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Tom Engelhardt, The OED of the National Security State

7:06 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Dictionary

A Devil’s Dictionary for the Surveillance State?

In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that “everything” had changed.  It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life.  Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed — the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history — much did change in ways that should still stun us.  Perhaps nothing changed more than the American national security state, which, spurred on by 9/11 and the open congressional purse strings that followed, grew in ways that would have been alien even at the height of the Cold War, when there was another giant, nuclear-armed imperial power on planet Earth.

Unfortunately, the language we use to describe the world of the national security state is still largely stuck in the pre-9/11 era.  No wonder, for example, it’s hard to begin to grasp the staggering size and changing nature of the world of secret surveillance that Edward Snowden’s recent revelations have allowed us a peek at.  If there are no words available to capture the world that is watching us, all of us, we’ve got a problem.

In ancient China, when a new dynasty came to power, it would perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names.”  The idea was that the previous dynasty had, in part, fallen because a gap, a chasm, an abyss, had opened between reality and the names available to describe it.  Consider this dispatch, then, a first attempt to “rectify” American names in the era of the ascendant national — morphing into global — security state.

Creating a new dictionary of terms is, of course, an awesome undertaking.  From the moment work began, it famously took 71 years for the full 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary to first appear!  So we at TomDispatch expect to be at work on our new project for years to come.  Here, however, is an initial glimpse at a modest selection of our newly rectified definitions.

The Dictionary of the Global War on You
(Preliminary version, July 2, 2013)

Secret: Anything of yours the government takes possession of and classifies.

Classification: The process of declaring just about any document produced by any branch of the U.S. government — 92 million of them in 2011 — unfit for unclassified eyes.  (This term may, in the near future, be retired once no documents produced within, or captured by, the government and its intelligence agencies can be seen or read by anyone not given special clearance.)

Surveillance: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Whistleblower: A homegrown terrorist.

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Lewis Lapham: Machine-Made News

6:27 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Kindle Reader, after Renoir by Mike Licht

A decade ago, I wrote a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, about the world I had worked in for a quarter-century. I already had at least some sense, then, of what was bearing down on the book. Keep in mind that this was a couple of years before Facebook was launched and years before the Kindle, the Nook, or the iPad saw the light of day. Still, back then, for my novel’s characters — mostly authors and book editors like me — I imagined an electronic book-in-the-making, which I dubbed the “Q.” It was the “Q-print,” officially, with that initial standing for “quasar”– for, that is, a primordial force in the universe.

When one of my younger characters, an editorial assistant, unveils it — still in prototype form — it’s described as “a sleek, steno-pad sized object… a flickering jewel of light and color.” And he imagines its future this way: “Someday it’ll hold a universal library and you’ll be able to talk with an author, catch scenes from the movie, access any newspaper on earth, plan your trip to Tibet, or check out a friend on screen, and that probably won’t be the half of it.”

An older publishing type, on the other hand, describes its possibilities in this fashion: “In a future Middlemarch, the church will offer public service ads when Casaubon appears, the drug companies will support Lydgate, and architectural firms can pitch their wares while Dorothea reorganizes the housing of the poor.” A decade later, that may still be a little ahead of the game, but not by so much. The inexpensive version of the Kindle is awash in ads by now and, books and all, the iPad, of course, is a riot of activity.

Don’t think of me, though, as the Nostradamus of online publishing. It was evident even then that the coming machines of our electronic lives, no matter the tasks they might be dedicated to, including reading The Book, would have little choice but to “generalize’ into all-purpose entities. The urge for email, a video camera, ads, apps, you name it, has indeed proved overwhelming.

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Tomgram: Engelhardt, The President’s Military Mantra

6:31 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

It’s already gone, having barely outlasted its moment — just long enough for the media to suggest that no one thought it added up to much.

Okay, it was a little more than the military wanted, something less than Joe Biden would have liked, not enough for the growing crew of anti-war congressional types, but way too much for John McCain, Lindsey Graham, & Co.

