Does it Make Sense to Speak of a "War on Terror"?

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

One of the big, if not the biggest, challenge the modern world faces today is terrorism, which is expressed in a multitude of forms. However, considering the complexity of terrorist organizations, does it make sense to speak of "A War on Terror?"


The day following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center which stroke New York and Washington, three symbols of the financial, economic and political power of the United States, the Washington Post published an article written by Charles Krauthammer, an influential figure of American journalism. This article was entitled « To war not to court. This is not crime, this is war» and emphasized on the fact that what was needed to respond to this aggression was a war. The “War on Terror” (also referred to as “WOT” hereafter) is thus a metaphor of war referring to the international military campaign that was launched by the U.S. government after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. in 2001. U.S. president George W. Bush first used the term "war on terrorism" on 16, September 2001, and then coined the expression "war on terror" a few days later in a formal speech to Congress.(1) In the latter speech, George Bush explained that the country was now at war against a new enemy, as it was against the communists during the Cold War. The enemy of the United States of America at the dawn of the 21st century is “a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them." The WOT was to particularly focus on countries associated with al-Qaeda and other anti-American groups, called the “Rogue States”.

According to the definition of war given by Quinsy Wright, a former American political scientist specialized in international relations, a war corresponds to “a conflict among political groups, especially sovereign States, carried on by armed forces of considerable magnitude, for a considerable period of time''. But this definition must be completed with Collin Gray’s, a British-American professor of International Relations, distinction between war, which he defines as the organized violence waged for political purposes, and warfare, which is the actual waging of the war on the battlefield. War thus corresponds to military strategy, which refers to the use of force for the ends of policy, and warfare is the implementation of the strategy through operations and tactics, meaning the military campaigns and the means used to fulfill them. According to the latter author, war and warfare have an enduring, unchanging nature, but a highly variable character: if modes of combat change, the political goals of war are eternal.

Today, the War on Terror raises a lot of interrogations and criticisms about its purpose, as shown notably by the use of the subject by the film industry in the series Homeland, which endeavors to assess the risks of the American imperialism in the Middle East and its counter-productivity which will possibly result in a major blow-back in the near future. This essay aims at questioning the relevance of the term “War on Terror” and to show to what extent it can describe the actual fight against terrorism. It will argue that the American policies on military strategy are indeed entering a mechanism of war with the fight against international terrorism, breaking with classical forms of warfare. This new type of war relies on asymmetrical warfare tactics against a transnational enemy.

Part I- The “War on Terror”: an asymmetric conflict breaking with the classical logic of warfare?

A) An asymmetric conflict: a theoretical perspective

First, one needs to assert that the war on terror is indeed a “war”, if taking into consideration its realities in light of the definition provided above. It is an armed conflict among two political ideologies -liberal and capitalist democracy opposes radical Islamism-, carried on by a considerable magnitude of military forces -the military mobilization within the USA only have implied hundreds of thousands of men-and for a considerably long period of time - the WOT is still ongoing, 16 years after its beginning. Moreover, this is the idea defended by French academician Jean-François Revel, who explains in his book “L’Obsession anti-américaine” that it is a war, but of a new kind, since it implies coordinated military actions organized by organizations with defined political aims.(2)

The war on terror is in fact a new type of war in 2001, which can be analyzed thanks to the then New Theories of War. It is an asymmetric conflict, concept that was first coined by U.S scholars in the mid 1990s and incorporated to the U.S National Security Strategy in 1997. According to Clausewitz, a former Prussian General and military theorist, the symmetry expresses the fact that the infrastructures, the means and the training of the two entities in conflict are similar enough to be compared.(3) However, the concept of asymmetry is used to characterize the type of conflict in which they have intentions, methods and values that are completely different. The WOT hence breaks with the classical logics of warfare because it is an asymmetric conflict. Indeed, it opposes the United States, one of the biggest states in the world, first military power with a $600 billion annual defense budget, and some of the most advanced military equipment around the globe, and terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda which only have a 30-million-dollar budget (or ISIS which had up to a 5-billion-dollar budget), which shows how unequal the balance of power is between the actors.

