How Do the Geopolitics of the War on Terror Justify Intervention and Targeted Killing?

3956 words (16 pages) Essay in International Relations

23/09/19 International Relations Reference this

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How do the geopolitics of the war on terror justify intervention and targeted killing?


This paper will argue that the geopolitics of the war on terror has allowed intervention and targeted killing to be justified on the basis of American moral exceptionalism exemplified through a global military presence. This paper will firstly introduce the concept of classical geopolitics, analysing Thomas Barnett’s “The Pentagon’s New Map” in highlighting the representation of strategic interests in the name of national security.

The first counter-argument to Barnett will introduce the critical geopolitical concepts of imagined geographies and metaphors to reflect upon how Barnett justifies intervention; where a simplification of the political landscape aims to advance state military interests under the concept of integration.

This paper will then problematise the concept of pre-emption in the context of 9/11, arguing that conceptualising 9/11 as an isolated event has allowed for the production of a renewed narrative of American exceptionalism. This will be exemplified through the 2002 State of the Union Address, and 2002 National Security Strategy, focusing on the discourse of time and its articulation of emergency that personifies western values as in need of saving through intervention in the Middle-East.

This paper will then problematise drone strikes in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency as an example of a scopic regime that justifies targeted killing through a representation of a surgical execution of war, consequently legitimating the global military presence of the U.S and the values it aims to represent.

Barnett’s view of the world within Classical Geopolitics

Barnett (2010) conceptualises global space through a physical demarcation of the global developed “core” from the underdeveloped “gap”, based on integration into a globalised world, and argues that the gap can only integrate through U.S military involvement in global affairs (2010, p.74). Barnett’s reasoning for this can be understood through classical geopolitics, which relies on thinking about global space like an objective science in order to explain state behaviour. Toal (1996) defines classical geopolitics as “the institutionalization of geography as a self-fashioned ‘scientific’ discipline” (1996, p.21). Consequently, state-motivated interests are “naturalised” under the perception of a naturally evolving global system.

In Barnett’s work, his conceptualisation of global space relies on integration to naturalise military involvement. Dalby (2003) states that geopolitics is about the “active spatialization” of global space in which “political elites and mass publics act in the world in pursuit of their own identities and interests” (2003, p.62). For Barnett, this applies to terrorism, stating that 9/11 “did the U.S national-security establishment a huge favor” (2010, p. 76), as such an event allowed for the demarcation between the core and the gap to be made thus legitimating intervention via. integration by recognising the gap as in need of development. Moreover, classical geopolitics is dependent upon acting within demarcations of space, and for Barnett relies on identifying areas of insecurity (Bialasiewicz et al. 2007, p.411) to act upon. This paper will now critique Barnett through introducing imagined geographies and metaphor, and decentralise a western-centric view of global power to highlight how intervention is justified through the construction of an “other”.

Barnett’s Map as Imagined Geography

In problematising Barnett’s claims, Said’s (1978) concept of imagined geographies explains how the construction of difference legitimates intervention by representing American influence as a global solution to a designated ‘other’; the gap. Imagined geographies are defined as the “universal practice of designating in ones mind a familiar space which is ‘ours’, and an unfamiliar space beyond ours which is ‘theirs’” (1978, p.54). Gregory (2004) describes this concept as “imaginations given substance” (2004, p.17), due to its subjectivity in establishing one perceived reality from another.

For Barnett, the gap represents the other due to a contradiction in his perceptions of global space. Barnett conceptualises the struggle between the core and the gap in the context of globalisation, arguing that “Disconnectedness defines danger” (2010, p.74). However, this globalised system that represents a break down of traditional borders exists within the understanding of American exceptionalism that in Barnett’s understanding, should be reinforced by traditional military means. Dalby (1990) outlines “Atlanticism” in describing American hegemony as the “global economic system built by the US and its multinational corporations” (1990, pp.173-174).

Consequently, Barnett’s understanding is “containing and making imaginative geographies”: specifying the ways ‘the world is’ and, in so doing, actively (re)-making that same world” (2007, p.411). The “other” is defined by constructing the gap not as a natural construction of space, but established truths that form the basis of intervention. Sustaining difference requires that antagonisms and political processes be depoliticised in order to represent divisions as natural processes (1996, p.54), evident with Barnett because a contracted process like Globalisation is simplified to adherence to particular western-oriented values the U.S encapsulates in global space, primarily “connectedness”.