I’m talking about the 13 minutes of “remarks” on “the way forward in Afghanistan” that President Obama delivered in the East Room of the White House two Wednesday nights ago.  

Tell me you weren’t holding your breath wondering whether the 33,000 surge troops he ordered into Afghanistan as 2009 ended would be removed in a 12-month, 14-month, or 18-month span.  Tell me you weren’t gripped with anxiety about whether 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, or 15,000 American soldiers would come out this year (leaving either 95,000, 93,000, 88,000, or 83,000 behind)?

You weren’t?  Well, if so, you were in good company.

Billed as the beginning of the end of the Afghan War, it should have been big and it couldn’t have been smaller.  The patented Obama words were meant to soar, starting with a George W. Bush-style invocation of 9/11 and ending with the usual copious blessings upon this country and our military.  But on the evidence, they couldn’t have fallen flatter.  I doubt I was alone in thinking that it was like seeing Ronald Reagan on an unimaginably bad day in an ad captioned “It’s never going to be morning again in America.”

Idolator President

If you clicked Obama off that night or let the event slide instantly into your mental trash can, I don’t blame you.  Still, the president’s Afghan remarks shouldn’t be sent down the memory hole quite so quickly.

For one thing, while the mainstream media’s pundits and talking heads are always raring to discuss his policy remarks, the words that frame them are generally ignored — and yet the discomfort of the moment can’t be separated from them.  So start with this: whether by inclination, political calculation, or some mix of the two, our president has become a rhetorical idolator.

These days he can barely open his mouth without also bowing down before the U.S. military in ways that once would have struck Americans as embarrassing, if not incomprehensible.  In addition, he regularly prostrates himself before this country’s special mission to the world and never ceases to emphasize that the United States is indeed an exception among nations.  Finally, in a way once alien to American presidents, he invokes God’s blessing upon the military and the country as regularly as you brush your teeth.

Think of these as the triumvirate without which no Obama foreign-policy moment would be complete: greatest military, greatest nation, our God.  And in this he follows directly, if awkwardly, in Bush’s footsteps.

I wouldn’t claim that Americans had never had such thoughts before, only that presidents didn’t feel required to say them in a mantra-like way just about every time they appeared in public.  Sometimes, of course, when you feel a compulsion to say the same things ad nauseam, you display weakness, not strength; you reveal the most fantastic of fantasy worlds, not a deeper reality.

The president’s recent Afghan remarks were, in this sense, par for the course.  As he plugged his plan to bring America’s “long wars” to what he called “a responsible end,” he insisted that “[l]ike generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.”  He then painted this flattering word portrait of us:

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“We’re a nation that brings our enemies to justice while adhering to the rule of law, and respecting the rights of all our citizens.  We protect our own freedom and prosperity by extending it to others.  We stand not for empire, but for self-determination… and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach… we are bound together by the creed that is written into our founding documents, and a conviction that the United States of America is a country that can achieve whatever it sets out to accomplish.”

I know, I know.  You’re wondering whether you just mainlined into a Sarah Palin speech and your eyes are glazing over.  But hang in there, because that’s just a start.  For example, in an Obama speech of any sort, what America’s soldiers never lack is the extra adjective.  They aren’t just soldiers, but “our extraordinary men and women in uniform.”  They aren’t just Americans, but “patriotic Americans.”  (Since when did an American president have to describe American soldiers as, of all things, “patriotic”?)  And in case you missed the point that, in their extraordinariness and their outsized patriotism they are better than other Americans, he made sure to acknowledge them as the ones we “draw inspiration from.”

In a country that now “supports the troops” with bumper-sticker fervor but pays next to no attention to the wars they fight, perhaps Obama is simply striving to be the premier twenty-first-century American.  Still, you have to wonder what such presidential fawning, omnipresent enough to be boilerplate, really represents.  The strange thing is we hear this sort of thing all the time.  And yet no one ever comments on it.

