A “War on Terror” is a difficult thing to define, due partly to its vagueness and its unsparing use as a rhetorical device to justify any military action perpetrated by the U.S post-9/11. If it had to be defined in the way it seems to have been intended, it could be as a set of actions aimed – or purported to be aimed – at eliminating or reducing terrorism in the world. The word ‘terrorism’ is generally defined as “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or its threat.”
To understand whether the War on Terror is deterrence or compellence or neither there has to be a stipulated definition of deterrence and compellence. Deterrence is the threat of force made by an actor with the aim of preventing an adversary from engaging in a particular course of action; whereas compellence is the threat of force made by an actor with the aim of compelling an adversary to undo something already done or begin a particular course of action .
Is the War on Terror Deterrence or Compellence?
The War on Terror has some characteristics that resemble deterrence. One of them is the adversary’s desire to engage in an undesirable (to those who wish to deter) action. However, since both sides present a very different picture of reality, of their own intrinsic goodness and the other’s intrinsic badness, it is almost impossible to determine with certainty whether the adversary does in fact intend to do what copious propaganda efforts attempt to convince people that they do; making it epistemically safer to judge whether one side perceives the other as being about to engage in the feared action, rather than whether they are ‘objectively’ about to engage in that action. An important adversary in this case is al Qaeda, and the U.S has shown its belief in al Qaeda’s intent to execute the undesirable actions (terrorism), and has done much to emphasize this intent:
“… we’re engaged in a global war against an enemy that threatens all civilized nations.” “Our enemies have openly declared that they are seeking weapons of mass destruction, and evidence indicates that they are doing so with determination.”
“Through this strategy, al Qaeda and its allies intend to create numerous, decentralized operating bases across the world, from which they can plan new attacks, and advance their vision of a unified, totalitarian Islamic state that can confront and eventually destroy the free world.” “The Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies have demonstrated their willingness to kill Americans…” (emphases mine)…