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Defining Down War

Obama is already adept at going to war without saying so, but the team of Panetta and Petraeus is likely to turn this age-old deception into an art form.


A U.S. F-16 fighter jet based at Sigonella airbase on the Italian island of Sicily takes off on March 21, 2011 to take part in operations in Libya.(MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images)

Each day for the last three months, NATO has issued a classified order dividing the ongoing air war in Libya—uhh, let’s call it “mission”—into offensive and defensive operations.

The latter category is America’s job, and it is huge. It includes Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, which consists mainly of U.S. jets “loitering” in Libyan air space to watch for surface-to-air missiles that might threaten the “offensive” part of the mission: the French, British, Canadian, Norwegian, and Danish planes attacking Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces.


The United States is also supplying most of NATO’s intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in Libya, along with air-to-air refueling for NATO strike forces. By NATO’s own evidence, President Obama was somewhat disingenuous in claiming at his Wednesday news conference that U.S. forces were not “carrying the lion’s share of this operation.” U.S. planes, in fact, “represent the majority of aircraft within the theater, and they have done so from the beginning,” NATO spokesman Tony White told National Journal on Thursday. “The U.S. role continues to be fundamental to the mission” and is “supremely important in every strike sortie.”

(PICTURES: Obama's Six Wars—So Far)

Thus, by playing “defense” and putting no U.S. soldiers on the ground, Obama has effectively gone to war in Libya while denying that America is pursuing “hostilities” that might trigger the War Powers Resolution requiring congressional approval. Whatever you think about his legal argument, Obama’s approach may be working. As he said on Wednesday: “We have not seen a single U.S. casualty.” 


Yet Qaddafi is, by several accounts, close to being toppled. Rebel forces are said to be within 50 kilometers of Tripoli. The French, on their own initiative, say they plan to arm them. And NATO is already anticipating victory, White said. “The moment we reach the tipping point—and we’re getting very close to that—which is that the vast majority of [Qaddafi’s] troops start not obeying his orders to attack or just lay down their arms, he’s done.”

Obama’s legal and moral tightrope walk through Libya is a new variation on a very old theme. Presidents have been tiptoeing and sidestepping into war—sometimes without congressional approval—ever since Thomas Jefferson became the first president to contemplate invading the shores of Tripoli more than 200 years ago when he deployed the new U.S. Navy and Marines to the pirate-ridden Barbary coast. Invoking the Monroe doctrine, President Wilson intervened regularly in Latin America, especially Mexico, Cuba, and Panama, saying, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon authorized CIA coup attempts intended to achieve the effects of war without engaging in one. 

What’s striking, though, is how presidents over many decades have been able to refine the process of going to war without saying so. In response to resistance from Congress and the American public, U.S. leaders have had little choice but to get much better at this stuff. In the 1970s, following the Church Committee hearings, Congress brought the coup-happy CIA into line, requiring a presidential finding and congressional oversight for any agency action that might influence events abroad. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, meanwhile, was largely a response to Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia.

In an effort to avoid unpopular wars, presidents have also gotten better at finding ways to cleverly use international bodies like NATO and the United Nations as diplomatic and legal cover, dating back to the U.N.-authorized “police action” in 1950 that came to be known as the Korean War.


In 1991 President George H.W. Bush so deftly used the U.N. to muster broad international action in the Gulf War that Washington was said to have made a profit on that war (a striking contrast to his son’s largely unilateral action in Iraq 12 years later). In Kosovo in 1999, Bill Clinton launched a massive NATO air attack in a humanitarian campaign that he refused to call a war, mounted in support of a cause he refused to define (because he didn’t support the Kosovars’ claims to statehood).

The latest refinement comes from America’s ever-advancing war technology and covert capabilities. The Predator drone has become Obama’s weapon of choice in theaters from Pakistan to Yemen and was recently introduced into the Libyan conflict, permitting a policy that comes very close to conducting war without public accountability (though U.S. ambassadors in these countries are supposed to vet targets and Congress is supposed to know, strike requests are almost never denied). In Afghanistan, the concept of counterinsurgency, itself a cleaned-up, somewhat euphemized form of war, is fading fast, and there aren’t any doctrines to take its place. More and more, instead, the administration has come to rely on the CIA and on private contractors not subject to normal oversight.

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