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If This Is Not 'War' Against Libya, What Is It?

The USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile Saturday in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. The operation targeted radar and anti-aircraft sites along Libya's Mediterranean coast.
U.S. Navy
Getty Images
The USS Barry launches a Tomahawk cruise missile Saturday in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn. The operation targeted radar and anti-aircraft sites along Libya's Mediterranean coast.

War is what the International Herald Tribune calls the U.S. confrontation with Libya. "At War in Libya" is the headline in the New York Times. Eliot Spitzer on CNN refers to "reporters covering the war in Libya."

But is the U.S. really at "war" with Libya?

Judkin Browning, a professor of military history at Appalachian State University, says, "Would I consider us 'at war' with Libya at this moment? I would say no, simply because of the very limited nature of our military mission."


He explains that mission this way: "We are operating under the authority of the U.N. Security Council — as we did in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq twice — and we have clearly stated that our mission is to prevent Libyan forces under Gadhafi from harming civilians."

The U.S. military objective "is not to overthrow the Libyan government," Browning says, "or even to aid the rebel forces in terms of providing tactical support for their offensives. However, President Obama has stated several times that Gadhafi 'must go.' That is sending mixed messages to the nation and the military community."

The definition of war is not to be taken lightly. There is one constant about all wars: People die. And usually a lot of people.

But if the U.S. involvement in Libya is not war, what is war? Is the U.S. at war with Iraq? With Afghanistan? And, if not, what should the conflicts be called?

The Changing Definition Of War


Under the guidelines of the Constitution, only Congress can declare war. So when Obama agreed to an American-led military offensive to bombard Libya's air defense system and create a no-fly zone, some members of Congress cried foul.

"This is not a concerted debate in the Congress on an act of war, a declaration of war," Richard Lugar, the uppermost Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NPR's David Welna, "If we're going to war with Libya, we need to declare that. People need to be on record in the Senate and the House, because this could be quite a long and extended situation."

Asked if the U.S. is at war with Libya, Lugar replied, "I have no idea. In a technical sense. It would be hard to say that you can fire 110 Tomahawk missiles at Libyan installations, even though this is supposed to be a humanitarian act to help civilians, without saying this is a military action."

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) offered measured support for Obama's action. "The president was within his authority to send forces to Libya on an emergency, short-term, limited-scope basis," Courtney said in a statement Monday. "Going forward, any intervention should not include U.S. ground troops and should be limited to supporting European allies whose close proximity to Libya heightens their own national security concerns."

But is the U.S. at war with Libya?

Over the course of the 20th century, the nature of how we think of, define and declare war changed, according to Browning.

The Hague Convention of 1907 outlined the process of declaring war. One of the top priorities of the convention's proposed Laws of War was the proper method of "opening hostilities."

It is important, the document read, "in order to ensure maintenance of pacific relations, that hostilities should not commence without previous warning."

Another tenet: "The existence of a state of war should be notified without delay to neutral Powers."

Then follows a checklist of Articles, calling for, among other things, a "declaration of war" and written notification of an official "denunciation" of war by "High Contracting Parties wishing to denounce the present Convention."

A century ago it all seemed so orderly. And the mannerly mechanics of the Hague Convention pretty much worked for a half-century. The principal countries in the first and second world wars more or less played by the rules.

But after World War II, everything changed. With the creation of the United Nations, and the idea of shared responsibility for "peacekeeping," the old-school notion of "declaring war" fell by the wayside.

The Mission Could Change Quickly

The United Kingdom wrestled with the definition of war in its House of Lords 2005-2006 session report "Waging war: Parliament's role and responsibility." According to the report, "war" has popular and legal connotations for a governmental entity. Colloquially speaking, war includes military conflicts between state-supported armies as well as internal conflicts, such as the U.S. Civil War.

In international law, the report continued, the salient trait "is the legal equality of the belligerents and the special status of those states not taking part in the conflict ('neutral states')." The report laid out other parameters and side effects of waging war.

However, the report also pointed out that the United Kingdom had "made no declaration of war" since the war against Thailand in 1942 "and it is unlikely that there will ever be another" declaration of war. The United Nations Charter, "including its prohibition on the threat or use of force in international relations, may well have made the declaration of war redundant as a formal international legal instrument."

Browning, the military historian, says the United States has adopted a similar stance and has not declared war since World War II. "However, few would consider Korea or Vietnam to not have been wars, and in popular usage they are referred to as such."

The War Powers Resolution of 1973 tried to restrict the president's power to commit U.S. military forces to international action. The joint resolution requires the president to tell Congress when armed forces are being sent into action and it limits the amount of time U.S. military personnel can remain engaged in conflict — without congressional authorization or a declaration of war.

So today the military refers to international conflicts as "operations": Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Iraqi Freedom, Odyssey Dawn (Libya).

Geoffrey Wawro, a military historian at the University of North Texas, says that the military and think tanks then group all of these "ops" into a long "war against terrorism." The term, Wawro says, was "once flourished manfully, but is increasingly spoken with an ironic sneer — especially in the military."

Wawro says, "The belief of the George W. Bush administration that short, sharp wars would be 'game changers' has proven false." And "the equivocation of the Obama administration — hating these costly, distracting wars but fighting them anyway to protect its national security credentials — has made the situation worse."

Even if the U.S. doesn't "declare war" anymore, everyone knows that the country is at war when it commits its official military forces "against a clearly identified enemy political entity," Browning says. The obvious "wars" include Iraq in 2003, when the U.S. sought to destroy and overthrow Saddam Hussein's government, and Afghanistan in 2001 and the mission to overthrow the Taliban government.

Both wars became unwieldy, Browning says, when the missions were accomplished. After each of those wars came a reconstruction period, Browning says, "for which the U.S. was unprepared, and historically have always been unprepared for."

However, if Libya somehow manages to score some dramatic and surprise success against the U.S. military forces or to carry out an act of terrorism against American interests in retaliation for U.S. involvement, Browning says, "I could see our mission changing quickly to specifically include the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime because he is a danger to our national security."

And at that point, Browning concludes, "it would be difficult to say we were not at war with Libya from the very beginning."

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