Say what you will, it’s a war in Libya


The Obama administration has come up with a remarkable justification for going to war against Libya without the congressional approval required by the Constitution and the War Powers Act of 1973.

American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan airspace, they are finding their targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. One can see this as a good war or a bad war, but surely it is a war.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration insists it is not a war. Why? Because, according to “United States Activities in Libya,” a 32-page report that the administration released last week, “U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors.”


In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favor of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying — when we die. When only they — the Libyans — die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name.

This cannot be classified as anything but strange thinking, and it depends, in turn, on a strange fact: that, in our day, it is indeed possible for some countries, for the first time in history, to wage war without receiving a scratch in return. This was nearly accomplished in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, in which only one American plane was shot down (the pilot was rescued).

The epitome of this new warfare is the Predator drone, which has become an emblem of the Obama administration. Its human operators can sit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or in Langley, Va., while the drone floats above Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen or Libya, pouring destruction down from the skies. War waged in this way is without casualties for the wager because none of its soldiers are near the scene of battle — if that is even the right word for what is going on.

Some strange conclusions follow from this strange thinking and these strange facts. In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter what. Now the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.

It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for — if not equaling us — then at least doing us some damage. Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorized war. Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.

The War Powers Act permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is “a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the “homeland.”


There is a parallel here with the administration of George W. Bush on the issue of torture (though not, needless to say, a parallel between the war itself, which I oppose but whose merits can be reasonably debated, and the torture, which was wholly reprehensible). President Bush wanted the torture he was ordering not to be considered torture, so he arranged to get lawyers in the Justice Department to write legal-sounding opinions excluding certain forms of torture, such as waterboarding, from the definition of the word. Those practices were then called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Now, Obama wants his Libyan war not to be a war and so has arranged to define a certain kind of war — the American-casualty-free kind — as not war (though without even the full support of his own lawyers). Along with Libya, a good English word — war — is under attack.

In these semantic operations of power upon language, a word is separated from its commonly accepted meaning. The meanings of words are one of the few common grounds that communities naturally share. When agreed meanings are challenged, no one can use the words in question without stirring up spurious “debates,” as happened with the word “torture.”

No euphemism for “war” has yet caught on, though soon after launching its Libyan attacks, an administration official proposed the phrase “kinetic military action,” and more recently, in that 32-page report, the term of choice was “limited military operations.”

How did the administration twist itself into this pretzel? In an interview with the New York Times, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh shed at least some light on the matter. Many administrations and legislators have taken issue with the War Powers Act, claiming it challenges powers inherent in the presidency. Others, such as Bush administration Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. John Yoo, have argued that the Constitution’s plain declaration that Congress “shall declare war” does not mean what most readers think it means, leaving the president free to initiate all kinds of wars.

Koh has long opposed these interpretations, and in a way, even now, he remains consistent. Speaking for the administration, he still upholds Congress’ power to declare war and the constitutionality of the War Powers Act. “We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” he told the Times. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”


In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid a challenge to existing law has forced this assault on the dictionary. For the administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or language.

It chose language.

Jonathan Schell is a fellow at the Nation Institute and a senior lecturer at Yale University. He is the author of several books, including “The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People.” A longer version of this piece appears on