Because the size of the actors is so much different, there is also an asymmetry of the means used to harm the enemy. The United States used to use more direct warfare tactics, more conventional means of waging war against terrorists, that could be to this extent characterized as “clausewitzian”. For example, the military operations Enduring Freedom (later called Iraqi Freedom) launched in 2003 by George W. Bush and the Battle for Marjah launched in 2010 by Barack Obama, used conventional warfare (ground troops freed Bagdad and Marjah) to attain military victory over the terrorists (in the first case the rogue State of Iraq and the other the Taliban government of Afghanistan). On the other hand, the tactic used by the terrorist groups is that of an insurgency. They convey attacks intending to bring chaos instead of the public order within societies. Through this indirect form of warfare, they proved more efficient than their enemy. Indeed, the size of actors impacts greatly their capacity to have weight in the global space, but so do their tools. Terrorists focused on manipulating things symbolizing the most important values of our occidental societies: fundamental rights and freedoms (like the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center symbolizing the financial power and economic success of America). With only 19 men and 4 2$ cutters, these terrorist groups committed the worst attack America has ever suffered. On the other hand, Big States such as the US mostly use military power as their main tool to fulfill their political objectives, which showed to be counterproductive as the affected civilian populations started to support the insurgents.

Moreover, the discrepancy between the actors from the two sides are ideological. The values of the US and other occidental countries are that of the American model of liberal and capitalist democracy while that of the terrorist are that of radical Islam. Their political aims are not very different as they both wish to spread their model to other societies and to the world, using force. Indeed, the US foreign policy is based on the idea that democracy can be exported thanks to the projection of the American almighty military apparatus. This idea stems from the neocons’ triumphalism of the end of the cold war and from the idea of democratic peace, according to which the democratization of the world would lead to world peace as democracies are less inclined to enter in war with each other, contrary to authoritarian regimes.

Finally, the WOT is breaking with classic types of conflict because it has a spatio-temporal specificity: it has been going on for almost 2 decades now, and is far from over. Moreover, it does not have a clearly delimited geography as the war on terror takes place simultaneously in the Middle-Eastern countries part of the “Rogue States” pointed out by Bush, as well as within Western societies such as the U.S or France. Indeed, Western countries are in a perpetual fight against terrorists planning attacks on their soil. It is to this extent a non-territorial transnational conflict. We can however underline the exception of ISIS, which tried to establish a Caliphate by controlling territories in Syria and Iraq notably. It thus controlled up to around 220 000 square kilometers. However, this will of territoriality was its weakness more than its strength, as it enabled the coalition forces to bomb its territories massively and to destroy it. The strength of terrorist networks lies indeed with its capacity to be transnational and non-territorial, as they make it harder for Big States to establish a targeted strategy against a specific area.

B) The case of the drone strikes from Bush to Obama’s policy-making

In this part, we will focus on the study of the drone strikes as one of the most important policy instruments of the war on terror since the Bush Administration. Drones have become, since the beginning of the year 2000, one of the most important tools of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The RMA, implemented in the US since the 1990s, corresponds to a dynamic of transformation of the strategy of war, which highly relies on the new information and communication technologies for military purposes.(5) The military apparatus now works thanks to the linking of the quickness of acquisition of the information and the precision of strikes involving a minimal amount of soldiers on the ground. Drones are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that are remotely controlled from the U.S (one of the main center for the controlling of drone is in Virginia). In fact, it involves mostly the intelligence services which are crucial to gather the relevant information on the targets, to put them under the drone surveillance until a firing window opens and the drone launches its missiles to hit with a relative surgical precision compared to conventional bombings. Hence, they seem to be the perfect tool to wage an indirect war. This explains why drones are one of the tactics that is most used in areas of tensions and conflicts around the world today.

The re-election of Barack Obama on January 21st, 2013, marked an official change in the Democrat candidate’s approach to foreign policy, as the President declared that “a decade of war [was] now ending”. It marked the beginning of a new type of conflict relying on hybrid warfare, including more indirect tactics of warfare. In 2009, he had received the Nobel Peace prize not long after repatriating a great deal of the U.S troops stationed in the Middle East. But the Presidency of the 44thPOTUS is described by David Cole, a former Professor of Law and Public Policy at Georgetown University, as the “Drone Presidency”.(6) Indeed, it is ironic to assess how Obama drastically increased the use of drone strikes from what Bush did: there were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during President Barack Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor’s. He oversaw more strikes in his first year than Bush during his entire presidency. The 57 strikes of the latter are nothing compared to the 563 strikes ordered. As of today, under his Administration, Donald Trump, elected in the fall of last year, has already quadrupled the monthly number of strikes over his first year. (7)

