Defining War in an Ill-Defined World

The vote in the U.S. House of Representatives against approving U.S. participation in the NATO operation in Libya was basically an overwhelming rejection of the Obama administration’s argument that the United States is not at “war” in Libya.

In the Congressional view, the United States was at least a co-belligerent, an “associated power” supporting the more robust efforts of France and Britain. The U.S. initiated the air campaign against Libya and continues to provide logistical support for an effort that now directly targets the governing apparatus of the Libyan state.

But the fact is that there are no clear guidelines any longer on what constitutes war. Moreover, since “war” is forbidden by the charter of the United Nations except in self-defense or if authorized by the Security Council, states hardly ever declare military actions to be “war” any more — they are always self defense, police actions, interventions or the like.

American constitutional purists decry this state of affairs and hearken to a purported golden age when the war-making authority of the executive branch was carefully constrained by Congressional oversight.

But on closer examination there is no guidance in the U.S. Constitution on what sorts of military activity should be considered war, and what should not. In fact, there are more words devoted to the issue of copyrights and patents in the Constitution than to Congress’ role in declaring war.

The issue of what constitutes a war is therefore strikingly complex — and considerably more so today than when the framers wrote the Constitution.

Consider the raid to kill Osama bin Laden (which, of course, was justified under the broad authority granted to the president by Congress three days after 9/11).

Should a 40-minute raid conducted by several dozen commandos be regarded as “hostilities” commensurate with an act of war? After all, force was projected across borders and without the permission of the host government. But if not, how many soldiers must be involved to cross the threshold between “military action” and “war”? How long must they be engaged?

No matter how reasonable, any answer to these questions will have a degree of arbitrariness.

Political science does not offer much help. One of the more common academic definitions of war comes from the Correlates of War project, which collects scientific data on wars. It defines war as a conflict in which there are 1,000 battlefield deaths.

The figure is clearly arbitrary. The Falklands War, with 907 deaths, does not qualify as a war, while the less consequential 100-hour-long “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras, with about 2,000 fatalities, does. The Correlates of War definition, moreover, is intended for the study of wars after the fact, and is therefore useless in identifying wars in advance.

Yet something akin to this standard seems to have influenced the legal position of the Obama administration.

The White House has argued that the Libya operation does not qualify as war because the mission has been limited and focused on combat support; there are no ground forces deployed; and Libyan forces have been severely constrained in their ability to put U.S. personnel in harm’s way.

And as the Congressional debate last week over the Libya resolution demonstrated, there is an uneasiness in all quarters, dove to hawk, over the ill-defined and awkward role of Congress in these critical questions of war and peace.

Perhaps one step that could help bring clarity would be to better define when military action rises to the level of war.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973, intended to restrict the powers of the president in committing the United States to military action without Congressional consent, puts as little effort into defining “hostilities” as the Constitution does into “war.” And the 60-day limit on committing troops to military action without Congressional authorization is as arbitrary as 1,000 battle deaths.

War has become increasingly difficult to define in the post-9/11 environment. The debate over the president’s Libya policy would do well to provide new and workable definitions.

Nikolas Gvosdev, and Andrew Stigler, professors of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views expressed here are their own.

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