Subsequently, re-making the world justifies military intervention because an implicit form of control over global space is the consequence of redefining space, which arguably simplifies the significance of military intervention. Moreover, Barnett’s imagined geography means “U.S security-both economically and militarily-can be preserved” (2007, p.411).

As classical geopolitics aligns with realist thinking because state interests operate within a state of anarchy (Ashley, 1987, p.404), values are attached to geographical location to place “ourselves” above the “other” as a presumption of common knowledge. In understanding how difference is reinforced in classical geopolitics, this paper will now discuss the importance of metaphors in constituting a political landscape that legitimises intervention.

Barnett’s Core and Gap as Metaphor

Metaphors are important to understand regarding classical geopolitics because they establish a reality delineated by imagined geographies through language; creating understandings of global space that represent particular values and state interests. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) summarise metaphors as “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in relation to another” (1980, p.455). Furthermore, Dikeç (2012) argues that space cannot be thought of in an objective way because it is constantly used to think about politics (2012, p.670).

Language “charts and affixes objects in space, just like a map” (Toal, 1994, p.528), and achieves this through the ability to constitute an “other” based on what values “they” don’t encompass in comparison to “us”. This is present within Barnett’s work, as the main aim of his writing was to establish the present state of the world based on American overseas involvement in promoting globalisation. Moreover, globalisation as an elongated process becomes intrinsically connected to American military power, acting as a broader reflection of what the U.S encompasses within the core in relation to the gap.

The concept of performativity explains how language “constitute the objects of which they speak” (2007, p. 406), arguing that states don’t pre-exist performances (2007, p.407). This can be thought of in comparison to Said’s understanding of the Orient as theatre, where the Orient is “staged” alongside Europe to project a reminder of what it isn’t (1987, p.61). What this shows about legitimising intervention is that recognising difference in the context of globalisation is performative because states constitute the gap based on Barnett’s depictions of globalisation, with the underlying representation of American values, without considering historical struggles in conceptualising space. Toal refers to this as the “irony of the geopolitical gaze”, because “a systematic forgetting of struggle” is how to make sense of the world in classical geopolitics (1996, p.53).

Moreover, the use of “moral cartographies” as a visualisation of space that “requires military intervention (Dalby, 2008, p.424) is a broader reflection of the practice of formal geopolitics due to the construction of global space that is thus acted upon for state interests. Toal and Agnew (1992) define formal geopolitics as “the reasoning of strategic thinkers and public intellectuals…who…produce a highly codified system of ideas and principles to guide the conduct of statecraft” through “formalized rules of statement, description and debate” (1992, p.194). In Barnett’s case, his conceptualisation of the global “core” and “gap” was established with the intention of answering questions of how American military strategy should adapt alongside emerging perceived threats, requiring presupposed truths about the “other” to understand what “we are”. To understand how this can be applied to the War on Terror, this paper will now discuss how 9/11 depicted terrorist threats through the concept of pre-emotion to legitimate military intervention.

Pre-emption in simplifying military action

As mentioned, one critique of Barnett’s work is the simplification of global space that legitimises military intervention, which can be understood in the context of 9/11. Due to the understanding of 9/11 as a surprise attack, successive American foreign policy has been constituted on the basis of the unforeseen. This can be understood with the concept of pre-emption, in which action is taken in the present on the basis of the future (Anderson, 2010, p.779). In the case of 9/11, it has been understood primarily as an isolated event, and consequently there is less recognition of the argument that “11 September is part of a complex historical process in which responsibility is difficult to assign” (2003, p.70).

Moreover, understanding 9/11 as a singular event has allowed for immediacy to be central in justifying military intervention in the establishment of the “War on Terror”, as in this example, historical understandings of military strategy are being re-defined to suit the contemporary circumstances and interests in a globalised world. This relates to pre-emption because the isolated nature of 9/11 “prompts a reimagining of the landscapes of everyday life as suffused with an unacceptably high level of risk” (Hannah, 2006, p.623). Moreover, as “What is at stake is the survival and maintenance of the sovereignty of the state over its territory” (Agnew, 1994, p.60), undermining sovereignty through terrorist attacks can simplify the global landscape in order to reinforce divisions with the “other” in order to legitimate military intervention.