This turn in the US foreign military policy highlights the fact that the state-building and regime change operations attempted by the Bush administration failed because they were relying on conventional warfare in an asymmetric conflict against an enemy that was most importantly relying on an ideology that flourishes within the populations. This logic of psychological war led the actions of the United States in the Middle East to reinforce the anti-American feeling of the population of the region, who felt like the occupation of its territories was another way for occidentals to benefit from its resources. The Middle-East hence became a trap for the U.S. Gilles Kepel, a French political scientist and Arabist, argues in his book entitled “Fitna” (2004) that the 9/11 attacks represented a cold and rational strategy from the leaders and thinkers of Al-Qaeda, who aimed at bringing the U.S into the trap of the asymmetric war.(8) Indeed, Bush did not use so much drone strikes because he was attempting ground operations to democratize the Middle-East, but they failed due to a strong emphasis on military success. As British general Sir Rupert Smith contends in “The Utility of Force”, the nature of war has changed, and wars no longer result in clear-cut victories with an ensuing peace.(9) Hence, the decision-makers turned towards a new type of policy with the drone, implying the use of indirect warfare and withdrawing the U.S troops from the Middle-East. In this process, the war seems to have lost its political goal which was to democratize the Middle-East, as striking enemies using remote controlled drone from the other side of the world is nothing but counterproductive to democracy building efforts.

Part II- Main criticisms: A “War on Terror” or a “state of violence”?

Thus, we have seen that the fight against terrorism can be considered as a new form of war, an asymmetric conflict breaking with the classic logic of warfare. However, criticisms arose about the use of the term “war”, which can be understood through the international, national, and individual levels of analysis.

A) The limits of this “War on Terror”

To begin with, Smith explained that wars have become a prolonged and cyclical process which leads to an endless form of violent instability. However, taking this into consideration and keeping the example of drone strikes, we could be wondering if the term war of “state of violence” should not be employed instead of war. First, because “the war on terror” can be seen as a conflict that feeds on itself. As explained by Mark Mazetti, an award winning journalist for the New York Times, the first issue is that drone strikes have become a habit in the United States under the Obama administration. In fact, every week on Tuesday, a « kill list » was signed by the president. (10) Furthermore, those drone strikes, even though they were still supposed to weaken Islamic forces, were being expended in other countries both in the Middle East and in North Africa. The expansion of those strikes is also linked to the fact that the American society has been supporting them. According to Jeremy Scahill, an American investigative journalist, in 2012, 83% of Americans approved of Obama’s drone program. (11) Moreover, this type of warfare could also be a source of inspiration and violence for other countries wishing to use the same means, such as Russia. Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at George Washington University, argues in Drone: Remote Control Warfare, that if Barack Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize, has been seduced by this weapon, other leaders will be too, using the arguments of the “War on Terror”. (12) Thus, the increase in the use of drones became a factor explaining why we tend to fall in a perpetual state of violence with no time and space limit. However, the goal of those strikes is to weaken terrorists, but Mark Mazetti and other American intellectuals asked themselves if those attacks do not create more terrorists than they kill. Indeed, those strikes raise two problems. First, drones fly over and target territories usually without any authorization, which question the legality of this attacks regarding international law. Second, those strikes mainly kill civilians. The issue is that it tends to turn the middle eastern societies against the occidental forces, pushing an increasing number of individuals to join the rows of the Islamic forces. This illustrates the notion explained by Smith according to which “warfare has evolved from its industrial phase where in what was waged by nation-states to: war amongst the people”.(13) Indeed, this war between the people has us wondering if actions like drone strikes dot no create more terrorists than then kill and benefit the terrorist because it reinforces their forces. This is the reason why the “War on Terror” can be seen as a war that feeds on itself, and the use of the term “war” to describe this conflict can be questioned as it lacks a time and space limit.