Oh, and let’s not forget that no significant White House moment ends these days without the president bestowing God’s blessing on the globe’s most extraordinary nation and its extraordinary fighters, or as he put it in his Afghan remarks: “May God bless our troops.  And may God bless the United States of America.”

The day after he revealed his drawdown plan to the nation, the president traveled to Ft. Drum in New York State to thank soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division for their multiple deployments to Afghanistan.  Before those extraordinary and patriotic Americans, he quite naturally doubled down.

Summoning another tic of this presidential moment (and of the Bush one before it), he told them that they were part of “the finest fighting force in the world.”  Even that evidently seemed inadequate, so he upped the hyperbole. “I have no greater job,” he told them, “nothing gives me more honor than serving as your commander in chief.  To all of you who are potentially going to be redeployed, just know that your commander in chief has your back… God bless you, God bless the United States of America, climb to glory.”

As ever, all of this was overlooked.  Nowhere did a single commentator wonder, for instance, whether an American president was really supposed to feel that being commander in chief offered greater “honor” than being president of a nation of citizens.  In another age, such a statement would have registered as, at best, bizarre.  These days, no one even blinks.   

And yet who living in this riven, confused, semi-paralyzed country of ours truly believes that, in 2011, Americans can achieve whatever we set out to accomplish?  Who thinks that, not having won a war in memory, the U.S. military is incontestably the finest fighting force now or ever (and on a “climb to glory” at that), or that this country is at present specially blessed by God, or that ours is a mission of selfless kindheartedness on planet Earth? 

Obama’s remarks have no wings these days because they are ever more divorced from reality.  Perhaps because this president in fawning mode is such an uncomfortable sight, and because Americans generally feel so ill-at-ease about their relationship to our wars, however, such remarks are neither attacked nor defended, discussed nor debated, but as if by some unspoken agreement simply ignored. 

Here, in any case, is what they aren’t: effective rallying cries for a nation in need of unity.  Here’s what they may be: strange, defensive artifacts of an imperial power in visible decline, part of what might be imagined as the Great American Unraveling.  But hold that thought a moment.  After all, the topic of the president’s remarks was Afghanistan.

The Unreal War

If Obama framed his Afghan remarks in a rhetoric of militarized super-national surrealism, then what he had to say about the future of the war itself was deceptive in the extreme — not lies perhaps, but full falsehoods half told.  Consider just the two most important of them: that his “surge” consisted only of 33,000 American troops and that “by next summer,” Americans are going to be so on the road to leaving Afghanistan that it isn’t funny.

Unfortunately, it just ain’t so.  First of all, the real Obama surge was minimally almost 55,000 and possibly 66,000 troops, depending on how you count them.  When he came into office in January 2009, there were about 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan.  Another 11,000 had been designated to go in the last days of the Bush administration, but only departed in the first Obama months.  In March 2009, the president announced his own “new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” and dispatched 21,700 more troops.  Then, in December 2009 in a televised speech to the nation from West Point, he announced that another 30,000 would be going.  (With “support troops,” it turned out to be 33,000.)

In other words, in September 2012, 14 months from now, only about half the actual troop surge of the Obama years will have been withdrawn.  In addition, though seldom discussed, the Obama “surge” was hardly restricted to troops.  There was a much ballyhooed “civilian surge” of State Department and aid types that more than tripled the “civilian” effort in Afghanistan.  Their drawdown was recently addressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but only in the vaguest of terms.

Then there was a major surge of CIA personnel (along with U.S. special operations forces), and there’s no indication whatsoever that anyone in Washington intends reductions there, or in the drone surge that went with it.  As a troop drawdown begins, CIA agents, those special ops forces, and the drones are clearly slated to remain at or beyond a surge peak.

Finally, there was a surge in private contractors — hired foreign guns and hired Afghans — tens of thousands of them.  It goes unmentioned, as does the surge in base building, which has yet to end, and the surge in massive citadel-style embassy building in the region, which is assumedly ongoing.

