A War by Any Other Name

The U.S. is at war with terror, drugs, poverty and al-Qaeda (but not Qaddafi). The president and Congress go to battle over the meaning of war.

The Obama administration has come under a good deal of criticism—and no small amount of ridicule—for arguing that U.S. military involvement in the NATO operation currently underway in Libya does not rise to the level of “hostilities” that require Congressional authorization. Yet when offered an opportunity to do so, Congress has also not helped to clarify matters; the House of Representatives decided not to endorse the mission, but also did not terminate the funding for the operation. So are we at war—or not? And with drone operations underway in both Yemen and Somalia, are U.S. forces engaged in wars on the Arabian peninsula and in the Horn of Africa?

There are so many ways in which the United States can find itself in a situation where its armed forces are engaged in action that there are no longer clear guidelines as to what constitutes “peacetime” and “wartime.” Beyond the propensity of presidential administrations to label any major policy initiative a “war” (like the “war on poverty”), the reality is that at least two of these so-called “wars”—the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”—have led to the deployment of military forces engaged in combat activities. Indeed, the evolution of Plan Colombia—initially billed by the Clinton administration as a drug interdiction program, and approved as such by Congress—into a much more expansive counterterrorism and counterinsurgency program—shows the various policy backdoors through which U.S. personnel can be sent into combat situations without triggering either the War Powers Act or a need for a formal declaration of war. Plan Colombia, in its early days, also showed how Congressional restrictions could be circumvented: in order to reassure Congress that the U.S. military would not be dragged into a Colombian civil war, U.S. military personnel were specifically prohibited from engaging in combat or being present in situations where combat would be imminent. However, there were no such bans enacted applying to contractors in the employ of the State Department.

There are two factors that have served to degrade the definition of war over the past decade. Following 9/11, the America and many of its allies dramatically escalated a wide array of counterterrorism efforts. For powerful nations such as the United States may be tempted to take advantage of the tremendous disparity in military capability between themselves and substate terrorist groups with limited conventional defenses. But responding to terrorist targets of opportunity also involves assessing fluid situations, and Congressional consultations can be cumbersome. If the destruction of a terrorist training camp is the goal of an operation—assuming the U.S. can locate said camp—this raises the tempting prospect of a rapid but decisive strike against the group.

Second, the states where some terrorist organizations have been found—such as Yemen and Somalia—are either willing to acquiesce to counterterrorism operations by outside powers or are in poor positions to retaliate. As a result, instruments of war are being used in acts of war without a declaration of war.

War has also fallen out of favor. Technically outlawed by the Kellogg-Briand pact altogether, war is also forbidden by the Charter of the United Nations except in the case of self-defense or if authorized by the Security Council. As a result, no country engages in formally declared war anymore: military actions are “self-defense,” “police actions” or “interventions.” It is noteworthy that the use of the phrase “war on terror”—one that came into common use during the George W. Bush administration—was resisted at one point by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers. When the senior uniformed officer responsible for prosecuting the war on terror asserts that it is not a war, the confused state of our political lexicon in this area is made as plain as could be.

Yet, in political circles, use of the term “war” has not abated. Last week, as the Obama administration released its new counterterrorism strategy, the president’s chief counterterrorism official declared the release of the document to be the official end of the use of the phrase “global war on terror.” He then immediately added that though the struggle “does not require a global war, it does require a focus on specific regions … We’re at war with al-Qaeda.” Of course, in a Constitutional sense, the United States hasn’t been at war in over sixty years, since Congress’s last declaration of war was against the Axis powers during World War II. But Brennan’s statement is one of the clearer examples of the political temptation to undermine the definition of war by using it casually. Stating one is “at war” is a strong statement that you are taking the problem with utmost seriousness, while offering a modicum of political protection from your opponents’ charges that you are not.

Statements such as “war on poverty” are more politically innocuous, since one does not use actual military force to prosecute such conflicts. But nonchalantly committing to a war on al-Qaeda does raise serious concerns. In informal parlance, it can communicate that all defensive measures are acceptable. And given that the new counterterrorism strategy makes explicit reference to targeting individual “adherents” to al-Qaeda, this raises the worrying possibility that the “sense of war” that the United States is a risk of embracing could last a very long time.

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