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'Kinetic Military Action' or 'War'?
Police action, conflict, hostilities and now “kinetic military action.” They’re all euphemisms for that word that this White House and many before it have been so careful not to say: War.
Administration officials told congressional aides in a closed briefing earlier this week that the United States is not at war with Libya, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes danced around the question in a Wednesday exchange with reporters aboard Air Force One.
“I think what we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone,” Rhodes said. “Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end. But again, the nature of our commitment is that we are not getting into an open-ended war, a land invasion in Libya.”
Those kind of verbal gymnastics to avoid calling a sustained bombing of a foreign country a “war” aren’t flying with members of Congress.
“This is an act of war,” Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee told the Rockford Register Star. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in a letter to the president on Wednesday, said that he was “troubled that U.S. military resources were committed to a war” without a clear goal — or the consent of Congress.
So while a United States-led coalition hammers Libya with Tomahawk missiles and precision bombs in support of a rebel challenge to strongman Muammar Qadhafi, a shadow war over the semantics of armed conflict has erupted in the domestic political debate.
There’s even a peanut gallery: Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart headlined a segment “America at not-war.”
Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) told the Dorchester Reporter that he and his colleagues should have had an opportunity to weigh in on what he said is definitely a “war.”
“I take the Constitution kind of seriously and it’s very clear. It doesn’t presume I wouldn’t support it, but I don’t see how you can say shelling an independent country is not an act of war,” Capuano said.
In an interview with POLITICO earlier this week, Republican Rep. Walter Jones, who represents thousands of Marines deployed from Camp Lejeune to support the current action in Libya, repeatedly referred to the hostilities as “war.”
Barry Carter, an expert on international law at Georgetown University, says that the word “war” has lost its meaning — and not just in recent decades.
“The term war has really, in the last few centuries, become a very subjective concept. People use it or don’t use it depending on the circumstances. This isn’t just the U.S. It’s other countries,” he told POLITICO, citing “legal, political or constitutional needs” that make “war” a taboo term for many world leaders.
“There’s no relevance to the word war,” says Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia. “If you look at the U.N. charter, it’s framed in terms of the use of force.”
In international humanitarian law the term “armed conflict” is applied, Byers said. “It is precisely [because] of a public perception that a war is something that is on a larger scale, when in fact international law seeks to control behavior in any kind of situation of organized violence.”
The United States Congress hasn’t declared war since the 1940s, though its “police action” in Korea, “conflict” in Vietnam and “use of force” in Afghanistan and Iraq are all widely deemed to be wars.
President George W. Bush famously called himself “a war president” during a 2004 interview with the late Tim Russert in the Oval Office. But Bush wasn’t talking about war against a country — he was referring to the “war on terror.”
The political imperative for Obama to avoid the term “war” is obvious: His opposition to the Iraq War was a major point of attraction for his party’s doves and some independents in the 2008 presidential election, and many voters believe the United States has already spent too much, whether in human or financial terms, on its existing two wars in the Muslim world. Obama often framed his presidency as inheriting two foreign wars — and he doesn’t want to be credited with starting a third.
Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at Notre Dame University, said there’s no question that the U.S. is engaged in armed conflict in Libya. “Any situation is properly characterized as armed conflict if there’s number one at least two organized armed groups, and two, those organized armed groups are engaged in fighting of some intensity,” said O’Connell, who has worked to define the term armed conflict.
As a matter of international law, it doesn’t matter what terms the combatants are using.
“Internationally, the facts on the ground, what’s really happening, makes the difference,” she said.
One legal reason that the administration might avoid the use of the word “war” is that Constitution-wielding lawmakers point out that only Congress has the power to declare war.
Under the War Powers Act of 1973, which may have expanded rather than limited executive authority, the president may deploy U.S. forces only if there is “a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
Neither the first nor the second criteria has been met, and many lawmakers argue that the president’s justification under the national emergency clause — that refugees from Libya could destabilize the region thus causing a threat to the United States — falls short of the standard for deploying forces without active congressional consent. Republicans note that Bush sought “use of force” resolutions before going into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a top lieutenant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told MSNBC that the president overstepped his authority by going into Libya without further consultation with Congress.
“I’m one of those people who believe that when you’re not defending the shores of the United States, you have an obligation to come to the Congress and ask for permission,” Miller said.
As for the semantic argument: The Obama administration is borrowing words from its predecessor in the White House when it talks of “kinetic military action.” Bush’s team used that construction in advance of the Iraq War, according to Bob Woodward and others.