All of this makes mincemeat of the idea that we are in the process of ending the Afghan war. I know the president said, “Our mission will change from combat to support.  By 2014, this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”  And that was a foggy enough formulation that you might be forgiven for imagining more or less everything will be over “by 2014” — which, by the way, means not January 1st, but December 31st of that year.

If what we know of U.S. plans in Afghanistan plays out, however, December 31, 2014, will be the date for the departure of the last of the full Obama surge of 64,000 troops.  In other words, almost five years after Obama entered office, more than 13 years after the Bush administration launched its invasion, we could find ourselves back to or just below something close to Bush-era troop levels. Tens of thousands of U.S. forces would still be in Afghanistan, some of them “combat troops” officially relabeled (as in Iraq) for less warlike activity.  All would be part of an American “support” mission that would include huge numbers of “trainers” for the Afghan security forces and also U.S. special forces operatives and CIA types engaged in “counterterror” activities in the country and region.

The U.S. general in charge of training the Afghan military recently suggested that his mission wouldn’t be done until 2017 (and no one who knows anything about the country believes that an effective Afghan Army will be in place then either).  In addition, although the president didn’t directly mention this in his speech, the Obama administration has been involved in quiet talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to nail down a “strategic partnership” agreement that would allow American troops, spies, and air power to hunker down as “tenants” on some of the giant bases we’ve built.  There they would evidently remain for years, if not decades (as some reports have it).

In other words, on December 31, 2014, if all goes as planned, the U.S. will be girding for years more of wildly expensive war, even if in a slimmed down form.  This is the reality, as American planners imagine it, behind the president’s speech.

Overstretched Empire

Of course, it’s not for nothing that we regularly speak of the best laid plans going awry, something that applies doubly, as in Afghanistan, to the worst laid plans.  It’s increasingly apparent that our disastrous wars are, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry recently admitted, “unsustainable.”  After all, just the cost of providing air conditioning to U.S. personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan — $20 billion a year — is more than NASA’s total budget.

Yes, despite Washington’s long lost dreams of a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, some of its wars there are still being planned as if for a near-eternity, while others are being intensified.  Those wars are still fueled by overblown fears of terrorism; encouraged by a National Security Complex funded to the tune of more than $1.2 trillion annually by an atmosphere of permanent armed crisis; and run by a military that, after a decade of not-so-creative destruction, can’t stop doing what it knows how to do best (which isn’t winning a war).

Though Obama claims that the United States is no empire, all of this gives modern meaning to the term “overstretched empire.”  And it’s not really much of a mystery what happens to overextemded imperial powers that find themselves fighting “little” wars they can’t win, while their treasuries head south.

The growing unease in Washington about America’s wars reflects a dawning sense of genuine crisis, a sneaking suspicion even among hawkish Republicans that they preside ineffectually over a great power in precipitous decline.

Think, then, of the president’s foreign-policy-cum-war speeches as ever more unconvincing attempts to cover the suppurating wound that is Washington’s global war policy.  If you want to take the temperature of the present crisis, you can do it through Obama’s words.  The less they ring true, the more discordant they seem in the face of reality, the more he fawns and repeats his various mantras, the more uncomfortable he makes you feel, the more you have the urge to look away, the deeper the crisis.

What will he say when the Great American Unraveling truly begins?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Defining an American State of War

8:34 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Now that Washington has at least six wars cooking (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and more generally, the global war on terror), Americans find themselves in a new world of war.  If, however, you haven’t joined the all-volunteer military, any of our 17 intelligence outfits, the Pentagon, the weapons companies and hire-a-gun corporations associated with it, or some other part of the National Security Complex, America’s distant wars go on largely without you (at least until the bills come due).

War has a way of turning almost anything upside down, including language.  But with lost jobs, foreclosed homes, crumbling infrastructure, and weird weather, who even notices?  This undoubtedly means that you’re using a set of antediluvian war words or definitions from your father’s day.  It’s time to catch up.

So here’s the latest word in war words: what’s in, what’s out, what’s inside out.  What follows are nine common terms associated with our present wars that probably don’t mean what you think they mean.  Since you live in a twenty-first-century war state, you might consider making them your own.