Then, for Clausewitz, « The war is the continuation of politics by other means », (14) but the political objectives of drone attacks have been questioned as well, which encouraged the rise of other criticisms concerning the designation of the fight against terrorism as a “War on Terror”. In fact, there have been strong contestations against drone strikes. What is important to know, it is that it is now the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which takes care of most the drone strikes. Dennis Blair, former United States Director of National Intelligence, has been wondering if those “secret operations” (15) where not going beyond their initial goals and the objective of this war, which is to protect the American citizens. The issue is that those strikes remain “tactic but not strategic strikes”and do not have a political end.(16) For Peter Mansoor, a former US Army Officer, an important actor that has not to be forgotten in such conflicts is civilian societies. A military victory is useful only if it enhances the political and human situation of the zone targeted. However, the political realization must happen on the field, with actual human troops, which drone strikes don’t allow. Thus, it is debatable to consider this form of violence as a war if it doesn’t serve political means. (17)

Finally, another criticism concerning the word “war” in this context can be formulated from a realist and neorealist perspective. Indeed, as argued by Kaplan and Kristol, both American neo-conservators, drone strikes can be seen as part of the USA’s mission, which is the “great middle east projet”. (18) It tends not only to fight against terrorism but also to export democracies in the unstable countries of the Middle East. According to Andrew Bacevich, an American historian specialized in American foreign policy, military means should be employed in order to fulfill this mission. However, since here the goal would be to extend the American ideology to the rest of the world thanks to military power, these actions could be considered more as an imperial initiative than an only war on terrorism.(19) For these 3 different reasons, considering the fight against terrorism as a “war on terror” can be questioned. Furthermore, it can also be argued that even the utilization of the term “war” should be avoided to a certain extent.

B) The use of the term war on the public scene

We have seen than the war on terror could be considered as a durable violence instability in the world. Now, it can be argued that this is present also at the national and individual levels, as a result of the policymakers’ intervention or the influence of the soft power. Indeed, in countries like the United States, “war” and the words related to it have been largely employed in the speeches of the policymakers in order to justify both the new policy measures put in place, but also the intervention in the Middle East.(20) However, we can argue that this utilization of the word war can have two negative impacts, at the national and individual level of analysis.

To begin with, policymakers’ speeches and their influence at the national level can be analyzed through the example of the use of drones. For instance, in 2013, Barack Obama gave a public speech in which he partly explained and tried to justify the use of force and the use of drones in the Middle East. In this part of the speech, most of his vocabulary refers to the notion of enemy and the characteristics of war. As explained by Laclau and Mouffe (both political philosophers), in such speeches, there is the use of a binary opposition which “allows the construction of antagonistic identities of the parties at war and their mutual dependencies. All actors involved attempt to destabilize the identity of the 'other ' but at the same time desperately need that 'other' as a constitutive outside stabilizing their own identity”. (21) Furthermore, these discourses include elements of dichotomy such as the distinction between the “just” and the “unjust”, or the “innocent” and “guilty”. Generally,discourses of war also exclude the destruction of human bodies on the enemy side. They also deal with the legality of the operations put in place (as Obama advocates for instance) and tend to justify the military interventions outside the country. The key concept in that analysis inspired by Laclau and Mouffe’s theories is that these speeches have an hegemonic dimension as they influence the perception and the behavior of the citizens.From a national point of view, they transmit the idea that for ending this war, the military force is needed, which can explain why 83% of the American supported the military actions in 2012. However, we have seen that this is not necessarily the right measures to adopt regarding the war of terrorism. This is why we can say than the term “war” can serve the terrorist to a certain extent, and it might not be beneficial to use it on the public scene.

Then, from the individual level of analysis, another issue related to the “War on Terror” may rise. It is that it has a significant impact on people’s psychology and way of living together. This is brought not only by policymakers’ speeches, but also by the Soft power. Indeed, in the United States, the “War on Terror” has been the central theme for multiple movies. Most of them defending the military interventions in the Middle East. However, the emergence of TV shows also played an important role, mainly with the TV show Homeland. This especially because it does not only deal with the notion of “external threat”, but also emphasize the possible “internal threat”, where the enemy can be our compatriot, our friend, or even our husband. This tends to have an impact because it increases people awareness and fear of the other, which can, for instance, explain the reactions and stigmatization against the Muslim people after the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened.


The so-called “War on Terror” is an asymmetric war. The evolution of the American foreign policy on the WOT has led to the massive use of drones, which is symbolic of a turn from a direct asymmetric conflict to an indirect warfare used by the U.S. Then, to what extent should we consider this conflict as a war? Indeed, it can be argued that military actions undertaken such as drone strikes push the different parties into an endless state of violence, of which political goals can be questioned. Furthermore, using the term “war” on the public scene has several negative impacts, as it leads to elements of dichotomy within the civilian population, creating an unwillingness to actually understand the war in question. For these reasons, the use of “state of violence” is more appropriate when talking about the so-called “War on Terror”.

By Martin Gilbert and Vincent Leroy

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