Are We At War?

Ken AshfordWar on Terrorism/Torture1 Comment

Kevin Drum makes an interesting point:

Of course, their argument is not that the president has the inherent power to authorize domestic surveillance anytime he wants, only that he has that power during wartime. And as near as I can tell, that’s the elephant in the room that no one is really very anxious to discuss: What is "wartime"? Is George Bush really a "wartime president," as he’s so fond of calling himself? Conservatives take it for granted that he is, while liberals tend to avoid the subject entirely for fear of being thought unserious about the War on Terror. But it’s something that ought be brought up and discussed openly.

Consider a different war, for example. It’s safe to say that whatever Bush’s NSA program actually involves, no one would have batted an eyelash if FDR had approved a similar program during World War II. Experience suggests that during a period of genuine, all-out war, few people complain when a president pushes the boundaries of the law based on military necessity. But aside from World War II, what else counts as wartime?

If you count only serious hot wars, the United States has been at war for over 20 of the 65 years since 1940. That’s a lot of "wartime."

However, if you count the Cold War, as conservatives generally think we should, the tally shoots up to about 50 years of war. That means the United States has been almost continuously at war during the past 65 years — and given the nature of the War on Terror, we’ll continue to be at war for the next several decades.

If this is how we define "wartime," it means that in the century from 1940 to 2040 the president will have had emergency wartime powers for virtually the entire time. But does that make sense? Is anyone really comfortable with the idea that three decades from now the president of the United States will have had wartime executive powers for nearly a continuous century?

Somehow we need to come to grips with this. There’s "wartime" and then there’s "wartime," and not all armed conflicts vest the president with emergency powers. George Bush may have the best intentions in the world — and in this case he probably did have the best intentions in the world — but that still doesn’t mean he has the kind of plenary power Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt exercised during their wars.

He’s right.  Certainly, we are engaged in armed conflict, but when are we not?  Were we in wartime when we invaded Grenada?  How about Kosovo?  How about the "war on drugs"? 

Calling something a war does not make it a war, and even the Bush Administration has acknowledged, sometimes overtly, that what we are doing now is rebuilding a nation in Iraq.  And the armed conflicts we engage in there are merely incidental to that.

But even if you consider that we are "in wartime" with respect to Iraq, that has nothing to do with the NSA wiretaps, which pertain to al Qaeda.  For example, if there was a warrantless tap of a phone conversation between a suspected AQ cell in the Phillipines and an American citizen, what does that have to do with the "War" in Iraq?  What does that have to do with Congress’ authorization to use military force in Afghanistan or Iraq?


So I ask again, are we engaged in an actual WAR on terrorism, or is it just a convenient rhetorical label, as was Johnson’s WAR on poverty or Reagan’s WAR on drugs?