Dear President Obama (And Successor): War Is War

Rome–Perhaps it all started with President Harry Truman’s declaration that sending US troops to Korea was a “police action.”

Obama: Doesn’t This Mean War?

Or maybe it was during that long string of early 20th Century military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, when Marines were sent ashore willy-nilly to protect US business interests or citizens.

These actions were never officially called war.

Americans have a habit of calling war anything but, no matter how many times we send soldiers into battle. And now, in a time when US warplanes are bombing Syria and Iraq and the army has placed troops in both, when the US is perpetually droning Yemen and Afghanistan, none dares call any of these activities what they are. Least of all does President Obama, who avoids the word war like a plague.

Back in 2013, Obama declared the end of the Bush-era “perpetual war footing,” to be replaced by “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.” In 2014, he described his campaign against the Islamic State as a “targeted action” and a “sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Sometimes he calls things that are really warfare an “effort,” sometimes just a “process,” sometimes a “campaign.” Once, he closed in on reality when he called the battle against the Islamic State a “fight.” Okay, getting warmer.

This alphabet of euphemisms have been successful in lulling everyone to sleep about the short term and potentially long term negative effects of Obama’s multiple wars.

As long as we don’t see them it’s not really war. Not many thorough media reports come out of Yemen or even Syria and Iraq these days. And as long as we, Americans, suffer no casualties, what’s the big deal? Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, soon to be the Democratic Party candidate for President, described the Administration’s 2011 intervention in Libya as a sort-of success because the US “didn’t lose a single person” during the operation. As Clinton might say, what difference at this point does it make if the country slid into chaos, and became an Islamic State outpost to boot?

In Iraq, US intervention makes life easier for the government in Baghdad that has failed to reach out to the large, disgruntled Sunni Muslim population that supports the Islamic State-backed insurgency. In Syria, Obama pretends his bombing has no effect on the outcome of the civil war, although it alleviates the Assad regime from having the take on the Islamic State itself.

But the real point of these word games is to avoid sharing responsibility with Congress, which in its own way, has been happy to cede war making authority to the President. Call something war, and Congress might have to actually contemplate approval and even ask constituents what they think.

In the entire history of the American republic, Congress has only declared war five times as Constitutionally required: for the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the Spanish American War (1898), World War I and World War II. The US has had plenty of more conflicts than that, obviously. Even the ten-year long Vietnam War, which was initially termed the “Vietnam Conflict,” did not merit a war declaration, just a resolution to retaliate for non-existent attacks on a US naval ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Congress cancelled that resolution in 1971, but the war lingered on, until the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.

In 1973, Congress tried to edge itself back into the war-authorization game. It passed the War Powers Act, which demanded congressional approval for a President to use U.S. forces in combat in the event of “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

In 2001, George W. Bush got authorization from Congress to act against perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. He got another one in 2002 to launch the Iraq war, though now everyone says they got bad info on why the US should invade. It’s not clear why president’s no longer seek a declaration of war as outlined in the Constitution. Maybe it’s because it would upset the American public, which prefers to hear about police actions.

Anyway, Obama isn’t concerned with such legal niceties, as loose as they are. In 2011, he went ahead and made war on the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi on the grounds that it was just a “humanitarian intervention” (another grand euphemism). In his view, that meant he could do what he wanted. For his current assault on the Islamic State, Obama relies on Bush’s old 2001 resolution for 9/11, even though the Islamic state didn’t have anything to do with 9/11.

It’s remarkable how apathetic both Congress and the American public are to all this, since the original War Powers Act was passed to limit presidential authority to unleash US military power but has done nothing of the sort.

This was perhaps the most important long-range result of President Richard Nixon’s cancellation of the military draft and creation an all-volunteer army. The move not only tamed what remained of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the time, but relieved future Presidents from having to face the public when sending troops into combat. It also freed most common citizens from having to deal with the intimate risks of sending sons and daughters to fight and maybe die. Only volunteers would have to go. About the only responsibility John and Mary Doe have now is to honor troops at baseball games and put pro-military bumper stickers on their cars.

It’s time for American society as a whole, through Congress, to take responsibility for war, or whatever it is the President wants to call it. Congress ought to come up with a new version to match the current preoccupation with non-state, terrorist groups.

In this, I am on the side of former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a failed Democratic presidential candidate who nonetheless tried to reign in the presidential war habit. Back in 2011, he labeled Congress’ diminished role in war decision making “the most important constitutional challenge facing the balance of power between the presidency and the Congress in modern times.”

“What has happened to reduce the role of the Congress from the body which once clearly decided whether or not the nation would go to war, to the point that we are viewed as little more than a rather mindless conduit that collects taxpayer dollars and dispenses them to the president for whatever military functions he decides to undertake?” he asked.

In 2012, he noted that,  “Year by year, skirmish by skirmish, the role of the Congress in determining where the U.S. military would operate, and when the awesome power of our weapon systems would be unleashed, has diminished.”

Webb, who left the Senate in 2012, proposed to tighten Congress’ responsibility to authorize war. Nothing happened. What’s a good euphemism for being lazy, indifferent and weak?

It turns out now the US has put a handful of soldiers in Libya to scout out possible allies, among the country’s patchwork of anarchic tribal militias, to fight the Islamic State. If the number of American troops grows, I wonder what Obama call the action.

It appears the Administration has yet to settle on its preferred terminology. The word intervention has apparently been ruled out, if this weird exchange at a State Department press briefing the other day is any indication. The Q&A session took place in advance of a multinational meeting in Vienna to build support for one of Libya’s warring governments:

<em>QUESTION: How much do you expect this ministerial meeting to lay the groundwork to requests for more military intervention?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, what does the word “intervention” mean? I’m not sure what that word means. I’m not being clever about this; I don’t know what the word means. I think they’re going to ask for military assistance. The Libyans want to have fresh, unified weapons – that is, as opposed to flotsam and jetsam and whatever they happen to have around – to be able to go after Daesh (the Islamic State). The Government of National Accord also wants to be able to stabilize cities against criminal groups and other extremist groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaida in the Maghreb. So I’m certain it will include requests for training and equipment, but “intervention” – I’m not sure what that word means and I’m not clear what the Libyans are going to ask for about that, so I’m not sure.</em>

Perhaps the Senior Official should pick up a dictionary.

Jim Webb on Congress and war.

Congress doesn’t approve Obama’s Islamic State war plan, but so what?

Homework: Papers on war powers.


Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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