The (re)definition of war under Obama

Eric Murphy

Throughout his Presidency, Barack Obama has refused to call a war a war. It started with his administration’s almost comical re-naming of the Global War on Terror (which included the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) to “Overseas Contingency Operations” in early 2009, and the trend has only continued.

According to a recent New York Times article, Obama ignored the counsel of a top Pentagon lawyer and a top Justice Department lawyer and decided that America could continue to participate in the war with Libya without the President having to seek Congressional approval. Obama and his cherry-picked legal advisers made their case on the grounds that U.S. actions in Libya did not qualify as “hostilities.” In response, John Boehner, R-Ohio, said “We’ve got drone attacks under way…We’re part of an effort to drop bombs on Qaddafi’s compounds. It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test, in my view, that we’re not in the midst of hostilities.” Boehner is exactly right: in what delusional, Orwellian world do bombings and drone attacks not constitute hostilities?

It seems obvious that Obama made his decision regarding the war in Libya and then retrospectively justified that decision by considering legal counsel that supported it and ignoring counsel that didn’t. This is exactly the much-criticized process that George Bush used to justify torture: lawyers in his administration penned memos defending the use of interrogation techniques that would be considered torture under U.S. and international law so that the administration would have legal cover in the case of potential prosecution. Obama hasn’t changed a thing in this respect.

The definition of war under Obama is shrinking even as actual wars are expanding. The operation to kill Osama bin Laden provided only a hint of the scale of military operations that are under way in Pakistan; the United States uses drones there and in Yemen to operate in secret and avoid declarations of war. Obama has now also successfully sidestepped calling the war in Libya a war. In Iraq, even though he has claimed the combat mission has ended, 50,000 soldiers remain in harm’s way, plus many more private military contractors. And in Afghanistan, Obama will withdraw about 30,000 troops by 2012, but the withdrawal will not be complete until at least 2014. This is not to mention that he ordered an additional 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2009, so what the Obama administration calls a withdrawal is really just a return to 2009 pre-surge troop levels.

President Obama’s cynical and deceptive language on the subject of war has allowed him to present an anti-war image of himself to satisfy the public and his base, but his actions tell a different story. If Presidents cannot be straightforward with the people about war, Congress must exercise its Constitutional power to check the executive branch and update the War Powers Act for 21st century conflicts. It may be the only way to rein in an increasingly imperial executive branch and American foreign policy.


–Eric Murphy