When War Isn’t War

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When one state launches a military attack on another, is that war? According to Secretary of State John Kerry, the answer is: not always.

At this week’s hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry insisted, “President Obama is not asking America to go to war.” He insisted that he, along with General Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who sat beside him, “know the difference between going to war and what President Obama is requesting now.” Per Kerry’s contention, the President is only asking for the authority “to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,” by the Assad regime.  But not to wage war.  This is an interesting perspective, not least because, according to the text of the resolution, President Obama seeks authorization under the War Powers Resolution.

About two hours later, under withering questioning by Senator Rand Paul, Kerry clarified, sort of: “We don’t want to go to war. We don’t believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action…It’s limited.”

This is nonsense.

What is war?  Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher of war, defined it as “a duel on a larger scale….an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”  Some wars are limited and some are absolute – indeed, limited wars are the more common type – but they are all wars.  Moreover, war is inherently an interaction, which means one side’s limited objectives cannot ensure that a war remains limited. The enemy has its own political aims and, as such, will get a vote – one that we cannot always predict.  War, Clausewitz explained, “is controlled by its political object,” and “the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.”  For the United States, the political objectives are limited, but they are existential for the Syrian regime. Consequently, they are willing to make sacrifices of a greater magnitude over a longer duration than what the United States may be willing to tolerate.

Therefore, the reactions of Syria and its allies Iran and Hizballah will in large part determine the scope of this war and whether or not American involvement persists beyond a volley of cruise missiles.  American military bases in southern Afghanistan are well within range of Iranian missiles.  Hizballah has demonstrated a penchant for attacking American military targets and personnel.  Is Secretary Kerry so certain they will be “rational actors” in the face of mighty American military power, and refrain from escalating the conflict?

When asked about the possibility of escalation, Kerry remarkably said, “If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the United States and our allies have ample ways to make him regret that decision without going to war.”  So, if Assad responds to a military attack in kind, that is arrogant? And it is still not war?

Later, a frustrated Kerry revealed the real logic behind his position: public opinion. He noted that no Americans wanted to go to war with Syria and insisted the White House was of the same mind. “We don’t want to go to war in Syria either!” he exclaimed.  “It’s not what we’re here to ask. The President is not asking you to go to war…He’s simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who has been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly hundred year-old prohibition [against chemical weapons].”

Then, turning to Dempsey, Kerry asked, “General, do you want to speak to that?”

Dempsey responded, “No, not really, Secretary, thank you for offering.” Why? Because General Dempsey knew that was nonsense. When one state attacks another with military force toward a political objective, it is war.  The President has ordered warships into the Eastern Mediterranean to employ military force to compel Assad into keeping his chemical arsenal under wraps.

Clearly words do not mean what we think they mean on Capitol Hill.  We know this already.  That’s politics.  But this strains credulity.  This is not just about semantics.  This is about how and why the United States becomes involved in violent world-changing events that cost it dearly in blood and treasure.

Secretary Kerry compared Assad to Hitler and condemned potential American inaction as akin to President Franklin Roosevelt turning away the MS St. Louis, a ship full of German Jewish refugees who steamed to the United States only to be forced to return to Europe to die in the Holocaust.  Kerry’s moral clarity is muddied unless he is willing to call an attack on Syria what it would be: war.

Ryan Evans is the Assistant Director of the Center for the National Interest and the Editor-in-Chief of War on the Rocks.