Essay Sample on the War on Terror: Deterrence or Compellence?

Posted on February 10, 2008


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)

Other similarities to deterrence that are displayed by the War on Terror are the demonstration of American military ability and willingness to use that ability, which serve many purposes including establishing credibility; and statements of the intent to ‘punish’ terrorist attacks, which have been made explicitly and implicitly. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be regarded as implicit reminders of the ‘punishment’ awaiting those who threaten American power, as well as demonstrations of American military prowess, though they have had their limitations in serving those purposes. Explicit statements of American willingness and physical capability have been made in public addresses, for example:
“… we will not rest, we will not retreat, and we will not withdraw from the fight, until this threat to civilization has been removed.”

Explicit acknowledgment is made of deterrence as a strategy in the War on Terror, but it is merely one of many strategies included in the war, not a description of the war itself: “A new deterrence calculus combines the need to deter terrorists and supporters from contemplating a WMD attack and, failing that, to dissuade them from actually conducting an attack.”

Has it Succeeded?

Whether the War on Terror has worked for its stated purposes – American defense and making the world freer and more peaceful – would depend upon whether the U.S is safer now than it was prior to its launching, and whether any part of the world is freer or safer as a consequence. According to their own National Intelligence Estimate America is not safer . By tying up their resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, they reduce their own credibility. The War on Terror may be regarded as something of a failure in those regards. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places directly effected by the War on Terror have also not been ‘liberated’. The undemocratic Musharraf regime has been supported; Iraq has become more violent, captured Iraqis have been tortured and terrorism has become more rampant there. Relations with Iran are deteriorating, and many in the world fear the U.S more than terrorism. In those regards too the War in Iraq seems to have been a failure.

The War on Terror as Defensive:

The War on Terror is a preventive defensive strategy. This involves deterrence/compellence but is not limited to it, as many of the strategies it encompasses fall outside the rubric of deterrence/compellence. For example, trying to prevent funds reaching terrorists, ‘democratizing’ as much of the world as possible and using economic rewards are parts of the War on Terror, but are neither compellence nor deterrence. The strategy for ‘combating terrorism’ is divided into five components: advancing democracy, preventing terrorist attacks, denying sanctuary to terrorists, denying terrorists control over nations and building institutions to help combat terrorism . The second is ostensibly preventive defense, the third may be interpreted to be so as may the fourth. The first and the fifth do not involve merely the use of force, and do not fall into the categories of defense, compellence, deterrence or swaggering. It is plausible that the war is aggression mixed with defense, with the pretext of being entirely defensive. This would be supported by the observation that one and possibly another war has been initiated by the U.S without provocation, and statements have been made casually that show a willingness to disregard the sovereignty of other states, national integrity and human rights .


The War on Terror overall does not appear to be compellence or deterrence, but defense mixed with aggression; while some of the moves within it – namely the war in Iraq and America’s increasing hostility toward Iran – are deterrent. The war in Iraq is a case of failed deterrence, though the motives and outcomes in the situation are complex. American actions in the War on Terror are acting as demonstrations of power in some respects, as well as weakening in others (loss of soldiers, vehicles, fuel, money etc.). They might be instilling fear in some actors in the world, but are also arousing hatred and anger among others, many of whom are not easily intimidated.

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