Practical geopolitics and Discourse

This can be analysed further by understanding practical geopolitics, defined by Toal and Agnew as “the reasoning of practioners of statecraft, of state persons, politicians and military commanders” as well as being “a common-sense type which relies on the narratives and binary distinctions found in societal mythologies” (1992, p.194). In relation to formal geopolitics, as defined earlier, practical geopolitics materialises the concepts defined by the former to fit particular narratives about the world.

The importance of practical geopolitics can be understood through discourse, involving “a specific series of representations and practices through which meanings are produced, identities constituted, social relations established, and political and ethical outcomes made more or less possible” (2007, p.406). In the example of the War on Terror, this can be exemplified through the 2002 State of the Union Address and 2002 National Security Strategy, as both examples communicate America’s legislative and security priorities to the public. In the context of 9/11, the perceived threat from terrorism became institutionalised (2006, p.630) in order to legitimate military intervention on the basis of American exceptionalism.

Due to the historical recognition of the U.S president being the leader of the free world, George W. Bush’s establishment of the “Axis of Evil” exemplifies America’s ability to designate threats to justify military intervention (BBC, 2002). Said argues that “anyone employing Orientalism…will designate, name, point to, fix what he is talking or thinking about with a word or phrase, which is then considered either to have acquired, or more simply to be, reality” (1978, p.72). Consequently, akin to Barnett, the “Axis of Evil” comprised of Iraq, Iran and North Korea is performative because the threat of terrorism could only be understood through this “Axis”, that in the context of a surprise attack on the U.S, can pivot further. This designation of the other creates an abridged reality that in classical geopolitics, isn’t recognised as metaphor.

Furthermore, constructing the other “limits our imagination and the uncountable ways the uncertain future could have played out” (Goede, 2008,p.171) and does so through the focus on American values in portraying a universal conceptualisation of global space. The 2002 National Security Strategy states “We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom… We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants” (US State Department, 2002, p.3).

 Referencing American values through discourse can justify military intervention on the basis of providing stability to a situation defined by disruption. This is evident through the reference to a “balance of power”, and when contrasted to the “Axis of Evil” can provide an understanding of how practical geopolitics aims to simply global space to portray the U.S as inherently morally and militarily stronger in global space. In consistently reflecting upon the presence of an “other” to highlight intervention as a means to an end, this relies on an “emotional attachment to a place” that creates “a link between national myths and foreign policy stances” (Güney,2010, p.24). For example, the term “Homeland” (2007, p.414) in relation to the War on Terror conflates the nation with the state because fighting for territory is conflated with fighting for values, and is evident with the previous examples highlighted. Conflating the nation with the state allows for the notion of integration to be defined by the “conviction of U.S leadership that global military presence is required” (Gregory, 2011, p.238), and as a result American values are personified in order to legitimate intervention as liberation to the designated other. This paper will now consider how targeted killing during Obama’s presidency was justified through drone strikes, in which the perception of a “surgical” war acts to legitimate the global U.S military presence and the values it aims to represent.

Problematising drone strikes as a scopic regime

In classical geopolitics, vision is an important element in producing “objective” understandings of the world due to the perception that space is itself evolves on its own. This is conceptualised in the theory of Cartesian Perspectivalism, where “one separates the self from who is viewing the world itself” (Agnew, 2003, p.15). With the example of drone warfare, this is important to consider because justifying drone warfare in the War on Terror relies on the production of an objective visualisation of space that determines targets. As a result, akin to Barnett in simplifying global space for strategic aims, drone strikes through the lens of Cartesian Perspectivalism conceptualise that “the perception of precision targeting and the deterritorialization of battlespace give rise to the sense that the complexity of the urban space can be mastered” (Coward, 2013, p.113).

However, this perception is important to problematise because of the presence of “sanctioned forms of knowledge” (1996, p.24) in terms of vision, thus allowing for the understanding of the “other” to be simplified to territory, and not a collective that is usually contrasted in terms of “us” and the values we encompass in legitimising military intervention. Grayson and Mawdsley (2018) problematise Cartesian Perspectivalism with scopic regimes to highlight power-knowledge relations in establishing a sight of vision to legitimate drone warfare.

