It’s one thing to say that the U.S. is right to take action against Moammar Gadhafi. It’s quite another to insist that it’s not even a war. And it’s simply dishonest to do so while escalating the war.
But that’s the spin from the Obama White House. While the president travelled through Latin America, his aides told sympathetic audiences in Washington that Operation Odyssey Dawn “is a limited humanitarian intervention, not war,” in the words of White House Mideast troubleshooter Dennis Ross. A letter to Congress notifying lawmakers that Odyssey Dawn was in effect studiously avoided the word “war,” preferring the more anodyne “military efforts” — which are “discrete” and “limited in their nature, duration, and scope.”
Ross’ remarks are outright deceptive. And it fits a pattern with President Obama: escalating U.S. military commitments while portraying them as essentially finite and limited.
For one thing, the fight is intensifying, not dropping off. On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition flew 60 sorties over Libya; Monday it flew nearly 80; on Wednesday it flew 175. At this moment, American pilots are bombing and shooting at Gadhafi’s armor and artillery units on the outskirts of Libyan cities. Off the shores of Libya, a bevy of Navy ships and subs have launched over 160 Tomahawk missiles.
Nor can NATO agree on a command structure that will get the U.S. out of the lead of the war. Obama might want to hand off command responsibility to a different, multinational entity, in order to keep the scope of the U.S. commitment limited. He just lacks a plan to do so.
It’s true that not every application of military force is a war. Reasonable people can disagree, but when Saddam Hussein’s removal of weapons inspectors in 1998 prompted four days of U.S. and British bombs and missile strikes, that didn’t quite rise to the level of a whole new war. By contrast, the concerted, open-ended multinational application of naval and air power to enforce a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” to forcibly change the political behavior of a head of state — that’s something that Carl von Clausewitz would recognize in an instant. Call it smart, call it stupid, but please don’t call it anything besides war.
And despite what Ross may say, nothing about a “humanitarian intervention” renders it rigorously distinct from a war when the chief means of intervention are military. NATO, for instance, bombed Slobodan Milosevic for 78 days, all for the humanitarian purpose of saving Kosovo from him. Approve or disapprove, but Operation Applied Force was quite certainly a war.
It’s obvious why the Obama team wants to spin the Libya war as anything but a war. It doesn’t want to rely on Congress to declare war (not strictly necessary, at least yet, since the War Powers Act empowers the president to conduct war for 60 days without congressional action). War with Gadhafi garners anemic public approval ratings.
And to be up front about calling it a war would risk unraveling Obama’s contention that the war should be limited. It’s reasonable to ask whether the explicit goal of the war, now that it’s underway, should be to overthrow Gadhafi; which might require arming the opposition; or even devoting ground troops — all steps Obama wants to avoid. But those are arguments for caution about starting a war with Libya, not for pretending that the one the White House has ordered doesn’t exist.
This is getting to be a habit for Obama. First he expanded the scope of the U.S. counterterrorism efforts to Pakistan and Yemen, places that at least arguably exceed the 2001 congressional mandate for military action. Then he rejected congressional offers to openly debate a reauthorization of the war. When Obama ordered a 30,000-troop surge into Afghanistan — atop his earlier increase of 21,000 troops — he vowed the escalation would end this July. But only minimal numbers of troops will come home this year, and his senior aides are talking about an indefinite stay by at least some U.S. forces after 2014. (Indeed, at a dinner on Tuesday night, White House “war czar” Doug Lute said that would serve as an “insurance policy” against Afghanistan going down the tubes.)
If Obama’s aim is to conduct limited wars, he’s not doing it very well. And he’s certainly not coming clean to the public about what he’s doing. Somewhere, George W. Bush is smirking with vindication.
Photo: Flickr/U.S. Africa Command
By Spencer Ackerman Email Author
March 24, 2011