War! Huh Good God Y’all

Is Libya a war? Hell yes, Libya is a war.

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, observes, “The goal of this mission is not to get rid of [Moammar] Gadhafi. That’s not what the United Nations licensed and I would not call it going to war. This is a very limited operation that is geared to save lives.”

Iraq War vet and CNAS scholar Andrew Exum observes, “When you resort to force to achieve a political aim that you could not achieve through peaceable means, that’s war.” The link goes to Amazon’s listing for Carl von Clausewitz’ On War.

Of course, Kerry knows something about war himself. A little known fact: He served in Vietnam. (Bonus trivia: So did John McCain.) By Kerry’s own definition, it wasn’t a war, since the goal of the mission wasn’t to get rid of Ho Chi Minh. But no one seriously doubts that it was nonetheless a war.

Title inspiration:

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, World Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I am waiting for someone to dust off that old phrase “police action”

    As one of the characters on M*A*S*H said “police action makes it sound like we’re over here arresting people.”

  2. john personna says:

    When did “save lives” become a mere political goal?

  3. JKB says:

    Problem is domestic police actions are looking more and more like war. Fortunately, preemptive lethal action is only authorized for the family dog…so far. And we shouldn’t forget the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the War on Poverty and the War on Obesity. It seems we go to war with our own population far more often then we are willing to go to war with our enemies.

  4. ponce says:

    Looking at the pictures of our attacks, it looks like we took out individual tanks…which is an odd thing to do if you’re establishing a no-fly zone.

    So we are now fighting on the side of the rebels…but not enough to win the war for them?

    I’d say it’s more like a parent helping a slow kid with their homework…

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Was Operation El Dorado Canyon a war?

    Technically, yes. But is it possible that it should be categorized differently from Vietnam?

    (I don’t think we are at all likely to put troops on the ground in Libya for one thing.)

  6. john personna says:

    The odd thing PD, is that El Dorado was not a war until yesterday. It wasn’t on any of the lists.

  7. legion says:

    If we’re not trying to get rid of Gaddafhi, what exactly _is_ the mission then?
    It looks to me like we’re blowing up a bunch of Libyan military gear and personnel. If we leave the area, and _don’t_ remove Gaddafhi, what exactly have we accomplished?
    If we’re protecting the rebels, what do you think Gaddafhi will do to them after we leave if he’s still in power?

    In short, if the point of this operation is not to remove Gaddafhi, then this operation has no point.

  8. john personna says:

    The stated goal was to prevent Gaddafhi from exacting vengeance on the eastern rebel towns. Occam’s Razor should require us to start from there. Maybe that’s it, and the French, British, and US want to get a few licks in?

    It might be different if intelligence (whomever’s) believes Gaddafhi is actually vulnerable to the rebels, but I’m not sure that is true.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @PD Shaw and @John Personna

    Operation Eldorado Canyon (the 1986 strike on Libya) was certainly war. Was it “a war”? Probably not, in that the action over Libya lasted only 12 minutes. We did lose an F-111.

  10. Rob in CT says:

    I’m still a bit stunned we’re actually doing this. Yet another thing Obama has done as Pres that candidate/senator Obama would’ve rejected (and rightly so).

    When it comes to foreign policy, there really seems to be one big party: the War Party.

  11. Wiley Stoner says:

    Soooooo! The attacks on Gaddafi might be acts of war, but there was a war there before we joined in. We could have seen the same thing in Egypt had the leader not stepped down and the Army siding with the protesters. James, did not start a war, we just joined in one that was already in progress.

  12. 11B40 says:


    Oddly, Bruce Springsteen was unavailable for comment.

  13. Wayne says:

    I’m not one of those who expect wars or underlying objectives of war to be nice and tidy. I will even cut some slack in the overall objective of a war or military action. Yes there is a difference between a war act and a “war” but that a big time discussion.

    Anyway I have very little clue what our (the U.S.) intent is in Libya. From what I read China, Russia, etc doesn’t either. Although I don’t think Obama was required to in the short term, it would have been a smart idea to gone to Congress and get some sort of resolution out of them. The way things went down makes me more uneasy than usual. I try to comfort myself by saying it is because I don’t like Obama but I think there is more.

    Libya itself shouldn’t be much of a challenge but I can see some bad scenarios that are not all that impossible.

  14. So, whatever we call it, what constitutes success, or dare I say it, Winning!