Stephen M. Walt

Obama, we’re at war. Stop insulting us.

Obama, we’re at war. Stop insulting us.

Not that FP has suddenly become joke central, but there’s an old joke that runs like this:

An accountant, a social scientist and a lawyer are seated in a room. A guy walks in and asks them: "how much is 2 + 2?" The accountant whips out a calculator, pencils and paper, scribbles for awhile, and then says: "The answer, sir, is 4." The social scientist grabs her laptop, fires it up a few minutes, and then says "Well, as you know this is not an exact science, but I can say with a 95% level of confidence that the answer is between 3 and 5."

The lawyer, meanwhile, gets up, looks under all the chairs, checks in the closet, opens the door to the room and looks both ways down the hall. Then he comes back, sidles up to the guy who asked the question, and whispers:

"I don’t care. How much do you want it to be?"

I mention this because I learned that the Obama administration is claiming that it doesn’t need congressional authorization for its Libyan intervention under the War Powers Act. Why? Because what we are doing doesn’t amount to "full-blown" hostilities.

Oh, please. Let’s start with the definition of "war" itself. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as "a state of armed conflict between different countries or different groups within a country." Now, let’s see: what are we doing in Libya? What we know is that we’ve sent cruise missiles, and drones and U.S. aircraft to attack military targets in various places, including several attacks on Qaddafi’s own compound. We are continuing to provide targeting information to our NATO allies, who are conducting additional raids on their own. Although U.S. ground troops are not present in force, it’s a safe bet that U.S. special forces are operating in various places, probably helping provide some of that targeting info. And of course because the Obama administration isn’t telling us everything that it’s doing, we have no clear way of knowing exactly how involved we really are.

By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn’t being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this war makes strategic sense or not. (I think not, but I can see the merits of the other side’s case). They can also disagree about whether outside intervention was necessary to avert an anticipated "bloodbath" in Benghazi, or whether it was really a precipitous decision that may in the end make things worse. But let’s not fall for the creative legal sophistry being offered up here. If Obama and his foreign policy team think this war (yes, war) is really in our interest, then they should make their case to the American people and their elected representatives and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t have enormous respect for Congress (who could, these days?) but that’s how a republic is supposed to operate. And let’s not forget that Obama used to think so himself.

Postscript: Lest readers think that I’m ticked off because I’m jet-lagged, or because my trip is not going well, let me just say that I’m feeling perfectly fine, the weather here in Dublin is sensational and my Irish hosts at the IIEA couldn’t have been more gracious. I’m just disappointed, but not for the first time.