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.