Victory:  Like defeat, it’s a “loaded” word and rather than define it, Americans should simply avoid it. 

In his last press conference before retirement, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was asked whether the U.S. was “winning in Afghanistan.”  He replied, “I have learned a few things in four and a half years, and one of them is to try and stay away from loaded words like ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’  What I will say is that I believe we are being successful in implementing the president’s strategy, and I believe that our military operations are being successful in denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities, and improving the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces.”

In 2005, George W. Bush, whom Gates also served, used the word “victory” 15 times in a single speech (“National Strategy for Victory in Iraq”).  Keep in mind, though, that our previous president learned about war in the movie theaters of his childhood where the Marines always advanced and Americans actually won.  Think of his victory obsession as the equivalent of a mid-twentieth-century hangover.

In 2011, despite the complaints of a few leftover neocons dreaming of past glory, you can search Washington high and low for “victory.”  You won’t find it.  It’s the verbal equivalent of a Yeti.  Being “successful in implementing the president’s strategy,” what more could you ask?  Keeping the enemy on his “back foot”: hey, at $10 billion a month, if that isn’t “success,” tell me what is?

Admittedly, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was treated as if it were VJ Day ending World War II, but actually win a war?  Don’t make Secretary of Defense Gates laugh!

Maybe, if everything comes up roses, in some year soon we’ll be celebrating DE (Degrade the Enemy) Day.

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Tomgram: Jonathan Schell, The War on the Word “War”

7:30 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Nobody seems to have noticed, but in the nearly two and a half years of the Obama administration at least three commonplace phrases of the George W. Bush era have slipped into oblivion: “regime change,” “shock and awe,” and “imperial presidency.”  The war in Libya should remind us of just how appropriate they remain.

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

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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.

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.

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.”

Now, Obama wants his Libyan war not to be a war and so has arranged to define a certain kind of war — the American-casualty-free kind — as not war (though without even the full support of his own lawyers). Along with Libya, a good English word — war — is under attack.

In these semantic operations of power upon language, a word is separated from its commonly accepted meaning. The meanings of words are one of the few common grounds that communities naturally share. When agreed meanings are challenged, no one can use the words in question without stirring up spurious “debates,” as happened with the word torture. For instance, mainstream news organizations, submissive to George Bush’s decisions on the meanings of words, stopped calling waterboarding torture and started calling it other things, including “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but also “harsh treatment,” “abusive practices,” and so on. 

Will the news media now stop calling the war against Libya a war?  No euphemism for war has yet caught on, though soon after launching its Libyan attacks, an administration official proposed the phrase “kinetic military action” and more recently, in that 32-page report, the term of choice was “limited military operations.” No doubt someone will come up with something catchier soon. 

How did the administration twist itself into this pretzel? An interview that Charlie Savage and Mark Landler of the New York Times held with State Department legal advisor Harold Koh sheds at least some light on the matter.  Many administrations and legislators have taken issue with the War Powers Resolution, claiming it challenges powers inherent in the presidency. Others, such as Bush administration Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, have argued that the Constitution’s plain declaration that Congress “shall declare war” does not mean what most readers think it means, and so leaves the president free to initiate all kinds of wars.

Koh has long opposed these interpretations — and in a way, even now, he remains consistent. Speaking for the administration, he still upholds Congress’s power to declare war and the constitutionality of the War Powers Resolution. “We are not saying the president can take the country into war on his own,” he told the Times. “We are not saying the War Powers Resolution is unconstitutional or should be scrapped or that we can refuse to consult Congress. We are saying the limited nature of this particular mission is not the kind of ‘hostilities’ envisioned by the War Powers Resolution.”

In a curious way, then, a desire to avoid challenge to existing law has forced assault on the dictionary. For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of Congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give. 

It chose language.

Jonathan Schell is the Doris M. Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University.  He is the author of several books, including The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. To listen to 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.

Copyright 2011 Jonathan Schell