Drone warfare in the War on Terror was initiated by George Bush in 2004, using CIA operated drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, but was intensified under Barack Obama’s presidency, with 170 further strikes to Bush’s 46 by the end of 2010 (Gregory, 2011, pp.189-190), and the primary defence of drone strikes by Obama’s administration are that they’re “limited and legitimate acts of self-defense against attacks from the Taliban” (2011, p.190), in addition to Obama stating that strikes are “exceptionally surgical and precise” (Purkiss, 2017). This can also be thought about in terms of network thinking, in which the “networked character of emerging threats” such as Al-Qaeda, act as a “network” regarding their perceived global presence and capabilities related to finance and surveillance (Coward, 2018, p.441). Consequently, drone strikes are justified on the ability to eliminate single “nodes” that has resulting knock-on effects without causing what can be considered “collateral damage” (2018, p.453).

However, this is problematic because the perceived objective nature of drones becomes subjective through the use of human operators (2018, p.14). Moreover, legitimating drone strikes is still based on a mediated form of vision that aims to align with narratives of truth, within a broader strategy in creating a visual battlespace (2018. p.14).

It can also be argued that drone strikes act to establish order to unchartered territory that is mediated by the external factors influencing the drone’s line of sight. This is similar to the previous argument of how values are used to establish a form of superiority over the “other” that’s exemplified by military intervention, due to how values establish a basis of implementing control that benefits states’ interests primarily. For example, Gregory (2011) refers to how the “Af-Pak” border that the Obama administration coined as the battle space in which drones operate has a hyphen to indicate an ambiguous zone (2011, p.240). As the perceived objectivity of drone strikes are justified by claims of self-defence, the ocular-centric perspective in which they operate is justified on the basis of establishing order in the context of the view from above acting to portray a truth of how the “other” operates.

Consequently, this also leads to a lack of consideration when distinguishing combatants and non-combatants (2018, p.454), which as a result reinforces how drone strikes are justified on a singular view of the “other” that doesn’t consider the risk of so-called “collateral damage”. For example, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recorded 384-807 deaths from drone strikes during Obama’s two terms, compared to the White House figures of 64 and 116 (Purkiss, 2017). Considering the theory of network thinking in legitimating a surgical application of drone warfare, the inability to distinguish combatants from non-combatants (2018, p.454) questions the claim of Cartesian Perspectivalism to separate the viewer from the object in establishing a truth about the world and how that is exemplified in drone warfare. Due to the power imbalance present in the systemised view from above (2018, p.14), it’s arguable the drones act as a site of power through the perceived ability to impose control. In this example, therefore, civilian casualties are not equated with the deaths of terrorists, and justifying drone strikes enables this because of the sole understanding of the need to view through a singular lens what constitutes the other without cultural context (2013, pp.115-116); adding to the de-humanising understanding of the “other” is for American security policy.


To conclude, this essay has aimed to understand how the War on Terror has justified military intervention and targeted killing through drone strikes. The essay question has been answered through understanding how Barnett’s demarcation of global space reinforces the notion of an problematic “other” in order to legitimise military intervention on the basis of establishing order in the interests of global space. Consequently, the objective lens in which military intervention tries to orchestrate is problematised through the centrality of state interests and how representing “us” in contrast to the “other”, the case of 9/11 and the example of practical geopolitics, can only been understood through depictions of the military. The requirement that we must act to intervene in what isn’t “us” problematises how discourse acts to legitimate our understanding of the world as what is best for global space.

Moreover, state interests are pushed under the guise of a general recognition to balance power struggles, despite classical geopolitics acting to motivate state control over territory on the basis of power struggle. Furthermore, the pre-determined objectivity of vision in enabling violence through drone strikes encapsulates the role of classical geopolitics in simplifying the global landscape and consequently, the human cost of warfare that is secondary to territorial interests. The implications of this understanding are significant and should allow for geopolitics to be understood more through greater consideration of how aspects such as values become “personified” through exceptional cases of conflict in order to neutralise military intervention as a liberating necessity.




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