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Tomgram: Jonathan Schell, The War on the Word "War"

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

By now, it's obvious that, despite much talk about a limited mission to protect Libyan civilians, Obama and his NATO allies are as clearly on a course of "regime change" in Libya as Bush was in Iraq.  If you loved it then (and you haven't learned a thing since), you should love it now.  If you were disturbed by it then, you should still be disturbed by it. 

No question, Saddam Hussein was one nasty guy, as is Muammar Gaddafi, and the Bush administration was certainly blunter about what it was trying to do to Saddam.  The initial air assault aimed at him and other regime heavyweights (which killed dozens of Iraqi civilians, but not a single significant or even insignificant figure) was repeatedly described as a "decapitation attack."  This time around, the attacks on Gaddafi's "compound" and other locations the Libyan leader is suspected of using have been accompanied by denials that assassination was intended or his removal the point.  But reality is reality, and attempted regime change is attempted regime change, whatever officials care to call it.

When the U.S. and NATO struck with their might against Gaddafi, using jets, drones, and later Apache helicopters, they were visibly engaging in a modified version of the "shock and awe" campaign that launched the invasion of Iraq: massive air power meant to crack a regime open, leave it stunned and potentially leaderless, and take it down.  As air power, for all its destructiveness, has disappointed in the past, so it has done here.  All the Obama administration's problems with Congress and with the War Powers Resolution come from a belief -- similar to the Bush administration's -- that, given our awesome might, this would end quickly.  It hasn't. 

Faced with the need to endlessly claim "progress" (amid endless frustration) in a war that has once again inspired something less than awe and submission, the Obama administration has, like previous administrations, resorted to the powers of the imperial presidency, which only grow fiercer with time.  It seems that even a former constitutional law professor, on entering the White House, can't resist enhancing the powers of the executive office.  And if that's not imperial, what is?  (Ironically, if the Obama administration had gone to Congress for support weeks ago, as the War Powers Act calls for, it would undoubtedly have gotten that support.)  In the meantime, in its attempt to explain away the powers invested in Congress, it has launched a war on words, as Jonathan Schell makes clear.  Schell first began writing about imperial presidents back in the days of Richard Nixon, and his prescient 2003 book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People made pre-sense of our Arab Spring planet. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Schell discusses war and the imperial presidency, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Attacking Libya -- and the Dictionary
If Americans Don't Get Hurt, War Is No Longer War

By Jonathan Schell

The Obama administration has come up with a remarkable justification for going to war against Libya without the congressional approval required by the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973. 

American planes are taking off, they are entering Libyan air space, they are locating targets, they are dropping bombs, and the bombs are killing and injuring people and destroying things. It is war. Some say it is a good war and some say it is a bad war, but surely it is a war.

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Nonetheless, the Obama administration insists it is not a war. Why?  Because, according to "United States Activities in Libya," a 32-page report that the administration released last week, "U.S. operations do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties or a serious threat thereof, or any significant chance of escalation into a conflict characterized by those factors." 

In other words, the balance of forces is so lopsided in favor of the United States that no Americans are dying or are threatened with dying. War is only war, it seems, when Americans are dying, when we die.  When only they, the Libyans, die, it is something else for which there is as yet apparently no name. When they attack, it is war. When we attack, it is not.

This cannot be classified as anything but strange thinking and it depends, in turn, on a strange fact: that, in our day, it is indeed possible for some countries (or maybe only our own), for the first time in history, to wage war without receiving a scratch in return. This was nearly accomplished in the bombing of Serbia in 1999, in which only one American plane was shot down (and the pilot rescued).

The epitome of this new warfare is the predator drone, which has become an emblem of the Obama administration. Its human operators can sit at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada or in Langley, Virginia, while the drone floats above Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen or Libya, pouring destruction down from the skies.  War waged in this way is without casualties for the wager because none of its soldiers are near the scene of battle -- if that is even the right word for what is going on.

Some strange conclusions follow from this strange thinking and these strange facts. In the old scheme of things, an attack on a country was an act of war, no matter who launched it or what happened next.  Now, the Obama administration claims that if the adversary cannot fight back, there is no war.

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It follows that adversaries of the United States have a new motive for, if not equaling us, then at least doing us some damage.  Only then will they be accorded the legal protections (such as they are) of authorized war.  Without that, they are at the mercy of the whim of the president.

The War Powers Resolution permits the president to initiate military operations only when the nation is directly attacked, when there is "a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces."  The Obama administration, however, justifies its actions in the Libyan intervention precisely on the grounds that there is no threat to the invading forces, much less the territories of the United States.

There is a parallel here with the administration of George W. Bush on the issue of torture (though not, needless to say, a parallel between the Libyan war itself, which I oppose but whose merits can be reasonably debated, and torture, which was wholly reprehensible).  President Bush wanted the torture he was ordering not to be considered torture, so he arranged to get lawyers in the Justice department to write legal-sounding opinions excluding certain forms of torture, such as waterboarding, from the definition of the word.  Those practices were thenceforward called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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The softening of the language has been going on no... by mikel paul on Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011 at 1:40:00 PM
I fully agree with Mikel. Moreover, I think it is ... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011 at 2:08:42 PM
... and "poisoned ... plates" and "feed[ing] on at... by BlessUsAll on Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011 at 7:30:38 PM