 deaths among Iraqi soldiers during the invasion.

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 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 semblence of legitimacy is offered to many subsequent retaliatory acts undertaken by terrorists, since they simply become acts of war, wherin offensive strikes are permitted.

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 is that it does not fulfil 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 committed a war crime.

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.

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, widespread use of prisoner abuse which to observers outside the Bush administration constitutes torture.

The status " enemy combatant" comes out of an argument from the Bush administration that the Taliban regime created a "failed state", thus they had no right to a legitimate military of uniformed soldiers and officers under the Geneva Conventions.

It is suggested that any enemy soldier may be called an "enemy combatant". By extension, any Iraqi may be considered an "unlawful combatant," provided that they not fall under the protections of the Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, and by extreme extension, any (non)-American national can be thought of as the same, assuming the same provisions. 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 citizen of Syrian birth. During a flight transfer in New York, he was approached by authorities and eventually sent to a Syrian prison for 374 days without charges. Under international law, Arar would have been exiled to Canada. 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."

America has a network of secret jails for terror 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-Quaida 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.

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.


The leadership of the German Green Party, a party historically known for its pacifist principles, supported the "War on Terrorism" but condemned the use of cluster bombs. This support led to an internal division within the party and a confidence vote called by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, in which he retained the support of enough Greens to stay on.

Another aspect of political resistance to the war on terror is a critique of legalistic approaches. Some argue that legal approaches don't confront the war on terror head on because such approaches only ask whether the president's actions are lawful, not whether they are politically justified. These critics argue that instead of focusing on the constitutionality of actions, we should reject the idea that we are at war and reject the idea that there is a national emergency.

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.

Domestic civil liberties

It is alleged that civil liberties in coalition countries have suffered or will suffer.

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 ruses 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 ).

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.

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 adminstration 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 baseless claims that Sadddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al-Quaida.

Religious hypocrisy

Some have referred to the war as a Christian crusade versus an Islamic jihad. Journalist Alexander Cockburn labelled it the Tenth Crusade, referencing the medieval wars. Ira Chernus has analyzed the links between the religious views expressed by Bush and the neoconservatives and their justifications of the war on terrorism (see Perpetual War, above).

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."

Nuclear proliferation

Oxford Research Group has predicted that the actions of the United States in the "war on terrorism" may lead to an increase in nuclear proliferation in terrorist groups arising from instability. It is also argued, by Ian Williams, that the status of the United States as an unmatched conventional military power will result in widespread nuclear proliferation among states which feel threatened by the U.S.. The rationale for this development is, that until now, it never has happened that a nuclear-armed country was invaded by military means.

The Bush administration itself advocated first strike with nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations, in a reversal of all previous nuclear nonproliferation treaties and non-first-strike policies against either nuclear or non-nuclear nations. Such nuclear use, threat, weapon program, or speculation by any other nation would immediately be called "Terroristic"; thus erasing the most important distinction between terrorism and the war on terror: that massive destruction of civilians cannot be done purely as the carefully planned initiative of the "anti-terrorism" side.

Double standards

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

Pejorative terms

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

  • "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.
  • Britons and Australians may call it " TWAT" (The War Against Terrorism)
  • Justin Butcher has parodied it as a "War against tourism," partly a reference to the accent of President Bush.
  • "War OF Terror" (also said by Borat in his movie, followed by a cheering rodeo crowd in Virginia.)
  • "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 and the impoundment of Iraq's oil resources which is very often considered 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.

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