Smoke rises near bodies lying in a street in Tripoli August 25, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic .
August 27, 2011
On March 19, a coalition of nations allied with rebel fighters in Libya to help drive Muammar Gaddafi from power. NATO forces, including Britain, France, Canada and the United States began with sorties, a naval blockade and the firing of deadly Tomahawk cruise missiles.
On that day, all became participants in a bloody fight, putting their military forces at risk and adding to the carnage already taking place on the ground.
Yet, with rare exception, their leaders did everything possible to avoid the word that made it clear what they had got themselves and their citizens into — a war.
They have reached for every euphemism possible — "military action," "use of force," "mission," "operation," "conflict," "intervention" and "responsibility to protect" have all acted as stand-ins for "war."
Even the use of "no-fly zone" sounded benign enough, with its implications of clearing the skies in the manner of air traffic controllers. But as Robert Gates, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense, said early in March, "Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences."
The term "humanitarian mission" was also often used — a term that could mean anything from food aid to dropping medical supplies to bombing.
"Apparently killing people and destroying property on behalf of one side in a civil war does not rise to the level of war for the purposes of the Obama administration, at least," noted John Samples, a director at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
Several days after NATO involvement began, he wrote, "War is commonly defined as 'a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations.’ By that definition, the United States and its allies have been at war with Libya since late last week."
The reasons for these kinds of obfuscations are complex, especially in the heated political climate of the United States. But several factors point to why Barack Obama, in particular, may have wanted to sanitize the risks of U.S. involvement.
After a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, polls show Americans are war weary and increasingly hostile to playing the role of the world’s policeman.
Two days after the start of U.S. involvement, Gallup found 47% of Americans approved of Mr. Obama’s actions, the lowest level of support for the 10 military actions the country has been involved in since 1983; 37% disapproved and 16% had no opinion.
By June 22, support had dropped to 39%, with 46% disapproval.
Meantime, the Pew Research Center found the United States experiencing the highest level of isolationist sentiment in more than half a century. In May, 46% of Americans said the United States should "mind its own business" internationally a 16-percentage-point increase from 2002.
Michele Bachmann, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, was one of the first politicians to attack Mr. Obama over the use of the U.S. military in Libya. She called the action "outrageous," saying there was no vital interest to the country and it was unclear exactly who the United States was supporting.
She also said calling the action a humanitarian mission could jeopardize genuine humanitarian efforts in the future, turning non-military aid workers into military targets.
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has also avoided any mention of war, stressing his country’s role is to enforce the UN Security Council resolution. Britons, too, have endured engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polls showed tepid enthusiasm for action in Libya, dipping recently to a mere 31%.
Stephen Harper has been a rarity among Western leaders when it comes to using direct language. When the attacks began, he said the action being taken by Canada and other NATO forces amounted to an "act of war."
The avoidance of the word war is not something new. For example, despite the United States losing close to 37,000 troops in Korea, U.S. schoolchildren were taught for years the proper term for what took place was "a police action," not a war.
Mr. Samples said there is another reason why Mr. Obama may not want to call the Libyan action a war.
The U.S. Constitution says a president must go to Congress to declare war. This has not happened since 1941, when the United States declared war on the Axis powers, but the normal protocol has been for the president to at least get some form of Congressional approval.
"This is the first case I know of where we’ve taken full-scale military action where the president has avoided Congress," Mr. Samples said.
He added said he did not doubt Mr. Obama had genuine concerns for the victims of Col. Gaddafi’s terror, but that did not give him the legal authority to make war on his own.
Roger Sarty, a professor of military history at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ont., believes the vagueness of language is something that developed in the late 1940s when the meaning of war implied the potential for total annihilation.
"In our modern age the distinction between war and peace has become a whole lot less clear," he said.
Because of the nuclear threat, the idea of all-out war became too much to contemplate. Still, any military action can quickly slip into something much larger and politicians need to make that clear.
"What is required is more candour from the politicians to the public. They have to say, 'We are making this important move and it is an important commitment,’ " Prof. Sarty said.
"God knows that democracies have a huge commitment to this idea of human security and politicians have to be franker on what the costs of that idealism are."
David Rieff, a U.S. author and policy analyst, said politicians mask their true intent when they use words like "responsibility to protect," known as R2P, and "humanitarian intervention."
"Those who took a decent English 101 class in college may remember being instructed that a failure of language usually reflects a failure of thought," he wrote in The New Republic in July.
"The truth is that doctrines like humanitarian intervention and R2P are ways of waging war without taking responsibility (or accepting accountability, both moral and democratic) for doing so.
"They allow us to pretend we are not going to war, but, instead, are just trying to protect the civilian population from harm.
"War, however, is not police work, not armed humanitarianism, not human rights activism with an air force, and it should not be allowed to become anything of the kind."