What if they gave a war and nobody was allowed to say it? The debate over military action in Libya has lately taken an absurd twist, driven by the Obama administration’s bizarre unwillingness to call a war a war.
Everyone knows what is going on in Libya is a war, but the administration has placed a moratorium on plain English. Hence White House press secretary Jay Carney prefers to talk about a “time-limited, scope-limited military action,” which could actually describe most wars. And at a press briefing on Wednesday when Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Gerard Hueber was asked, “Do you consider yourself at war right now?” he said, expressionlessly, “we are carrying out the mission of the United Nations Security [Council] Resolution 1973 and the direction of the president in his speech.” Said one observer, “He has drunk the Kool Aid.”
The favored expressions seem to be variations on “kinetic action,” a term that has been in usage in defense parlance for over 20 years. As jargon it is not new; it was used by George W. Bush and members of his administration. But it was never before deployed to deny reality in the way the Obama administration is doing. The president has transformed “kinetic” from jargon to doublespeak, joining such classics as “man caused disaster” and “overseas contingency operation.”
It says a lot when a president has to hide behind opaque language, or to forbid people from stating the obvious. In 1994 the State Department reportedly banned the use of the word “genocide” to describe the genocide then raging in Rwanda. The thought was that if genocide was in progress the United States might be expected to do something about it, which the Clinton administration was loath to do. This past failure to intervene in Rwanda is supposedly one of the factors that drove the current intervention in Libya. So the genocide that wasn’t a genocide helped cause the war that isn’t a war. It has a certain peculiar symmetry.
But the ban on “war” just means the credibility gap is alive and well in the Obama administration. The more the president and his staff robotically mouth whatever current euphemism for war they have dreamed up, the bigger hole they will dig. Eventually they will call it a tunnel and start looking for light at the end of it.
There have been hundreds of examples of the use of force in American history, but no president has ever fled from the idea that using military force was not somehow a form of war. Even the Korean conflict, a “police action” under U.N. auspices, was called a war by President Truman. Mr. Obama’s dogmatic insistence that a combined, joint military assault on Libya involving hundreds of aircraft and thousands of personnel is not a war is mind boggling.
The administration is playing another semantic trick by “turning over” responsibility for the conflict to NATO. The implication is that the United States will no longer be involved in the “non-war.” But the U.S. is the main partner in NATO, so it is unclear what “transitioning command and control” really means. Furthermore the United States will still supply the bulk of military muscle to prosecute the conflict, so all that is being accomplished is that Mr. Obama is giving command of American forces to France. If he doesn’t want to be commander in chief he should just say so.
A March 22 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 17 percent of Americans described Mr. Obama’s leadership in the conflict as “strong and decisive.” The White House may as well not describe Operation Odyssey Dawn as a war since Mr. Obama is not conducting it like one. The whole sorry issue bespeaks of a White House desperately in need of adult leadership.