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A War by Any Other Name

A month ago I wrote an article expressing my concern over whether the U.S. has a clear, achievable plan in Libya. I knew at the time that President Obama would be reluctant to call what we were doing a war, both for political and legal reasons. But it never occurred to me there was any actual question that by launching large-scale military operations against Libyan installations we had begun a war.

The war in Libya has since escalated, with the U.S. confirming the use of drone attacks and the leaders of NATO—who originally denied that they were seeking “regime change”—pledging to stay in Libya until Qaddafi is removed from power. But the U.S. still hasn’t formally declared war against Libya. Of course, the U.S hasn’t formally declared war against any country since 1942, when we declared war against Romania as part of World War II. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were all wars only in retrospect, from the perspective of history books.

Calling the war in Libya a war is politically inconvenient at a time when we are already fighting major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Calling it a war would also make it very clear that President Obama ignored the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The War Powers Resolution requires the President to formally notify Congress within 48 hours of introducing the armed forces either “into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is indicated by the circumstances” or “into the territory, airspace or waters of a a foreign nation, while equipped for combat, except for deployments which related solely to the supply, replacement, repair, or training of such forces”—both of which he has clearly done, whatever Obama wants to call what the U.S. is doing. The War Powers Resolution would also require the President to get Congressional approval to continue operations longer than 60 days, a step Obama would clearly like to avoid. That's why, as Adam Serwer explains, the Obama administration has argued that our actions in Libya don’t constitute going to war because we aren’t committing enough troops or incurring enough risk “to make the deployment a ‘war’ in any sense of the word.”

I’m not sure what dictionary the administration is using. War, as typically defined, is “a conflict carried on by force of arms, as between nations or parties within a nation.” It doesn’t depend either on the size of the army or whether or not both sides are likely to sustain significant casualties. Most of history’s wars have been fought with a much less firepower than we are using in Libya.  The plain fact is that taking over a sovereign country’s airspace and bombing its military installations is an act of war, both under international law and in ordinary English. Everything else is just doubletalk.

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